During a listening party in Atlanta last week, Jidenna described his latest album, 85 to Africa as the soundtrack someone might listen to it they were traveling from America to Africa.
Starting on Atlanta’s Interstate 85 on the way to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, listeners would begin with trap music before crossing the Atlantic Ocean and delving into the sounds that have monolithically been labeled as “Afrobeats” by Western consumers.
The Wondaland artist, who said he’s been traveling and recording new music since releasing his debut album The Chief in 2017, talked to Billboard about the inspiration behind the new album, as well as two other projects that are on the way. See our conversation below.
When did you start working on this album and at what point did you know you wanted it to serve as a bridge from Atlanta to the continent of Africa?
Jidenna: Pretty much between this release and [The Chief] was almost two years. Almost half of that, I was on the continent of Africa, or I was touring in the US. When I finally sat down to make an album, we ended up making three albums. [Wondaland Managing Partner] Mikael [Moore] had been a big advocate for “85 to Africa” being a title, and me [and writer/producer] Nana Kwabena specifically were afraid, because we were just coming back from Africa and we didn’t think America was ready. It took us like a good year, I think, to settle on it.
It seems like the American market has been open to more international music, including from the African diaspora, recently. You were still worried?
There’s this phenomenon called confirmation bias — which is like, you buy a white Honda Civic, and all of a sudden you start seeing a white Honda Civic everywhere. And then when you go on Google, because you Googled “white Honda Civic,” your whole computer is showing you all these white cars. So we were worried that’s what was happening. Because we came from Africa. Black Panther was a big deal, yes. But all this Afrobeats music that we’re hearing, all this interest in African clothing — is [it] just because we’re interested in it? It worked out in the long run.
The album opens with “Worth the Weight,” featuring Seun Kuti, son of Fela Kuti, pioneer of Afrobeats. How did that come about and why was it important to have him on the project?
We had visited him at the New Afrika Shrine in Lagos. That’s Afrobeat royalty. We poured libations with [him and his family]. We poured a libation for Fela specifically. I told him we wanted to go there and celebrate his father. Afterwards we just vibed so hard, chilled, ate, broke bread and we’ve been kicking it ever since. I wanted to get [his] blessing. [It’s] an invocation, if you will.
Your latest music video is for “Sufi Woman.” Can you describe the inspiration behind that song and video?
There’s three songs that came out before my generation that I think had a profound impact on women that have been celebrated, and specifically women that were marginalized. And that’s “Gypsy Eyes” by Jimi Hendrix, “Liberian Girl” by Michael Jackson, and Carlos Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.” It’s my understanding, in those generations, that when these songs came out, every woman wanted to be a Liberian girl, and be a woman with gypsy eyes, and be a black magic woman, and I wanted to do the same thing to honor and celebrate Sufi women.
I have a lot of friends who actually practice and walk in a way of life of Sufism. They’re from different parts of the world, from the Middle East, South Asia, East and West Africa. I wanted to highlight them, and also create the intersection between them and just mystic women in general. That’s why I shout out the word “bruja.” That’s why there are certain women in the video that may describe themselves as “hood witches.” This song is really, on a larger scale, a celebration of the mysticism of women, and celebrating the spiritual allure of women.
Behind the scenes, you worked with women to bring the video to life, too.
I was very intentional in working with Fatimah Asghar, Whippa Wiley, who is my creative director, Marina Skye, who is the art director on the team, but also Azza Gallab. Azza is a Sufi woman herself. She worked on the production design.
Why was centering women in this and other aspects of the album important?
The destiny of men is to get out of the way and listen. I think there’s a lot of men in the world just blocking access, to be frank. Blocking access left and right, blocking women from saying things, blocking women from directing, blocking women from programming and creating production software. That’s the world, unfortunately, that we grew up in, and I think it’s time that our generation, and then even in the kids, the little boys and girls right now, that we grow up in a new world.
So these are small steps. There’s a lot more that can be done. There’s a lot more I can do. But that’s why those decisions are made. That’s why my creative team is and has been dominated by women.
I think one of the most surprising cuts on the album is “Pretty & Afraid.” Talk about the inspiration behind that song.
What’s special about that I think is just that’s it’s an Afro-Rock song. We wanted to create something that felt like The Beach Boys, or the experimental side of The Beatles, or Jimi Hendrix if they were in Senegal. That was kind of the idea for the sound of it. What was special about the vocals and the lyrics is that I literally weeped my way through those melodies. So on the mic, I’m crying as I’m screaming out to God, because I was in such a low moment that I wanted to liberate myself. I felt stuck in life, so I just kind of screamed my way through it and recorded that.
Do you think that feeling of being “stuck” was a consistent theme throughout the process of creating this album?
Jidenna: Maybe I felt stuck in the country, stuck in a different phase of [my] career, stuck in the fact that I got in the process of eviction, even though I didn’t own the house. But because I was leasing a house, we didn’t have a home for the team to go back to. I think all of that played into this idea of traveling wide to find some sense of power and some sense of freedom.
You’ve already completed two more albums. Sonically are they similar to 85 to Africa?
Jidenna: They’re deeper dives into some of the sounds that you’re hearing on 85 to Africa. I describe [the album] as a road show of music. Sometimes I describe it as a sample platter, because you’re getting a full multiple course meal with different styles on it. But that all feels like the same cuisine.
The next one I’m releasing there’s a deeper dive into Afro fusion. Afrowave, Afrobeats, whatever you want to call it — but to me, it’s going to be like the quintessential, or the defining moment for those of us in America who are from the African diaspora but don’t have an album from our side in the way that London people and Parisian people have for their side. All we have is like African artists, or Afro-European artists coming over, and we’re like, “Okay, yeah, we like Burna Boy, and we like Davido.” What does it sound like for us? What is our version of that from our side? The next project [delves into] that. And the other one is a funk, soul [and] R&B kind of album.