Nana_2017
Jessica Xie

Views From The Studio: Meet Producer & Songwriter Nana Kwabena

The Ghanaian producer, who’s worked with the likes of Janelle Monae and Jidenna, opens up about making the perfect groove.

Just a few days before his earth strong in March, I join producer Nana Kwabena with a few of his friends at Negril, a Caribbean eatery in New York’s West Village. After wrapping up our interview a few hours earlier, we find ourselves discussing the origins of Afrobeats -- the sound that has taken over music in recent years, thanks to artists like Drake, Wizkid and close friend and collaborator, Jidenna. As we chat, he explains how Afrobeats has a connection to Hiplife, a Ghanaian style that blends hip-hop and Ghanaian culture. But this is not the first lesson I would learn from the intriguing thinker.

Like a true leader, Nana leads most of the conversation we have as a group, a trait that pulsates through his veins with pride, thanks to his late grandfather, Chief Nana Atta Agyeman IV, who was killed during his reign in Sefwi Bekwai, Ghana. But like all origin stories, it’s best to start with the present.

Born Nana Kwabena Tuffour, the 31-year-old has racked up a number of producer credits for his work with John Legend and Janelle Monae, but his most known tunes derive from fellow Wondaland labelmate, Jidenna. The Brooklyn transplant co-produced the dynamic 2015 jam “Classic Man,” which elevated the artist into the mainstream and earned them their first Grammy nomination. He also helped create “Long Live The Chief,” which found further acclaim when it was featured on the Netflix-Marvel series, Luke Cage.

In February, Jidenna released his debut album, The Chief, filled with references to his Nigerian roots paired with political and social themes that might’ve been lost in translation by critics. The album jumps to different genres and themes like owning the party on "The Let Out" featuring Nana, falling deeper in love with "Bambi" and dismissing the opposition with "Long Live The Chief."

During our chat, Nana explains he’s not bothered by the mixed reviews The Chief received because the project resonated with those who propelled Jidenna into the mainstream. Opening the same week as Future’s "surprise" album, The Chief debuted at the later chain of the Billboard Top 40, with over 14,000 equivalent album units sold. Despite the numbers, fan commentary ringed louder than actual album sales.

“The amazing thing about hearing the general public's opinion is that while you can tell that the reviewer was just trying to connect it to the thing that they're most familiar with, the comments section [say otherwise],” he explains. “That, to me, is telling. Even your own readership disagrees with you. What does that say? Now, having said that, I do think that even in today's day and age, we live in such a popcorn culture where everything is immediate. Back in the day, when they would have great albums like Black On Both Sides or Illmatic, reviewers got to live with [them] for weeks before [a review] ever came out. And today, people drop albums out the blue, out the sky, without you knowing. Beyonce will do that. Future will do that. One day someone's going to figure out how you can drink water and you just got Future's new album and you didn't know it. But the beauty is that it did resonate with the people that we want to talk to, and it's great. In a lot of ways, it's like morse code. There's these situations where that's the little wink to all these guys across the room and then there's the others that aren't supposed to see it. Then you guys are like,‘we got each other.’”

The family vibe Nana describes is also one he shares with the rest of his Wondaland family. To understand his view from the studio, you have to respect the vision around it. Founded by Janelle Monae, the label serves as a hub for artists Roman GianArthur, Alex Belle and Isis Valentino of St. Beauty, Jidenna, Nate Wonder and Chuck Lightning of Deep Cotton and Monae herself. In an interview with Billboard in 2015, Monae explained her vision for the “revamped” label. “The label-as-family vibe is no accident,” she said. "We looked at what Puff and Jay Z have done, Jack White and Prince as well. But I'm also really inspired by strong women in business, like Mellody Hobson and Queen Latifah."

While sitting at VIBE’s NY headquarters in an all-black get up paired with a black Fila cap, Nana describes his first creative process with Wondaland as a musical and spiritual retreat. “The focus wasn't on music,” he shared. “The first two-three weeks we were down there, we weren't really working on records, it was all about really just taking the time to find the synergy between all of these spirits. So, from Roman to St. Beauty to Janelle, herself to Jidenna, to Deep Cotton to Nate and Chuck. When you can actually find that venn diagram between all those people, when you go to make music, it just allows for you to create something that doesn't sound like you're trying. It literally just feels homegrown and organic, essentially.”

With his mind, talent and spirit leading the way, Nana opens up on finding inspiration through his Ghanaian culture, working with Jidenna on The Chief and plans to transcend his creative ear.

VIBE: How does your personal story fit into the synergy you and Jidenna have?

Nana Kwabena: Where do I even begin? You want to go into the origin story right now?

Sure.
I'll start with my grandfather. He was the person that I was named after. My grandfather was a chief in Ghana, in the western region. His story was that before he became the chief of the village, he was actually a pharmacist, so people would come to him and get herbs and medicine from him–kind of the medicine man, if you will. But over time, he became the chief of his village. A chief being no different than a mayor over a district, essentially. It's like an Italian godfather kind of thing. He was a very, very principled man. He was someone that had a vision for his tribe that expanded very, very far. There's this thing called the "Great Law of Peace" in order to become an Iroquois chief. You have to possess the ability to see seven generations—seven.

There was a certain faction of his elders that were against him because they're realized they couldn't control them for their own agenda. They would make all of these allegations to have him removed. We have thrones in Ghana, we call them stools. So they would have all these allegations to try to have him go to court and have him removed from the stool. The first one they made up was allegations of him going to people's houses and taking soup off the stove to throw it on the ground, which is totally what people do, right? It went to court, was delayed for awhile, but temporarily for as long as it was in court, it had him off the stool essentially.

After the allegations were dropped, he goes back to the stool. Second time, they do another thing—make up some false allegations—same thing. He goes through this process again. The third time, he refuses to remove himself from the stool. He's like, 'I've let you guys do this enough. Naw, I'm staying by this stool. This is false. You guys are not going to be able to control me.' So he was very, very resilient and stuck with his mission's focus and the legend is that my father said there was a moment where he threw something to the ground. I don't know if it was a staff, I don't know if it was powder, I don't know what it was. But apparently, there was some moment where he threw something to the ground and a herd of bulls stampeded the meeting place. This is what legend has, this is what he [my father] was told when he was young. So, I remember hearing that story and being like, 'Wow, that was incredible.' But then fast forward, what wound up happening is that faction of elders organized a militia to assassinate my grandfather. They killed him in his palace.

I remember coming back from New York for the first time actually and having that story. We were catching up and reconnecting because we had known one another for some time. This is at a time where he had just lost his father. He was also a chief in Nigeria and he was named after his father. Then here I am with my story about my grandfather being a chief and me being named after him, and I remember connecting with him on that level.

When I found out about that bull story, I came back and told him. Then he shared with me the story that wound up becoming the intro to the album.

 

That’s incredible.
He's a tremendous person, a great spirit, and a great visionary. We come from families where you couldn't be an artist. You had to be a doctor or lawyer. You had to be someone that it'd look like, at least on paper, that you were the American dream. So if you wanted to be a musician, it's like, 'Why don't you just stay back in Africa and just play drums?'

Jidenna has aligned himself with social issues like police brutality and black pride. How does this affect the music you guys make?
We come from a line of studying people like Bob Marley, Fela Kuti and even MJ. These people were masters of their craft, masters of their sound, masters of their genre. But I think, in particular, they knew the way in which you could actually penetrate someone's mind and introduce them to new ideas, but you have to get them to move first.

Lately, I've been calling it yoga. Music is just yoga to me right now. If I can just get your body to just stretch and move and open itself up, then your spirit becomes open, too. So for us, we love the era, particularly in dancehall music or reggae music or roots music. Often times it'll be music you can dance to, but if you actually read the lyrics, and actually listened to what the f**k they're talking about, they're talking some revolutionary sh**.

Why do we divorce the two? Why is it such that you have to go to one place to get this or that, why can't it be that we can get both at the same exact time? So, for us, our mentality is in all this trap dancing stuff, that's cool. With afrobeats kind of coming into the mainstream, I feel like its people are slowly like, ‘Oooh, this is a little different.’ My goal is to get to the hips. Fela knew how to get it to the hips. For me, as a producer, I'm like, ‘Cool, we gotta just shift this whole thing because if I can get people's bodies to move like that, we can say whatever we want.’ Even thinking of the song “Some Kind Of Way,” if you strip through all of the lyrics and just have the melody, what remains is the beat.

It sounds just like a pop-medium record, but on that same record we're talking about, “No matter who you are, no matter what you do, no matter what religion you are, no matter what God you pray to, someone's going to feel some kind of way about you.” Why live through that lens of trying to get people to actually take you and accept you instead of just being who you are? It's just that kind of juxtaposition that makes the music magical. We just like to call it party and ponder music.

I loved the tribal aspect of the project. When I listen to the album, it feels so communal.
Yes, definitely! A lot of the records are created that way. It was similar to Eephus, so when Janelle had us come down to Atlanta, we were staying at Wondaland. And Wondaland is a wonderful place—grass carpets on the floor, grass walls, and vineyard kind of things, and they'll have wine glasses on the wall. We were sleeping in teepees on the grass. It was amazing. We did yoga everyday, we were cooking for each other. The focus wasn't on music. The first two-three weeks we were down there, we weren't really working on records, it was all about really just taking the time to find the synergy between all of these spirits.

It’s crazy because, in today's day and age, it's so common for people to be distant from each other, or create music where someone makes a beat and the producer sends it to the artist. To me, sometimes you'll hit some stuff. Most times, it's uninspired. You can tell when something has… you can tell when you listen to a Michael Jackson record, right? You would hear him, Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton. In their relationship, all the different dynamics of what they were dealing with, you could feel a spirit and an energy in the music that was unlike no other. For us, we just kind of operate the same way.

What else is the Wondaland family working on right now?
There's always secret projects. This is going to be the year of Wondaland. There's a lot of amazing music coming out of Wonderland right now, it's going to shift some things. So, I'm really, really excited about Rome, to John Arthur to St-Beauty to Janelle, herself.

Outside of that, I'm also working on my own project. Kind of a DJ-producer album. Just working with people that I've met along the way that I've really enjoyed their music. Outside of that, we're working on a short film. Going back to narration and story telling and what not. I've always been someone who loved the idea of using music to tell stories that haven't been heard before. There's this story that I co-wrote with some friends of mine, actually, here in NY and it's been around for about three years. We literally did our last shoot day on Sunday, so it's going into edit. I'm going to be doing the score for it. It's just another way for me to be able to tell different stories.

Is there anything else you want the readers to know about you?
Umm, man. Where am I at in life right now? Let me zoom out. 2017.

2017. It is the year for creative expression.
Definitely. You can't even be the same kind of creative in a Trump world. I think that in a lot of ways, it's been great. Now the goal to me is a long term strategy. When I talk about resistance, when I talk about marching, it's just that one. I think that what I really love to do and work on is what we call the 100-year plan. How do we, beyond just telling these stories, really create something that shifts? Here's the beauty of it, art is always the spearhead though. It always has to be the first thing that galvanizes people. You look at revolutions throughout time, it's the thinkers, the writers, those people that world different than the world that they're seeing. They spark the minds that come. To me, art plays such an integral role and it's real.

I think for us, and what we're trying to build, when we talk about that bridge back to Africa, it starts in the music first. But it sure as hell doesn't end there. Over time, in this story, you'll get to see the next couple of chapters. But that's where my mind is thinking about in 2017. I'm thinking about 2027. I'm thinking about the next ten years after that.

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The Unrestricted Music Ministry Of Yolanda Adams

Since the beginning of her career, gospel legend Yolanda Adams has accomplished an enviable feat for artists in the genre the Queen of Contemporary Gospel is respected and still sought after in both the genre and secular music world, but seemingly without the criticism and pushback her peers like Kirk Franklin and Mary Mary have faced at various times for straddling the two. We’ve marveled at the Grammy-award winner and radio host for her “She is serving - Wait, can she wear that?!” fashions and Ebony Fashion Fair model realness. And Yolanda, as a person, seems connected to “the world” in a way that may leave some church kids clutching pearls. But the Houston native (Houston clearly only produces real ones) didn’t grow up under the same strict doctrines as some of her gospel peers and her less restricted understanding of obedience in faith has made her incredibly open, accessible and connected.

On the eve of receiving the Gospel Music Icon Award at the 2019 Black Music Honors, VIBE talked to Adams about the sisterhood of Gospel, how she maintains her eternal slayage (who knew Yolanda Adams was a distance runner?), the power of music, and man-made restrictions in the church.

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VIBE: You are being awarded the Gospel Music Icon Award at 2019 Black Music Honors. The BMH are meant to tribute trailblazers in Black music who may not have otherwise gotten their roses. You are definitely a trailblazer, but do you feel like you’ve been under-appreciated considering the magnitude of your contribution not just to gospel music, but music overall?

Yolanda Adams:  I’ve never felt as though I’ve been cheated or not awarded. As a matter of fact, I believe, personally, that I’ve been one of the most applauded gospel artists, especially female. One of the things that I do know is that sometimes you’re blazing trails that you really feel are just the norm. It’s not like you’re trying to do anything that’s different; you’re just doing you. And you’re enjoying doing you so much, that everybody else comes along and they join the bandwagon. I’ve never felt that I was in it by myself, although I’m a solo artist. I’ve had such a great support system with my family; my husband, my daughter. I’ve had so many people, like Shirley Caesar, Tramaine Hawkins, Albertina Walker - all of the great women who said, “We’re so proud of you, you keep doing what you’re doing. You make us look good every place that you go.” I had that support. Whenever I would call Tramaine and say, “How do I do this, this, and that?” She would always explain. Same with Pastor Shirley Caesar. Same with Nancy Wilson. I did (The Yolanda Adams Morning Show) as a result of having a conversation with Nancy Wilson. She said, “There will come a time, especially when [your daughter] Taylor gets older, that you will want to be home. So the best thing for you to do is something that you can use your radio/TV journalism degree in.” And I thought about it, and I’m like, “Wow, you know what? You are so right!” So a great conversation with her and being built up by her resulted in the creation of (the decade-long show).

So, no, I never thought that I had been underappreciated or undervalued. I always knew that what I brought to the table - and CeCe (Winans) and I have this conversation often - there was never any competition between her and I, or Vicky Winans or all of the great women in gospel music at that time because we all had our niche.

The thing that I have always said is that in this vast universe that we live in, there is an audience for everyone, and then there’s an audience that’s being left out, that somebody else needs to capture. I don’t have to fight for what belongs to CeCe, I don’t have to fight for what belongs to Vicky, or what belongs to Tasha Cobb, or anybody like that, because God has so strategically given me the platform that I have, and my responsibility in that is to be the best Yolanda I can be.

That’s a word. Let’s talk about your audience, though, because you were part of the class - along with Kirk Franklin and Mary Mary - that broke gospel music open to the mainstream. Bebe and Cece Winans cracked the door open (in the ‘90s), but you, Kirk, and the Marys blew the gap between gospel and secular all the way open. I think it’s hard for people to appreciate how big that was, then. You probably got less criticism than Kirk and the Marys because people felt like their sound was secular. Your sound wasn’t as secular; it just translated. Or did you catch heat?

When I first started, people were like, “She’s really jazzy. Why does she have to be so jazzy?” They have to understand; I was never part of a traditional gospel-type upbringing. In my household, we listened to everything. There was no restriction. We danced in our house, so I didn’t have the stronghold and the bars of “You can’t do this” and “You can’t do that.” I lived in such a cool house, God was so cool, he went to the skating rink with us on Friday and Saturday and went right to church with us on Sunday. So in my mind, I never had those types of restrictions placed on me. It was only when I started my solo career - when I was totally solo from (Houston’s Southeast Inspirational Choir) and I started traveling - people were like, “Well why do you wear makeup? And why are your dresses so short? And why do you do this and why do you do that?” I’m the kid who was into modeling. I’m into fashion. I’m into all of this stuff, so for someone to tell me my lipstick offended them, I’m looking at them like, “Ok, well then you don’t wear it.”

So you didn’t grow up in the COGIC church.

I didn’t grow up in COGIC or Pentecostal. I grew up in a Damascus church setting, and then we moved to non-denominational, which was like, “Hey, if the Bible doesn’t put all these restrictions on you, then why would you let people put these restrictions on you?”

I love that because that is such a challenge: Even though Christians are called to be circumspect and “in the world, but not of the world,” people are the ones who put so much restriction on faith. That’s us doing that, not God doing that.

Here’s the thing about knowing the Bible; you have to know the Bible for yourself.  You have to know what God said. Because if you look at what Jesus concentrated on - and I tell people all the time, you need a Bible or a Bible app that shows you the words of Jesus in the red - think about it. He’s concentrating on being loving, sharing, caring and giving, and treating people like you want to be treated. And healing people from the inside out. That was His core thing. And He said, “I came to bring the Kingdom to you,” so what is Kingdom mentality? Kingdom mentality is; if you’re broken-hearted you don’t have to be hurt; if you’re poor you can become wealthy; if you’re lonely, you don’t have to be lonely anymore. So you have to look at that, because folks start taking the Bible at face value, and they never look at the history behind it.

You’re thirty years into your career and working on new music now. Gospel music is going through some of the same transitions that R&B is going through, and we’re having the same conversations about the fundamental ways (of making music) versus the new ways, etc. What are you looking to do with your music now?

Here’s the thing: everything in life goes through cycles. Everything. Whether it’s fashion, whether it’s automobiles, whether it’s tech. It doesn’t matter. Everything goes through cycles. We’ve been having this conversation since…1987 (laughs). “What do you expect your music to do?” “Why is it that gospel music is going through this  transition?” Well, all music goes through transitions; life goes through transitions. I’m going through a different transition with my life right now with my daughter being in college. It’s just the way life goes. Everything turns around. It’s the way of nature; the sun rotates and we rotate, and we’re always turning on an axis, so that is the rhythm of life.

But here’s what I always focus in on: I am not recording an album to get another Grammy. Thank God if I get one, or when I get one because we call those things that be not as though they were. And you know, thank God for all these accolades. But at the end of the day, how can I help heal the world with what God has given me in my heart? That is always my basis for doing any album, any product, going into any business venture. All of that. Everything in my life has to do with what is in my heart at this present time. God, how can we get it out to the people that need it?

You said earlier you believe you’re one of the most celebrated female artists in gospel, and you’re definitely still one of the most visible artists in contemporary gospel. You get called for every tribute. I’ve seen you tribute Lionel Ritchie, Patti Labelle, [and] other gospel artists. You walk that line between gospel and secular so well. What do you attribute to people calling you up, even when they’re doing a regular tribute for R&B artists, and are like, “We need Yolanda”?

One of the things I think people sense with me is that I truly love people. That’s the first thing. And usually, I have a relationship with the people that are being honored. So they know that I will be very respectful to the tribute, and I will be very respectful to the artist. I will be very respectful to my friend. They know that my gift is being able to translate other people’s music that I admire into my own style without veering so far away from what they originally did with it.

I saw you do “Jesus is Love” for Lionel Richie a couple of years ago, and I was at Black Girls Rock last year getting the holy ghost right quick (during the Aretha Franklin tribute). You just bring the house down with your energy and your vocals every time, you kill it, so I think another thing is that they know you’re gonna SANG! (Yolanda laughs).

We touched on your fashion and the fact that you briefly dabbled in modeling. When you step on stage, so many women I know are like, “Yolanda is snatched! I need that dress!” Can you speak to the choice to be fashionable even while ministering?

I think I inherited that from folks like Mahalia Jackson. If you look at the history of gospel music, we have a history of being fly. You have to go back to the Clara Ward Singers, The Barrett Sisters, and folks like that. Even when Shirley Caesar and them were younger, they would wear gowns, they would wear updos. You could see Albertina Walker in the same room you saw Aretha Franklin, and Albertina Walker’s gown would be more killin’ than Aretha’s at the time! The beauty of gospel music is that our fashions are so unexpected. People are like, “Oh, they’re just gospel artists.” Then you show up and they’re like, “Wait a minute, now!’ And if you go back into our history as African-Americans, that’s why they call it your “Sunday Best” because church was the place you could go to show off your fashions. The hats, and the gloves, and the pocketbooks, all those kinds of things. We had to have it straight.

Do you have a fitness regime?

Oh yes, I am very wellness-centered. I know that at any time, without warning, I can be called to be on television, and it has been a practice of mine, since I started, to make sure I am physically fit, spiritually fit, emotionally fit, and sometimes that’s not so easy with the climate of the world that we live in now. But my regime is once I get off the morning show, I go straight to the park or the gym for strength training. I run at least three miles when I do my runs. My long days can be anywhere from 9-12 miles, but I never do less than three miles. Sometimes it’s for sanity purposes, sometimes it’s for meditation purposes, but I love fitness because I know what I want to look like in my clothes.

For the record, you’re 50...something. I’ll say fifty-something. But you are in peak shape, form, energy, all of that. So it’s obvious that you take care of yourself.

I tell people all the time: If you want to start living better, start today. With an extra glass of water, an extra apple. And I’m not saying cancel sugar out altogether because our brains need the sugar, but you don’t have to add extra sugar.

Right. And I do think that’s something that presents a challenge for folks who’ve grown up in the church - we eat with our fellowship.

It can be food and fellowship as long as the people who are bringing the food know how important eating well is. Just like you can bring fried chicken, you can bring baked chicken. Just like you can bring fried fish, you can bring baked fish. You don’t have to put all of that grease in your system. Now if you’re only doing it once or twice a year, that’s not a problem. But if you’re doing it every Sunday, every Wednesday, every Thursday, every Friday, you gon’ have a problem.

I used to go to [your 1993 hit] “The Battle is Not Yours” when I needed encouragement. Who do you listen to for encouragement?

I listen to a lot of the stuff that I have recorded and have written. My go-to's are Tramaine, Cece, Vicky, Richard Smallwood, Donnie (McClurkin), Donald Lawrence...I listen to everybody. I love listening to all gospel music. Especially at that time.

Who do you listen to on the secular side?

I listen to Mary J., Lauryn Hill, I listen to Monica, I listen to Brandy, Kenny Lattimore—

You listen to the voices.

Yes, I love voices, and I love different voices. Rashan Patterson. PJ Morton - I’ve known him since he was three years old. I love to hear young people express themselves, whatever it is. India Aire; I love her new album (2019’s Worthy). I’ve been listening to “Roller Coaster,” that song is so amazing. There are just certain things I hone in on. Tamia’s new project (2108’s Passion Like Fire). Johnny Gill has a new project (Game Changer II). Uncle Charlie (Wilson) has a new project. Lalah Hathaway, she is so amazing. I love the richness of voices, and I love people who are passionate about what they’re writing, what they are expressing and how they make you feel. I need some feeling in my songs, you know?

Who would be in your ideal line-up for a tribute to Yolanda Adams?

Oh my gosh, can I pick like 20 people? (laughs). If I could pick 20 people, it would be Avery Sunshine, Anita Wilson, Jekalyn Carr, Tasha Page House, Monica, Brandy, Jazmine Sullivan, Kelly Price, Donnie McClurkin, Jonathan McReynolds, Brian Courtney Wilson… I know I’m probably at 40 now! Joss Stone...So many people. I am a music lover, and I love to hear people expressing their love for what they do, and I know I’m repeating that, but all of those people I named, they’re so passionate about everything that they do. I could just listen to all of those people all of the time. Oh, and Lalah!

Based on how much you love music and you love feeling the emotions, can you speak to the power behind ministry in music?

Music is so… it’s so a part of us. Remember I said earlier that everything has a rhythm? It is in us. Our hearts beat at a rhythm, our blood flows in a rhythm. We can be walking down the street and then all of a sudden, we’re walking at a rhythmic pace. It’s just the way that we’re wired. So it is automatic that music has such a profound influence on the way we feel. When we’re in love, we can listen to Anita Baker. When we’re asking questions, we can listen to Donny Hathaway or Roberta Flack, or Donnie McClurkin or Fred Hammond. When we have a heartbreak, we can listen to Mary J. Blige. When we wanna be empowered, we can listen to Beyoncé. When we wanna cuss somebody out, we listen to Cardi B (laughs). I love Cardi!

But I’m just sayin’. There’s a rhythm to everything, so my thing is, it is automatic that we feel the power of someone’s interpretation when we’re listening to music. There is no way you can’t get the feeling that Jazmine really did knock the windows out of somebody’s car. It’s almost like you go back to that experience where somebody made you so mad you wanted to do that. And this is what I think music does as ministry. When we talk about ministry, the root is “minister,” which is also where we get “administer.” So music can administer healing, it can administer hope, it can administer empowerment, it can administer everything that you need it to. Power that changes people’s lives comes with the impact of music.

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The 2019 Black Music Honors, celebrating Yolanda Adams, Tamia, Xscape, Freddie Jackson and Arrested Development, is set to air in broadcast syndication Saturday, September 14, 2019. Visit BlackMusicHonors.com/airdates for more information.

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Jenny Regan

Un-Classic Man: The Evolution of Jidenna

Jidenna is glowing. The edge of the summer sun creeping into VIBE’s New York office highlights the 34-year-old's purple hues and cantaloupe-colored prints that adorn him. His mustard kufi, sitting snug atop his braids, is more than just a "cool hat." It's an introduction to who he really is. “I am Jidenna, the Un-Classic Man.”

Jidenna didn’t rigorously exfoliate that persona off—it shed on its own. The 2015 release of “Classic Man” helped usher him into the mainstream game under Janelle Monae’s Wondaland roster. The track provided the artist his first Billboard Top 40 hit, a Grammy nomination for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration and a chopped and screwed version featured in the Academy Award-winning film Moonlight. But the boom-trap feel of the record is nowhere to be found on his sophomore release, 85 To Africa.

Instead, the Nigerian-American gives life to hip-hop’s current identity crisis by stamping its passport across the African diaspora. “I want the album to integrate the African diaspora with the continent,” he says of the LP’s mission statement, which features a polished display of Afrobeat(s), R&B, psychedelic soul, funk and raw bars from an artist many haven’t figured out yet.

“It's [like] Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. If you look at him, that generation's mission statement was to integrate people of color and mainstream society, but mine is the diaspora into the continent,” he adds while elongating his goals. “I'm living and dying for that. There's nothing more important as black people as that. Nothing. There's plenty of things we gotta work on because if we do, a lot of other things will actually change. The economics in the hood, the idea of it being gentrified, the positions of power with women, the LGBTQ+ community worldwide. You have to deal with all of that to integrate the diaspora and the continent.”

Jidenna’s big ideas aren’t without merit. The son of a West African scientist and chief, the artist is not only knee-deep into social issues that plague the African-American community, but has strong ties back home. It’s enough to overwhelm any online revolutionary but Jidenna isn’t built that way.

“Someone described me as an aux cord for the diaspora to the continent,” he says. The album takes listeners to his once-humble abode in Atlanta—a cultural hub for black excellence in its own right—to sounds currently taking over Afrobeats and trap-themed parties. Horns blow with endurance on the album’s title track with special guests like GoldLink and Mr. Eazi shining on “Babouche” and “Zodi,” respectively. Jidenna’s sonic road trip is laced with good intentions, legendary producer Young Guru says.

“Jidenna's album is sort of a bridge, that's why it's 85 to Africa,” he says when asked about engineering the album.“It's bridging those gaps, but not only bridging those gaps musically but [also] bridging those gaps politically, bridging those gaps business-wise. That's the general purpose and the idea, along with very mature subject matters. I don't know if the average American knows what a 'Sou Sou' is.”

Throughout the album are odes to Caribbean and African culture like on “Sou Sou,” an offhand way of saving money in West Indian households. However, on the track, Jidenna compares the practice to a night in Ankara sheets. “Sufi Woman” plays to any soul sister keen to Yoruba, Brazillian Candomblé or whatever intensifies the spiritual vibrations. The lustful vibes continue on “Zodi,” which masterfully samples Busta Rhymes’ 1997 hit “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See.”

“If we are to be stewards of what this culture is, we have to allow it the space to evolve,” Guru mentions of Jidenna’s marriage of Afrobeats and hip-hop. It finds a calming balance on the album's lead single "Tribe" with a psychedelic video to match. “And that means sonically, subject matter wise and style-wise. That means us as 45-year-old parents of the culture allowing our 16-year-old children to express themselves. All of that is inside of this album. That's why you hear the direct nod to an old Busta Rhymes record but still making it new.”

He’s humble about the notion, but Jidenna and in-house producer Nana Kwabena were some of the early U.S.-based artists to blend the sounds of Afro House and Afrobeats into hip-hop’s obsession with trap beats. He points to "A Little Bit More," one of four singles from his debut album, The Chief. “That was the first time on the radio you were hearing real pidgin from a U.S.-based artist,” he recalls. “Nobody was saying 'Wahala she no dey give me.'” (Translation: She doesn't give me any trouble or worries.)

But Jidenna admits he’s not fond of his first studio project. He points to industry suits clamoring him about the “Classic Man” ethos. The pressure to be a gimmick only fueled the need to return to his roots.

“I enjoyed songs off it but [it was] the process. I was dealing with a label who wanted me to stick to one thing and I'm not that person,” he says. “It's not even natural to me. I live in between worlds. So that album, there was like three iterations for it so by the time it was done, I just wanted to get it out. I'm not proud of it and I'm still not.”

With 85 to Africa, Jidenna says he went in with no expectations as he traveled from Atlanta to Nigeria, Ethiopia, Swaziland (Eswatini), and Namibia. “I was just traveling through the continent and that's why it's 85 to Africa and not one country. That's how far I had to get away to make a natural album.”

He might not be a fan of his early tunes but he’s a scholar in trap and African music. “There's hella genres in Afrobeats, we're not even there yet,” he says about America's fascination with artists like Tiwa Savage, Burna Boy, and Mr. Eazi. “We're at the beginning. It's like when hip-hop started in 1979 and everyone is like, 'This is hip-hop.' We're literally at that point.”

Pointing to legends like Ebo Taylor, King Sunny Adé, Sunny Okosun, Cardinal Rex Lawson and Miriam Makeba, Jidenna hopes students of music listen to these artists in hopes of grasping a better understanding of other genres like highlife and jùjú music. He also believes hip-hop will have to pull a Sincere and head back home to the Motherland.

“I think for the first time in hip-hop history, hip-hop has to look outside of its history to evolve,” he says with much certainty. “Otherwise, it would be boring. I'm glad trap evolved the way it did because naturally, I was a fan because I was in it. I always told people, 'Trap music is African.' Those rhythms, those triplets, when Jazz players are talking about, 'Yeah, Jazz music baby. You know, the 6-8.’ When we're hip-hop historians, all old and grey, we’re gonna say, 'Migos was doing to the platter platter platter,’" he says in relation to their triplet flow.

Jidenna's love for hip-hop was felt throughout his 85 To Africa pop-up listening parties that were meant to recreate the days of The Tunnel (look it up) and house soirees. While playing his album, some fans had their chance to dance with the singer, with others pledging their devotion to Jidenna on social media.

He's well aware of his sex appeal but no one thought a simple studio photo would turn him into a trending topic—before he even released details of his album. “It's so funny because it shows that one, you don't know what will pop off and two, what people find attractive about you, I didn't like that picture,” he says.

https://twitter.com/VEJ0ME/status/1149344754649522176

But for every eye-catching photo of Jidenna comes an appreciation or at least, a respected view of his music. When it comes to his peers like Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, their talent is often questioned because of their sensuality.

“I'm biased. I think the female form is an unbelievable form. Period. I think that men and women can appreciate that, not to say that there's no beauty in men, but I do think that human beings really enjoy women,” he says between pauses.

“I know for a fact that a lot of female artists feel the pressure to be more revealing. Men are starting to feel that way, too. The pressure to lift weights, the pressure to put beard oil on, the pressure to get a lineup every week. I'm glad because women put a lot of work in. What's cool is that women in the U.S. are going through a phase where it seems like y’all are more unapologetic than ever before. Women are speaking crass and bolder, and that's why they're rooting for Megan and artists like Cardi. Lizzo also represents a certain kind of freedom and I think that kind of liberation is great.”

While speaking to the double standards of hip-hop’s shining stars, Jidenna believes men have tapped into their vulnerable sides. “With men, you're seeing what women have done more traditionally and that's being more vulnerable and admit to mental health and admit to having self-esteem issues,” he says. “I can go across the board from A$AP Ferg to Big Sean to myself. Our journey is that way and for women, it's the other way.”

From owning his artistry to his masculinity, Jidenna is in a special place of self-awareness.

“I think he's found his purpose and his sound,” Guru says. “With him and Nana coming together as a group, as a team, I think he was making sure that he was not being pigeonholed into a hit record, which sometimes can be a curse. But a lot of times you don't get to see the full scope or run the gamut of what that artist can do and I think that on this album. He's shown you his full gamut of what he can do as an artist. He can rap, he can sing, [and] he put together melodies that are not normal but that completely fit where we are right now. That's just him as an artist.”

Jidenna is finally where he wants to be and it's time hip-hop takes notice. Stream 85 to Africa here.

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Frazer Harrison

12 Hip-Hop And R&B Collaborations With BTS We Need ASAP

K-pop music has steadily grown into a cultural phenomenon that has spread from Korea and attracted a massive, diverse audience across the globe, with a few of Korea’s hottest exports like EXO, Pentagon, NCT-127, Blackpink, and Monsta X gaining momentum in the United States. However, South Korea’s own BTS are global musical juggernauts that stand far above everyone else.

BTS, also known as Beyond The Scene or Bangtan (Bulletproof) Boys, have made the biggest splash of all groups from Korea since their debut EP, 2 Cool 4 Skool (2013). The seven-man union, formed by Big Hit Entertainment in 2010, are three rappers and four vocalists: RM (the leader), Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V, Jungkook, and Jin, respectively. With their homegrown, in-house writing and production, they developed a familiar but unique style that combines hip hop roots with the best of Korean and American pop music, and a splash of R&B. It’s presented with pastel colors and an alluring brand of soft, non-conforming masculinity, precise choreography, and deep layers of musical talent. They’ve also earned a staggering amount of accolades, including being named one of the “25 Most Influential People On The Internet” and “Next Generation Leaders” by TIME, the first Korean group to hold an RIAA certification and the first to have been nominated for a GRAMMY, along with four Billboard Music Awards and more honors.

Their hip-hop roots run deep as they started as a teenage rap group, with RM, Suga and J-Hope initially being battle rappers. A trip to Los Angeles, however, as documented on the reality series American Hustle Life, proved they had a very long way to go with understanding of the culture among other skills. Thankfully, after a boot camp style schooling from west coast legends Coolio and Warren G with choreographer Jenny Kita, they’ve grown tremendously as evident on their debut LP Dark And Wild (2014).

Since then, BTS has collaborated with hip-hop stars like Wale, Desigiiner, Krizz Kaliko, Nicki Minaj, and recently, JuiceWRLD on “All Night,” an exclusive from the soundtrack to their new mobile game, BTS World. The boys are riding high after their Gold-selling album Map Of The Soul: Persona, their new film Bring The Soul, and news of a collaboration with R&B/pop singer Khaled on the way. The BTS A.R.M.Y. (Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth) is excited for the possibilities of fresh new collaborations with other hip-hop and R&B artists. Read below for VIBE’s list of the 12 hip-hop and R&B collaborations with BTS we need ASAP!

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Drake

Toronto’s own megastar may be a controversial, polarizing pick because of the criticism of him (allegedly) riding on newer artists’ popularity to bolster his own career and “wave riding” international genres and artists without giving the proper credit. Regardless, based on Drizzy’s Billboard chart-topping history, a BTS and Drake collaboration would be nearly guaranteed to be a home run.

Musically, Drake is versatile enough to match elegant harmonies with Jin, V, Jungkook, and Jimin (imagine a remix to the steamy “Singularity”) and go bar for bar with ease next to RM, J-Hope, and Suga over  production from 40. His tracks with artists like Bad Bunny, popcaan, Wizkid, Romeo Santos, Black Coffee, and Giggs have all been solid, but BTS pairs the best with October’s Very Own because they both excel at creating bubbly, up-tempo and mainstream-friendly pop records, late night, vibey and confessional R&B songs, and explosive rap jams for the crowd who craves pure lyricism. And after the two had a warm meeting at the VMAs, fans shouldn’t be surprised if we see something on the horizon very soon.

Lil Uzi Vert

The tone and direction of BTS and Lil Uzi Vert’s most electrifying hits are the difference between night and day. On the flipside, they share much more common ground than you’d think with their high energy songs and performances, and an eye-catching penchant for their colorful, eccentric fashion looks and charismatic, light-androgynous swagger with the dance moves to match.

BTS’s recent effort with Juice WRLD, “All Night,” has already shown how well the group can pair with the hip-hop superstars from America’s Soundcloud generation, especially with the right producer in tow (Pro Era’s Powers Pleasant). With Lil Uzi Vert, we can expect a hit that carries the same pop and crossover appeal with that glittery sheen Uzi displays on “That’s A Rack.” However, if they really want to blow our collective minds, it would be a fresher look for BTS to see how the Bangtan spitters RM, Suga, and J-Hope would fare on the aggressive, high-octane end of Uzi’s versatile playground. They obviously can be as explosive on wax as evident on their first full length album, Dark and Wild, and in a more recent context, “IDOL” and “Mic Drop.”

BTS could fit with a respectable number of Uzi’s contemporaries as their cadences, flows, and gender fluid style are the products of its time. The Philly rapper stands above the pack however because of his smooth versatility to rock out, no matter the genre or direction of the song. If these two forces of nature got together, this could be an unprecedented crossover song for both of them.

Black Hippy

Kendrick Lamar and BTS have been tied together through a combination of minor controversies, and frequent collaborator, producer Teddy Walton attended a show and declared on Twitter that he wanted to work with the group. Obviously a Kendrick Lamar and BTS collaboration would turn heads, but who said he’s got to be the only one who gets to have all the fun?

If we live long enough to get a whole collaboration between BTS and Kendrick, Jay Rock, Schoolboy Q, and Ab-Soul, it would be the greatest gift that a hip-hop fan never knew they needed. RM, Suga, and J-Hope all are very nimble and clever lyricists who can go bar for bar with Black Hippy while the other four vocalists are no stranger to blending in on a pure hip-hop song. Also, their collective versatility ensures we wouldn’t get the same song twice.

When it comes to content, the catalogs of both groups contain plenty of songs that go into a wide range of topics, be it personal or social commentary, braggadocios raps, and just strictly for the turn up. Musically, BTS’s flows and vocals are versatile enough to ride over either a beat by Terrace Martin, Sounwave, or DJ Dahi.

Missy Elliott

For over 20 years, Missy Elliot has been a maestro of the clubs, the streets, the bedrooms and the Billboard charts for herself and a long list of some the greatest solo acts and groups who have ever done it. Her and BTS would be a very strong tandem because of her own experience in working with R&B and pop groups like Playa, 702, Destiny’s Child, and The Pussycat Dolls.

Missy’s no stranger to working with top artists from across the globe as she has created with Little Mix, Lady Sovereign, and MC Solaar. A BTS collaboration would not be so far out of her comfort zone because they both share a connection with their colorful, vibrant, eclectic music and imagery with their versatility with rapping, singing, and dancing.

Their effort could create a unique moment because both are great creating danceable hits using a wide variety of sounds from different genres (“Get Ya Freak On”/”hip-hop Phile”). We could also get some very sultry standouts as both are known for having sensually sweet voices and have great chemistry with partners. (“The Truth Untold”/”Crazy Feelings”). And if that doesn’t entice you, imagine the insane possibilities for their video treatments and their choreography at their live shows.

Tech N9ne

On the group leader RM’s solo mixtape Rap Monster, he tapped Strange Music’s resident crooner Krizz Kaliko for the soulful tune “Rush” back in 2015. Considering how far BTS as come along since then, it’s about time that fans got to hear one of rap’s most wicked lyricists, Tech N9ne, create a monster masterpiece with the group.

Albums such as Dark And Wild (2014) offer the group at their most aggressive while recent tunes like 2018’s “MIC Drop” and the Steve Aoki remix with Desiigner feature their most explosive lyrical performances, proving doubters why they’d make such a strong pairing. With Tech N9ne being one of the greatest rapid-fire spitters of all time and BTS, collectively, being able to switch flows and spit just as fast, we'd be likely to get a raging, lyrical barnburner. Possibly with Tech N9ne’s frequent collaborator Krizz Kaliko back on board as well.

On the flipside, Tech N9ne has shown tremendous versatility in his content and beat selection over the past 20+ years with thought-provoking deep cuts like “Show Me A God” and fun, loose bangers like “Caribou Lou.” And the soundscape on BTS songs like “Boy Meets Evil” and “Am I Wrong” from their 2016 album Wings are the kind that demonstrates not-too-bubblegum, yet not-too-hardcore sound where Tech can shine. If we can get a “BTS Cypher 5” on their next full-length album with Tech N9ne, we should all lose our collective minds.

Bad Bunny

Beyond Korea, K-pop has extended its reach into Latin America, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and brown folk in the United States. Coincidently (or not), we’re also witnessing the ongoing reign of Urbano and Latin Trap music, including one of the brightest, most eclectic stars of them all, Bad Bunny. That said, a Bad Bunny and BTS collaboration would be the international answer to the 1980s classic Run-DMC and Aerosmith tune “Walk This Way”, that music needs right now.

Despite the language barrier, it wouldn’t be impossible for them to create an international smash as BTS are known to enjoy various genres of Latin music. Working with Bad Bunny would be a fun match because they are both known for their flamboyant, colorful styles that defy gender norms, and electrifying flows. Bad Bunny’s talents would add a unique flavor that would bring more attitude, flair, and exciting, bouncier flows if paired with BTS. And while K-pop and Latin music collaborations aren’t anything new (Super Junior and Leslie Grace already beat them to the punch with “Lo Siento”), the impact could possibly be greater if done for a worldwide audience in the Western music world.

Beyoncé

It doesn’t take a music industry genius to know that if some wise guys or gals came up with a world tour with Beyoncé and BTS together, there would be no stadium big enough to hold both the Beyhive and the A.R.M.Y.

Beyonce’s voice is powerful enough to add an extra compelling layer of emotion to a song like “Listen,” and dynamic enough to get the party rocking like she’s done with “Get Me Bodied.” BTS already has the range, depth, versatility, and work ethic as a group to meet Beyoncé’s high level of singing and performing and it would be interesting to see what the band would look like with choreographer JaQuel Knight or how Beyonce’s moves would look under the guidance of J-Hope and Jimin. Hearing and seeing these two together for the first time would be a matchup of the century.

Boyz II Men

One of BTS’s biggest co-signs they’ve unexpectedly earned this year was from Boyz II Men’s Shawn Stockman, when he covered Jimin’s solo cut “Serendipity” while playing his guitar on a video he posted on Instagram. And that’s a high honor considering how BTS are the same fruit off The Jackson 5’s R&B/pop tree as the Philly trio.

Out of the many iconic groups that precede them, Boyz II Men is the best choice for a collaboration because the four vocalists and the trio’s voices can work cohesively together as they have a balanced range of pitches. And if need be, Boyz II Men are no stranger to singing in different languages as they covered k-pop songs on 2005’s Winter/Reflections and 2011’s COVERED -Winter. The only disappointing part is knowing that Michael McCray’s deep, sultry bass won’t be present after he revealed his battle with multiple sclerosis in 2016. Still, both groups have the musical range to appeal to both Asian and black audiences at the same time, so seeing them work together would be an amazing passing-of-the-torch moment.

H.E.R.

Love Yourself, ‘Tear’ (2018) from their Love Yourself trilogy is a prime example of how the group's collective vocal ability isn’t limited to pop music. They’ve proven with songs like “Singularity,” “The Truth Untold,” and “Magic Shop” that they’re just a proficient in contemporary R&B and neo-soul as they are at everything else. And while many contemporary American acts could sound great with BTS, perhaps the one that would be the most refreshing is H.E.R., whose deep, sensual, and gripping style will grab you by the ears and hold you by the heart. Both have the vocal range and deeply layered content to create an emotionally rich affair that could wind up either in the form of duets with either one of the singers or full group collaboration. We might not get a strong pop song from them, but considering how strong their emotional appeal and relatability is with their music if brought together, we don’t need them to make one at all.

Chris Brown

BTS’s lead dancer and singer Jimin has mentioned on a few occasions that he is a Chris Brown fan and he’d like for him to work with the group one day. In fact, three members once danced on stage to Breezy’s “Take You Down” and the crowd couldn’t get enough. Imagine how insane that same crowd would be if he were with the group on stage.

Aesthetically and musically, BTS has the most similarities to Chris Brown when it comes to their intense work ethic, creativity, natural dancing skills, and their knack for seamlessly weaving through hip-hop, pop and R&B on their albums. The obvious difference is that Brown is highly skilled at all those things, where some of the individual members are weaker in at least one of those aspects. It can be argued that J-Hope, Jimin, and RM are literally Chris Brown if you were to separate him into three people because those members, individually, carry all the things fans love about Brown’s music and performances.

Based on all of this, a BTS and Chris Brown collaboration would be insane because their styles would perfectly gel, which could create real chemistry that we could see and feel on stage.

J. Cole

It’s been documented that BTS, especially the leader RM, are fans of J. Cole as they once sampled his James Fauntleroy-assisted “Born Sinner” for their song “Born Singer.” If you were to listen to some of RM, J-Hope, and BTS’s earlier work, you can even see how they were inspired by Cole through their content and flows. Since the group is far more of a polished act nowadays and has cultivated their own style, a J. Cole and BTS collaboration would be something special.

Just as J. Cole garnered a cult-like following through his music and the way he addresses social and mental health issues, BTS has done the same thing for the past several years on wax, interviews, and more famously, in their speech in front of UNICEF in 2018. A joint record between the two could be a powerful track that cuts through like a hot knife on butter. Or we could even get a chance to hear Cole, Suga, RM, and J-Hope perform lyrical surgery on a “BTS Cypher” or on a J. Cole album where really gets in his bag like “MIDDLE CHILD” or on the Dreamville posse cut “Down Bad”. BTS has the language and versatility to match with J.Cole, so this would be an exciting effort from both acts.

Janelle Monae

This may look unorthodox on paper as BTS and Janelle Monae’s respective approaches to music and performing come from different, but related musical influences from black music. A closer look at the two however shows that they still share a parallel space. They often defy gender norms with their outfits and soft color schemes, giving some of the most vibrant, creative visuals you’ll see in this generation with videos like “Boy With Love” and “Pynk.” Also, both are vocal allies of the LGBTQ community and people of color.

Musically, Monae is an multi-faceted artist who can sing, dance, and even trade bars with the best of them as heard on “Django Jane.” And the way she uses her vocals and bars to create \ soul-stirring moments on socio-political songs like “Cold World” and “Americans” as BTS has done on “21st Century Girl” and “Am I Wrong.” Together, Monae and BTS could be a freedom fighting force on wax and create a groundbreaking moment that will cross racial and gender barriers across the world.

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