On: Jidenna

We’re inside a packed Good Luck Bar and Jidenna is triumphantly rapping: “Ni99as fighting over rings/Ni99as wanna be the king/But long live the chief”.

The artist, who was born Jidenna Mobisson, is showcasing a few songs from his new album in Johannesburg. In a first for his distribution company, Sony Music, this Jozi stop was one in a global campaign that saw Jidenna visit his hometown of Enugu and perform in Lagos, Nigeria. This was all to launch his long-awaited debut album, Long Live the Chief, which is due for release next month.

I caught up with him shortly after his Naija trip andbefore his Jozi gig, I and quizzed him on various things. First up: his obsession with the word “chief”. It’s in the title of his album and in the titles or subject matter of a string of singles, like Chief Don’t Run.

“There’s a Kenyan proverb that says that God made the sky big enough for all the birds to fly in it without colliding,” he says.

“So when we speak of kings and queens and being The One and ‘I’m the best’ or ‘I’m the greatest,’ it’s just…”

He pauses to find the words and then waves his hand as if dismissing the thought before he continues: “You can do that if you need it for your self-esteem. But I don’t want to project that to the world because I feel that it fuels this thing that I’ve seen with African politicians and American rappers.

“We can’t keep looking at our opponents as enemies. I don’t preach the king and queen or monarchy mentality. I’m a chief. I’m okay with not having the biggest crown on my head or not being the wealthiest man or having all these accolades that other people aspire to. I’m more focused on my neighbourhood and my family, my country and the different countries that I come from and not on having a crown.”

Jidenna’s disposition has been inspired by his childhood. He was born in Winsconsin to an American mother and Nigerian father.In the interview and on stage, he fondly speaks about his late father, Oliver Mobisson, fondly. He often breaks into a Nigerian accent to drive home his points home. His smile broadens even wider when he speaks about his dad who was a scientist, professor and helped to found Africa’s first computer technology university.

When I ask Jidenna about his lyrics about black magic on the ultra-catchy Knickers, he takes what’s already great on the surface and digs deeper. He tells me a story about how Lake Nike – “which is spelt N-I-K-E like the brand so I loved it as a child” – was of concern to Nigerians because it seemed to have bacteria in it. While others insisted that authorities be called and drastic measures be taken, his father called for a pair of scissors to be brought to him. Mobisson cut an electrical wire, plunged it into the lake and the wire killed the bacteria.

“That’s black magic,” Jidenna smirks, “and it’s also science. Black people have long had technology that the modern world dismisses as juju or something else.”

The insistence on looking beyond the obvious is ripe in his music. Jidenna plants seeds with wordplay. With Knickers – which sounds a lot like Ni99as, wink, wink – he subverts the meaning of a garment that slaves wore to pick cotton and flips the word on its head. During his showcase, he performs a song about Bambi and uses animal and fable imagery to tell a tale about being a cheater, among other things. He has an amazingly triumphant song where he sings: They’ll shoot you down without warning when they see you shine/in case you don’t see the morning, the crown is on my head at night.

He starts this song with his back turned to the audience and with the lighting suddenly turning to a menacing ambiance. It’s clear he’s talking about himself, but maybe he’s also talking about a deeper collective of people. This is also echoed in his choice of storylines in videos. So I ask him about his social consciousness.

“There was a teacher who was feeding me these books about Malcolm X and Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela,” he shares.

“That’s probably where I got the awareness and awakening about leaders who spoke to the masses about higher ideals like equality and harmony.”

On Chief Don’t Run, the 31-year-old sings about how one song opened many doors for him. That, of course, is Classic Man. That new age classic followed Yoga, a single he was featured on by his label boss, Janelle Monae. Classic Man has had a life of its own and the Good Luck Bar erupts in song and dance when he performs it.

“When we were making Classic Man and put it out, we envisioned a lot of the things that would come in one year’s time,” Jidenna shares.

“We believed that we’d be in The White House meeting the president and the first lady. And now I’ve been there several times. Yesterday, I was in Mandela’s private residence. These are worth more to me than a Grammy nomination. The people I’m meeting and befriending want to redesign the future of the world and these are the achievements that I’m proud of. It’s a blessing that we picked a song that could open so many doors.”

With his thought-provoking debut album, Jidenna will surely open more…


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