Jidenna Talks Honing In On Who You Are, New Music And Flexing His Rap Muscle
If you’ve been paying close attention, Jidenna has been bubbling up in many conversations and for good reason. Most recently, the “Classic Man” hit up Hot 97 and dropped 16 bars on the mic. Days later, the unique artist made an appearance in one of the BET Hip Awards cyphers, surprising most with his sharp (and dapper) delivery. Not too long ago, he joined fellow artists to join the fight against gun violence. But the most recent buzz surrounding the Wondaland artist involves his new partnership with global beverage powerhouse, Pepsi, for their latest music initiative.
Over the Summer, Pepsi announced a new music platform, The Sound Drop, in partnership with iHeartMedia, Shazam and MTV and officially kicked it off during the weekend of the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards. With fellow artists like Lukas Graham and Alessia Cara on the partnership bill, the platform has been providing emerging artists with a powerful stage to share their story, promote their art and connect directly with their fans.
This week, the campaign is spotlighting the afro music-fused debonaire and highlighting the depth of his artistry, an aspect that many artists aren’t always able to conjoin or connect with their public image. VIBE briefly caught up with the consistently fashionable and sharp Jidenna over the phone to talk about his latest partnership with Pepsi, what we can expect from his forthcoming debut album, and how he’s been bitten by the acting bug.
Jidenna: Pepsi has been great. I can’t speak for other artists, but I feel pretty lucky to have worked with partners like Pepsi, especially with The Sound Drop platform.
What was it about this initiative that made you excited to be a part of it?
Honestly, it’s important to me that a brand like Pepsi is creating a platform where new artists can share their story and share different sides of themselves that maybe a breakthrough song doesn’t show all the way. I’ve seen Pepsi work with Janelle Monae for a minute now, so it’s great to have my own little spotlight, thanks to Sound Drop and Pepsi. It’s good.
In your Sound Drop feature video, you talk about where you get your inspiration, and mention the importance of honing in on who you are. What would you advise someone trying to do just that?
For me, it was spending enough time by myself and spending enough time around communities. There’s a proverb in Kenya that says – I don’t know it in Swahili, but – in English it’s “You are your friends.” It’s not that you are like them, but you actually are. Through your friends, you’re able to see yourself, because your friends act as this mirror.
Finding myself was a combination of being alone for different periods of time. Even when I made this album, I was alone for the holiday season. I didn’t go see my family. It’s that and then combining that with returning back to your community. You see it all the time is rites of passage rituals. That’s just standard. You go and come back with new knowledge. That’s how you can find yourself. Well, that’s one way.
When are you not dressed like a classic man?
Right now. [laughs] For me, it’s just a standard. I did this before the song, so I usually wear that. When I work out, I don’t dress like that. I don’t go to sleep in a three piece suit. It would just be eerie, just eerily morbid if I wanted to lay down in a suit. I don’t always dress like that. Sometimes I’m good [and chilling]. I’ve been wearing shirts more with ankara and adire fabric instead of a suite. Or I’ll wear what we call in Nigeria, “up and down.” I don’t always wear suits.
Okay. So how do you manage to keep cool when you’re dancing on stage? Have you thought of implementing a fan into your choreography like maybe Beyonce?
Oh boy, I think I need to grow my hair out before I get a fan. [laughs] But how do I keep cool? Hmm, I drink a tall glass of Pepsi! [laughs] No, how do I keep cool? You know, I got used it to it. I think my body has just adjusted. I’ve got special mutated blood cells that allows me to keep cool under pressure.
Speaking of being under pressure, you made an appearance in the new Netflix hit Marvel series, Luke Cage. Does it feel weird seeing yourself on TV?
Was it weird? No, but it was great [laughs]. You know that set was amazing. They built that whole set and it really felt like you were in a club. It gave the environment I needed to feel like I was legit performing on a stage there.
That was my first time being in a feature-length kind of television episode, yes, but not TV period. And then the HBO series that’s debuted yesterday, Insecure by Issa Rae, that’ll be my other appearance, but will be my first time acting. I’m in a couple episodes later [playing a love interest named Chris].
Is it true that your digital streaming numbers increased by 2000% after your appearance in one episode of Luke Cage?
Yeah, apparently it is. It had a huge increase on Spotify, iTunes and Shazam. It took me by surprise, I’ll say that. I didn’t know it was going to go down like that. It was great to see that people are really just now discovering “Long Live The Chief” for the first time, which is cool because it’s been out since last year. But yeah, man, it got me hyped.
We noticed you’ve started flexing more of your rapping skills, first on Hot 97 and then the BET Hip Hop Awards. Are we going to be hearing more bars and freestyles from you from now on?
It’s just something that’s fun for me. If it’s fun, then I just make it happen. [Rapping on] Funk Flex was just fun. It was like an exercise. The BET [Hip Hop Awards] cypher was an exercise. I’m a procrastinator by nature, so it would be in the last minute that I put together a verse for a show. It’s also just great to just keep myself in shape [lyrically], but I’m not out here looking to be crowned the greatest rapper alive or out here as anything. To me, it’s me using my voice. I use my voice in singing. I use my voice in rap. I use my voice in toasting, in different styles [of music] and then I use my voice in speech when I’m just talking. It’s just another way for me to use my voice and I’m glad that people are catching on. That’s just one way that I express myself, through rap or as Andre 3000 puts it, “The art of talking sh**.”
Well it looks like people are liking the sh** you’re talking.
Then maybe I need to do more of that.
What’s going on with your debut studio album? When is it dropping? The album is done. It’s all about timing, and the time feels good right about now. I don’t have an official date for you. [laughs] But it’s soon. It’s soon.
All good [laughs]. What would you say is the most interesting aspect of the album?
It has a range of emotions – which now a days there are definitely artists that do – but I like when I explore both the shallow and the deep end of my mind – my lowest self and my highest self. I try to put things together that are polar opposites. I think that’s what makes the best artists – that contrast. I emphasize different parts of myself [like] my vulnerability and my might. Some songs feel like the world is on top of me. Other times, I’m on top of the world. I highlighted the African and American sides of me, the Nigerian side. Also the different American cities that I’ve lived in, from the East coast to the West coast. I think all my traveling will be the highlight, especially with the generation that now travels more than our parents did.
Are there any international, fellow Nigerian artists that might pop up on your project?
I don’t know who’s going to end up on the album [from the U.S. or overseas], but I’ve worked with Wiz Kid last year. I’ve worked with Burna Boy and Sarz, who’s an amazing producer. I’ve talked with Tiwa Savage; We just haven’t linked yet. There are a bunch of the big stars from back home. It’s just a matter of timing and again, there’s more that goes into a release. I wish I had names, but we’ll see who will end up on the project. The album is done. That’s all I know.
If you could collaborate with an artist, that is not in hip-hop, R&B, pop, afrobeats, funk or reggae – who would you say?
Hugh Masekela. He’s a South African trumpet player and vocalist, a good friend – well he’s becoming a good friend – and he’s a jazz musician. My earlier response would’ve been Taylor Swift before she went pop.
Year to date, there have been many up and down moments within the black community and/or African diaspora. What would you say is one of the blackest moments of 2016?
Since it’s election season, I would say the drop the mic “Obama Out” moment. You know, every now and then you take it for granted that you have one of the greatest and coolest presidents [and cabinets?] and First Lady in a while, and maybe ever actually. Period. We take it for granted. I know me, as a person of African decent, sometimes you forget, like, “Yo, [laughs] he really did this.” And so when he has those moments where he’s like, “Obama out,” I feel like it’s for us to just reminder us, like “Yeah, I made it and we made it in the White House. We’re out here at the Black House.” That was actually a very real, black moment in a national scale.