Holding court inside BET’s headquarters, Jidenna is wearing a tribal silk bomber jacket by Ghanian-British designer Ozwald Boateng along with a pair of slacks by Nigeria’s bespoke fashion tailor Mai Atafo.
Having stripped away the dandy persona of his 2015 debut in “Classic Man”—ironically inspired by “the plumbers, custodians, Jose's barbershop and the Dominicans down the street” in Brooklyn—Jidenna’s slickly parted finger-curl is now a blown-out mane tightly braided for the journey back home.
On 85 to Africa, Jidenna’s sophomore studio album released in August, the Nigerian-American rapper and singer-songwriter charts a metaphorical highway to the continent. The highway in question, I-85 is a major Interstate system in the Southeastern United States, a sonic starting point where Jidenna draws on the elements of contemporary hip-hop in the setting of Atlanta, Georgia (where Jidenna was subleasing an eight-bedroom mansion before getting evicted due to a shady owner’s foreclosure).
A love letter to the African Diaspora, 85 to Africa might include stops in places like Jamaica and Trinidad, from which dancehall and soca derive, respectively. Other destinations on Jidenna’s route to the motherland, he says, could also include Haiti for its kompa, and Brazil where Miami bass marries gangsta rap to make favela funk.
“The highway to me starts with the history of slavery and colonialism. That’s the literal highway. But then it has to expand,” explains the 34-year-old, who purposefully uses movement as the single thing that binds those in the diaspora.
It’s no surprise, then, why Jidenna makes good on the tradition of rhythm with a series of pop-up shows in ‘hoods coast to coast, not just to help promote the album, but to celebrate with his fans down-to-earth.
“The pop-up shows started in Dakar, Senegal,” one of the places Jidenna says he visited in West Africa while recording. “When we came back to the States we were like what if we just do this instead of the standard bougie release party? One of the goals of this project for me was to humanize myself, to make sure everybody knew I'm not this [Classic Man] caricature.”
The other goal was to invite diasporic folks to reclaim some of our more traditional customs of dancing, which can be seen today in so-called “twerking”, “grinding” or “booty-shaking”.
“When you go to the continent of Africa, you see that a four-year-old, or an eight-year-old girl and boy are going to dance and pick up their hips on a very basic level. They're going to wiggle their hips. They're going to move their body in any way, shape or form because they're free to do that. No adult is scolding them. In fact, it's part of traditional ceremonies. A lot of traditional dances [use hips], not just the modern contemporary ones like afrowave, afrofusion, or afrobeats dances. It's all traditional.
“The dancing for a lot of European countries that founded [America], especially the British, was not the same kind of dancing,” Jidenna continues, suggesting that anything deemed foreign to the Western World is either demonized or seen as a perversion.
“I used to wear the traditional [attire] people would call a skirt that the boys would wear. I had the little shells on my ankles and they would make us dance back in kindergarten. [In the States] I grew up in very diasporic neighborhoods, where you had first-generation Africans, Caribbean-Americans, Haitians, Dominicans, Jamaicans, Nigerians—that’s how you danced. That’s how I danced when I was a kid. It wasn't a big deal.”
Yet “going back home” for Jidenna is less about twerking and donning ‘fros or Indigenous garb, and more about advancing as a whole people— “it takes a village”—rather than isolated success based on hyper-individualistic attitudes.
“I know everybody wants to be themselves and express yourself and everybody's special. I get that. Everybody is. But you don't advance as a group like that. You don't advance with Black excellence alone. Black excellence means that one person was so excellent that they were revered in that position. That’s not the goal for me. I want the masses of our people to have a higher standard of living, and the only way you do that is if your focus is a very simple message.”
“The older generation's mission was the integration of people of color into mainstream society. Well, our generation's mission is the integration of the diaspora into the continent and African countries among themselves.”
(Photo by Evans Alexandre for BET)