'Classic Man' Singer Jidenna on How His Father's Death Inspired His Dandy Style: 'It Was My Way of Grieving'
Jidenna, the Brooklyn singer whose first LP on Janelle Monáe's Wondaland Records arrives in 2016, was at his label's studio when he learned "Classic Man," his electro-R&B ode to vintage dress and suave masculinity, had received a Grammy nomination for best rap/sung collaboration. His first dilemma: whom to take. "I've been plotting," he says. "We'll see if I get rejected." His next: how to upgrade his look for the red carpet. "I'm sure somebody is going to be like, 'You should switch it up, get a bit more dapper.' Or maybe not! Maybe I'll come in a sweatsuit. Sweatpants and a hat."
Born Jidenna Mobisson, the 30-year-old recorded his first album as a final project at Massachusetts' Milton Academy, where he rapped in a group called The Black Spades. He turned down a record deal to study at Stanford, and there his professor Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist behind the infamous Stanford prison experiment, taught him the power of fashion. "We had an experiment where we had to dress like somebody else every day for five days," he recalls. "I'd come in Abercrombie & Fitch one day. Another day I'd be in a varsity jacket like a jock guy."
Jidenna didn't adopt his current style until the 2010 death of his father, a dapper Nigerian professor who helped design Africa's first personal computer. "It was my way of grieving, initially," he says. "People thought 'Classic Man' was processed. But then they realized, 'Oh, this guy actually is that man, and he actually dresses like that.' " The song, built on a sample of Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" and featuring Wondaland labelmate Roman GianArthur, was a breakout hit in 2015, reaching No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100. In June, he performed it with Monae at the BET Awards, designing his wardrobe and dozens of placards to invoke the era of Jim Crow. "I wanted to make sure I was a walking poster, almost like a ghost of a past," he says. "America is haunted by an apparition steeped in slavery, and I wanted to remind everyone that, 'Yo, we've got to handle this.' "
In December, Jidenna released the single "Long Live the Chief," his first since "Classic Man." His forthcoming album, still untitled, will combine elements from the music he has been feeling -- lately, Tame Impala, Drake and Taylor Swift, a formula that boils down to "funk, class, a little bit of magic, a little bit of spice." "It's going to sound and feel like 'The Adventures of Classic Man,' " he says. " 'What does he do when he's not in a suit? What are the ends of his days? Where does he travel?' I want to give people the multiple dimensions that make me, as a man and as an artist."
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of Billboard.