2015 was the year of Jidenna. After his smash hit “Classic Man” swept the airwaves (while landing a remix from rap king Kendrick Lamar) and received a Grammy nomination for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, the Wondaland records signee is now following up the hype with a proper debut album, and an acting role on Issa Rae’s HBO dramedy Insecure.
In the past year, Jidenna has unleashed powerful visuals like “Long Live The Chief” and “Chief Don’t Run,” and plans to reclaim his throne with his debut album, Long Live the Chief, a nod to his roots. “I think this story is from the point of view of a first-generation Nigerian-American in different cities, places and communities, that has ever been told in this way,” he says.
As the countdown to Long Live the Chief (which still has no release date) continues, Billboard caught up with Jidenna to discuss what fans can expect from his major label effort, expanding his brand outside of music and making his acting debut.
What’s the status of your highly anticipated debut Long Live the Chief? Is there a release date, and what can we expect?
I’ve been done with Long Live since this summer. The date has been moved a couple of times, so we’re going to see, but it will be coming within a season. The album will feel like you’re on an airplane and stopping in different cities. You’re the same person, but each place you touch, touches you, therefore you change in each environment. As a person of color and African descent, traveling is important. My father, along with many others I know, couldn’t travel as we can in our generation. I feel like I’ve made a few anthems that kind of show the point that we’re at now, where we can travel freely and post about it on Instagram. [Laughs.]
You actually shared some great photos from your travels this summer on Instagram. Was there a specific place that sparked inspiration?
I won’t say there’s only one place, but recently going to Nigeria and South Africa and even being in the U.K. for a bit, I think people will feel all of those places for sure. Nigeria will probably be the most prominent, not only in the music but in the actual storyline. We’ve crafted a first-generation immigrant story — coming to the States, has dreams, works from a class where he and his family have some upward mobility, and [they] get their piece of the American pie.
I don’t think that before Wyclef, on a national and international scene, that the first-generation Haitian immigrant story had been told. Or before Akon, that somebody from Senegal would have this story. So I think that this is going to be an album that makes waves on that platform.
As an emerging artist who has already been Grammy-nominated before releasing an actual album, what can you credit your success to thus far?
To be candid, I’m always looking to the future. I need to work on celebrating the now more, and even just reflecting. But what’s gotten me here? Not me, but a team. Any artist has art, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t have an amazing team. And I happen to have Fear and Fancy, Wondaland Records and a partnership with Epic and Sony. I’ve had the opportunity to continue to build on that with great people, and believers from other companies that share my same values.
You recently partnered with Pepsi for their new music platform, the Sound Drop, which is all about sharing your art in a meaningful way, and spreading your story to the masses. Why was it important for you to hop on board for the launch?
What was most important to me was being able to promote my story on a larger level, and showcase different sides of me, the creation of the music, and some of the people behind songs like “Little Bit More.” With Sound Drop, I’m able to do that. It was great to have a lane and meet new people and influencers and share my story in a new light, which I think is important after a big hit like “Classic Man.” I’ve got to unpeel the layers and this is the way to do it.
December will mark the two-year anniversary of Wondaland Records. Could you recall that moment you signed to Janelle Monae’s label?
Man, I’ve known Janelle for a long time. Even the era when she was standing on the front steps of HBCUs just singing with a guitar in her hand. I’m just really proud of Wondaland for making it this far — Chuck Lightning, Nate Wonder, Janelle Monae, Roman GianArthur, some of the people that have been there from jump before I got there. I’m more so proud of the team than myself. I didn’t stare at my name on the ink while I was signing it [Laughs]. I was more happy that we were toasting and beginning the campaign of what was to come.
Within a couple months later, we signed and put out “Classic Man.” That was an instant hit off the [Eephus] EP. It wasn’t even supposed to be a year where I released an album.
The Eepheus also celebrated its one-year anniversary in August. Is the Wondaland team plotting another collaborative project?
Yeah, we’ve definitely talked about The Eephus 2 or something like that, but I think our focus now is rolling out the individual artists so everyone can get a taste of everyone on the label. I’ll roll out the first project, but there’s some amazing artists like Roman whose project is also coming up.
Outside of music, you’ve been staying busy and expanding your creativity. You recently made an appearance on Luke Cage, performing “Long Live the Chief.” Is acting possibly in your future?
Yeah, you’ll be seeing my acting debut soon on Issa Rae’s Insecure. Issa and I went to school together [at Stanford University] and worked together — we’re homies. We’d be in the dorm rooms, and I’d be making music on my laptop while she was writing screenplays, or whatever her project was — like reproducing [Spike Lee’s 1988 film] School Daze on campus. She actually wanted me for a lead part in School Daze and I was like, “Nah, I gotta focus on my music career before my acting career.” [Laughs.]
So, when she started Insecure, she was [saying], “Yo, you know you’re going to act in this,” and I was like, “Okay, let’s do this.” She always believed in me and I always believed in her, so it’s nice that our projects are coming out around the same time.