A Candid Conversation With Jidenna About The Commercialization Of Black History Month

A.J. Calloway, Jidenna and Austin Millz at Pepsi’s Black History Month Celebration – Beyond the Dream

As 2016’s Black History Month comes to an end, PepsiCo made the trek out to Black Manhattan a.k.a. Harlem for their second annual African-American MOSAIC panel.

Hosted by Extra’s AJ Calloway, formerly of BET’s 106 and Park, the panel included Zim Ugochukwu, founder and CEO of TravelNoire; Mikael Moore, General Manager of Wondaland Records; Connie Orlando, Senior Vice President of BET’s Music and News; Adam Harter, Vice President of Cultural Connections of PepsiCo; and Chauncey Hamlett, Senior Director of Portfolio Activation and Multicultural Strategy of PepsiCo.

READ: Distinguished Gentleman: Jidenna’s Guide To Being A “Classic Man”

For about an hour, these unique tastemakers discussed their leadership skills, how to be more of an influence in marginalized communities and breaking barriers with race relations, among other topics.

Wondaland Records’ stylish artist Jidenna capped off the night with a lively performance of his hit song “Classic Man.” But before rocking the stage, the dapper Stanford University grad sat with VIBE for a brief discussion. During the sit-down, the former history teacher discussed the commercialization of Black History Month, integration, and his fascination with the Jim Crow and Antebellum, and much more.

VIBE: Not to discredit Black History Month, but in your opinion, has the month long holiday been watered down?
Jidenna: I think hard-core capitalism tends to commercialize everything. Jesus’ birthday is commercialized so of course Black History Month is commercialized. I don’t think it’s anything new. That’s just something we as a people have to deal with in the form of economic systems that we have. Do we really want to do that with everything thing that we have? Does Martin Luther King really want his birthday commercialized?

Now to be fair, or play Devil’s advocate, there are pros and cons.
There are always pluses and minus to commercialization. It broadcast something to the masses. So that’s the plus. The minus is it may lose some of it’s meaning if you dilute it.

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Do you think it connects with the younger generation?
I think the young folks are connecting in certain ways. You see what happens in Flint, Mich., Baltimore, it’s young kids that are out there. Ferguson was a lot of young people. That’s Black History now. That is the movement now. It’s not Martin Luther King’s style necessarily, but I do think the Black experience is them. Whatever they are going through, if they feel alienated from the generation before—Generation X, Baby Boomers—then that’s on us. I’m a millennial so I walk in between. I think it’s how we approach youth. Youth culture is always looked at as a rebel culture. Whether it was hip-hop, jazz or rock-and-roll, you can’t approach youth like you’re a lost generation. The youth is us. That’s all we have. I used to teach in New York, and I didn’t have a problem connecting to nobody. If a leader has a problem connecting, it’s not with the kids it’s with the leaders.

Can you pinpoint exactly what connected you to Jim Crow?

I tell you exactly what it is. I live in East Flatbush Brooklyn, New York. On my street we have a sanitation worker next to a doctor, a psychiatrist, next to a plumber, next to a teacher, next to a entrepreneur on one street, most people own their houses…

Not to cut you off, but I know exactly where you’re going with this. Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual breaks this down with the 1920s Harlem. That connection that you’re speaking on now gets lost. And once that happens poor black kids don’t see other successful blacks.
Yes, yes, yes. And why is that important? Flatbush Brooklyn, it’s barely gentrified. You go from there to East New York or other places in Brooklyn, I would say to a certain extent, who are preserving the black culture who have lived there for decades. The way we relate to Jim Crow is we integrated. But what happened in integration? Our black thought power was scattered. People started moving to the Hills, people started moving to the ‘burbs. During segregation we all lived in one block. So the areas I lived in from Oakland to East Flatbush to East Palo Alto, I chose certain neighborhoods or neighborhoods chose me, because I want to live in a place where middle class, working class, maybe upper middle class all lived together. It’s important because the kids grow up and he or she knows: ‘I can do any of these jobs.’ You don’t have that in segregation.

READ: Jidenna Caps Off 2015 With Two New Tracks, “Extraordinaire” & “Knicke

Ok. Well, lets talk our sh*t then black man. This is what I love. Tell me about the literacy rates that come with this.
[Laughs] Wow. That’s what’s up, man.

I probably should’ve told you that one of my majors is history, and I’m a voracious reader of books.
Wow. That’s what up, man. Well, oddly enough literacy rates were higher during times in segregation than they are now. Our schooling was different in segregation than they are now. Not saying that segregation is better, not saying that at all. But what I am saying is there are parts of what we had when we were in one area, one neighborhood, under one community. I’m just fascinated by Jim Crow. And I’m not a history buff. I know people that know way more than me, you probably know more than me. But one thing I do know is that by learning from the dignity, the honor, the valor, the way we carried ourselves is what I’m fascinated about. There were certain elements that I loved about it because it carried over power.

The same question about Antebellum.
Absolutely. The reason I loved it is because the millennial generation now, we’re the first to be able to travel far. Jim Crow, you couldn’t travel the way that we could now. Now everybody’s like: “I’m in Dubai, I’m Paris.’ Some people are in South Africa, I’m in South Paulo, Brazil. In the antebellum south that was the first time new freedom came to black people. And if you notice, it was the first time veterans started dressing up in suits. And, they found a little bit of freedom and that’s what the millennial generation is going through now. History is a path that spirals and I’m just trying to connect the dots.

If you’re a fan of the Antebellum, I don’t have to ask if you’ve read Of the Meaning of Progress.
Yes, I have.

That’s just one of my many favorite books. And it contains one of my favorite and most profound sentences. I’ll throw it at you and you tell me what it means to you. “I loved Josie and her family because of their honest ignorance.”
Wow. I don’t recall that myself, but that is a dope phrase. What does it mean to you?

The only thing that I’m certain is the fact that I don’t know…
You don’t know everything. Exactly. That’s hot. That’s why I said what I said: ‘I don’t come off as a history buff. I know some history.’ That’s it. Honest ignorance, that’s the way. My father taught me a lot of amazing things. To me, he was one of the smartest men to ever walk on the African continent. He was the first man to ever create an African PC that was commercially produced, he was the first man to create an institute of technology in Africa. The reason why I bring him up is because when he came to America, despite how amazingly brilliant he was, he had an honest ignorance, and my mom loved it. That phrase, I love that because it acknowledges that every human being has a certain amount of ignorance.