Singer-Rapper Jidenna Talks Swank, Janelle Monae and Creating the Ultimate 'Guilt-Free Turn Up'

Marc Baptiste
Jidenna photographed in 2015.

Hip-hop newcomer Jidenna and his debut solo single “Classic Man” have already begun summer-radio domination, and with good reason. The longtime collaborator of Janelle Monae and one-fifth of her record label, Wondaland, has a musical palette that is as crisp as the three-piece suits you will usually find him wearing. A self-dubbed dandy and neighborhood man, Jidenna is seamlessly translating old-school swank into the language of 2015, creating a music video that addresses a desperate need for community-building in the wake of rampant police brutality. The classic man himself took time to talk with Billboard about everything from his musical influences and Nigerian upbringing, to the time he met Monae wearing “knickers, a blazer, and a crown of feathers.”

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You and Janelle Monae have been close friends and collaborators for years now. How did you first link up with her and the Wondaland crew?

I invited her out to a masquerade ball that I was hosting in Oakland. These were the days of MySpace, before her deal with Diddy and really before her fame. I knew that she was an amazing artist. We performed on the same stage and afterwards her crew Wondaland and my crew really bonded. Over the years we became friends and made some music together. Last year, she had this grand vision and we all got together at Wondaland and made our upcoming EP, which is called The Eephus. It was a friendship and creative partnership way before “Yoga” or “Classic Man” were made.

You have roots all over the world from Nigeria to California to Brooklyn and Atlanta. How has each of these places affected you as an artist?

Everything you touch touches you. I don’t have one geographic location that I’m exclusively loyal to. Every single place that’s brushed upon me has made me the artist that I am -- from Nigerian Highlife music and the vocal melodies that I grew up on when I would be sitting with my father and his fellow chiefs, to the funk and freeness of the Bay Area groove, to L.A.’s smooth G-funk legacy, Brooklyn’s lyricism, and now Atlanta’s trap history.

You’ve spoken a lot about swank and trying to bring back that melodic hip-hop sound. What sparked that in you?

It's anyone from Jay Z, Pharrell, Timbaland, Missy Elliott, Outkast ... all of these guys have a certain bounce to their music. Beyond hip-hop, there’s the Rat Pack, beautiful elegant ballads of the Nat King Cole era, James Brown. Nothing I’m doing is without its predecessors. Swank is lived from today all the way back to the field songs that the enslaved used to sing. Right now we’re just bringing it to 2015 and serving it to a new generation.

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You’re really trying to revive old-school elegance in a time when the culture is leaning towards the informal and street style. When did you start with the suits?

I think that it all was inspired by my father who used to wear suits. I’ve been wearing three-piece suits for a while now. I think they’re catching on because the context in which we’re living now is definitely a dressed-down era, at least in relationship to previous decades. My team and I just refined it now to the point where it’s getting a lot of attention.

Did Janelle Monae’s style rub off on you?

That was part of the reason we connected in the first place. We both had that vibe going on. When I first met her, I was wearing knickers and a blazer and a crown of feathers on my head. We were always into that kind of fun, funky yet classy look.

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What does being “classic” mean to you?

Class ain't just a glass of champagne. It’s about taste, discretion, and taking pride in your character. Something that is classic is both timeless and relevant. It’s not just about fashion. I don’t believe in merely being a retro mannequin. Any song that you say is classic, it’s classic because something about it speaks to the generation right then and there. Everybody recognizes at that time that that person or idea or song will live beyond that moment, for future generations to enjoy.

Talk about the "Classic Man" music video. Did you and [director] Alan Ferguson have a specific vision from the get-go? 

Absolutely. We wanted to create a video that was telling of the lifestyle I live as a man. Part of that lifestyle includes soirees and hosting these swank ceremonies, but another part of it is really just being a neighborhood man, a man that cares about people beyond his own blood. The scene that you see with the youth being arrested by the police officers, that’s straight out of the book of my own life. We were very intentional about showing how you can cooperate with police officers and the youth. There’s definitely a lot of scrutiny surrounding the militarized police that we have in the US right now. I don’t want a world where the citizens and the police are fighting each other. I wanted to show a world where youth don’t get shot when police run up on them. Afterwards you see those kids going to the chiefing academy where they learn arts and sciences. You witness the element of us serving the neighborhood youth, and later on you see us turning up.

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What beads of wisdom has Janelle Monae imparted on you?

Her humility is definitely the main thing that I keep coming back to. When we were making [our upcoming EP] The Eephus, she was totally open as an artist. She could have easily commanded the session in a way of, "Look, I’ve been here, I know what I’m talking about," but she entered into it as a student as well as a teacher. It’s amazing to see an artist of that fashion really being humble in a setting where she doesn’t have to be. It’s taught me to never ever think that I’m too good for anything or that my shit don’t stink.

What does the future look like for Wondaland?

We’re always trying to bring people forward. Wondaland’s goal is is really encoded in the language The Eephus. The Eephus is a change-up pitch. The thing we’re all gonna be known for is creating life jams and creating the guilt-free turn-up, this summer and beyond.

A version of this story originally appeared in the May 30 issue of Billboard.