Well before he started dyeing his hair red and styling himself like a Harlem Renaissance–era dandy, before he ditched his last name, signed to his friend Janelle Monáe's label, or began singing and rapping in his arrestingly incongruous array of styles, Jidenna Mobisson was already confusing the hell out of people. "My whole life," he says, with an undisguised hint of pride, "I've had a lot of 'what's this?' moments."
The earliest of those came in the first six years of his life, in his father's native Nigeria, where trips to the market with his Massachusetts-born mom, "the only white lady" for miles, would end with locals swarming their car under the incorrect assumption that they were rich tourists. Next, he moved all the way to the suburbs of Boston, where blending in was again not an option. On his first day of school in the States, he recalls, "this dude with a mushroom haircut punched me under the seat and called me an 'African nigger' after I said the A-B-C-D's and the 1-2-3's in a Nigerian accent," which he has long since shed. Later came the prestigious Milton Academy ("Mama put me in a school with the Kennedys," as one of his songs accurately describes it) and Stanford – which he chose after turning down several of the Ivies, including Harvard. "Everywhere I went," he says, "it was an arrival."
After teaching high school in New York for a few post-college years, Jidenna made his musical arrival in 2015, at the age of 29, with the appealing, if mildly gimmicky, radio hit "Classic Man": "You can be mean/When you look this clean," he rapped, claiming to have "charm like a leprechaun" (he does wear a lot of green) and name-dropping Nat King Cole.
Epic Records had picked up Monáe's Wondaland Records, where Jidenna was among the inaugural signings, and execs there were so excited by "Classic Man" that they decided to rush-release it, before Jidenna had any other solo songs ready. He barely had time to get publicity photos taken before it came out. He spent months promoting that one track, leav ing him little time to start writing and recording more, and its popularity quickly became perilous to his career – even as "Classic Man" got a Grammy nomination and scored a pivotal scene in Moonlight. "It followed him everywhere he went," says his co-manager Mikael Moore, who quit his job as Congresswoman Maxine Waters' chief of staff to work with Monáe and the Wondaland artists. "We would go places and people would be like, 'Classic Man!' Nobody knew his fucking name." With a single song that matched his hyper-stylized image to a fault, Jidenna seemed, to the uninitiated, to be the very model of a one-hit wonder.
But the artist himself never feared that fate. "Once they think they figure it out with 'Classic Man' – no, brother," he says. "That ain't all of me, nigga! That's just me in a suit. I knew I had a width and a depth that was just waiting to go out." He kept his look, pushing it further with the collarless Nigerian suits known as up-and-downs – the day we meet in New York, he's wearing a green number, paired with a pocket square, a wooden-brimmed fedora and unlaced Timberlands: There are definite handsome-leprechaun vibes. As with his other suits, his up-and-downs are bespoke. "I'm not worried about being called 'weird' or a 'gimmick,'" he says. "I'm the real deal, bro. I walked through the hood dressed in suits with a finger-curl in my hair, man."
In February, he finally dropped The Chief, a debut album that more than justifies his confidence. Standouts range from the Nineties-style banger "Long Live the Chief" – which went is-that-really-the-"Classic Man"-dude? viral last year after Jidenna performed it on an episode of Netflix's Luke Cage – to the Magic City–ready "The Let Out" (with Quavo of Migos), all the way to the gorgeous single "Bambi" (it's Sam Cooke meets the Wailers with trap high-hats, and it's 2017's best song so far).
Before he sang his way through tears recording "Bambi," the true story of a now-married ex-girlfriend (the part about his polygamist grandpa having seven wives is almost true – he had six), Jidenna had a chat with the spirits of Bob Marley and Nat Cole. For "Long Live the Chief," he asked Tupac Shakur for help. Jidenna's father was an observant Catholic, but his son has been on an eclectic spiritual quest ever since he experienced a powerful vision in college, one that he's not quite ready to share. When he told classmates about it, they called him crazy.
He kept an elaborate shrine in the studio, with candles, herbs, rice, and holy books from various religions, including the Talmud and the Koran. "I always do the same rituals," he says. "I read out of one of those books, I pray, I flip the rice in the air, I smoke, I drink and I make a record. And I call upon the ancestors of music to help me out."
Though he's a serious fan of both Kanye and Drake – his obsession with The College Dropout nearly convinced him to drop out himself, and he credits Drake and J. Cole for paving the way for "middle-class" rappers – it was another category of artist altogether that got him to add singing to his palette: "I got into my classic-rock phase. Paul McCartney and Marvin Gaye and Led Zeppelin and Marley were bigger influences. I just happened to be smoking a lot of motherfuckin' weed." He still smokes, and likes to balance it with alcohol, though he's slowed down on the latter. "At least I don't drink before noon anymore," he says with a laugh, cracking open a beer around 2 p.m. one Monday in the basement of the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York, where he's about to perform "Bambi" on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. "I've been drunk for years, though," Jidenna says. "I was shy as a kid. It helped me bring myself out of my shell."
When he performs for the cameras later, he's buzzed at best, but acts drunk, sipping from a tumbler that's actually just water: He spent time in his dressing room watching clips of purportedly boozy Rat Pack performances for acting inspiration.
Jidenna's self-assurance extends well beyond music. He's got some kind of "100-year plan" that includes fostering a tech boom in Africa, and is pretty sure that he could be president of the United States. If he wanted to, that is. "It's an option," he says. "Do I have the option? Sure. But do I think entertainment is more powerful than the presidency? Sometimes, yeah, it is."
Jidenna's name means "embracing the father" in Igbo – and when his dad named him that, he was talking about himself, not God. His late dad, Oliver Mobisson, made it from rural Nigeria to MIT via a government fellowship, and upon his return, with Jidenna's mom in tow, he ended up creating the ASUTECH 800, one of the first computers to be manufactured in sub-Saharan Africa. He also became a village chief and helped support the Biafran secession movement. He expected Jidenna, his youngest son, to do even more with his life. One night when he was five years old, Jidenna and his family were attacked by armed robbers who waylaid their minibus on the way to the airport. The profoundly traumatic incident is one of his earliest memories. When one of the attackers fired a warning shot into the ground, it struck Jidenna in the foot. "I just remember the warmth of a bullet in your body," he says, "and the blood just warming me." The perpetrators got distracted after another car hit an obstacle they'd placed in the road, and Jidenna's family escaped. "My mom puts me on her back," he says, "and we run through the jungle. Somebody eventually takes me off her back, and then I blacked out. I remember them coming after us, shooting as we're running into the jungle. And the hiss of snakes, sssssssss – and blackout."
And how did that horror affect him? "It either fucks you up," says Jidenna, who admits to yearning for revenge over the incident, "or makes you a really good person." And is he a good person? "I was a good kid," he says, sipping a sidecar in a hotel lounge the evening of his Colbert performance. "I became a great man. ... Good is for suckers. I'm a great person. Meaning, in my intention, my passion and anything I do, whether clean or dirty, is great."
After the attack, his mother insisted on moving him to the U.S., but his father stayed behind in Nigeria for a few years until he had a stroke and was forced to surrender to his wife's care. As Jidenna recalls, his dad, who had already been dictatorial, was now sometimes downright irrational – he went from demanding perfect grades to berating his son for becoming first in his class: "'Ah-ah, you're number one, now what will you do? Now you can only go down from number one! Why are you number one?'"
For years, Jidenna says soberly, "I hated him. I revere him now, but I couldn't stand him." And his dad equally loathed the idea of his brilliant son becoming a musician. "He was like, 'How are you going to change the world with music?'" But in the last year before his death in 2010, Oliver began to understand. "He accepted that I was serious about music, and so he said, 'You're an inventor.' That was the way he rationalized it. He said, 'Late at night, do you get struck with ideas?' I said, 'Yeah, yeah.' And that's how we started bonding."
In the last months of his life, his dad gave Jidenna some advice. "He said, 'If you're gonna do music, make sure you put a mirror to the world, so people see themselves. Make sure you invent yourself, you invent music that's never been heard. Invent an album that's never been done. If you are not innovative, then you are not my son.'"
Jidenna laughs a little. "He was intense," he says. "I'm intense." He'd like to have his own family eventually, but at the moment, he blames his own intensity for a bit of loneliness. "I'm still trying to figure out how to hold a woman right now because my standards for myself and other people are high," he says. "My father did something to my brain where I'm always searching for extreme excellence."
So, he says, "Right now, man, I'm single and I'm not even fucking. I can't remember the last time, bro! I'm not like the fun rapper telling you I'm fucking, like, a hundred bitches and shit. I'm not, man. I'm really not. I'm out here like regular people, wishing, thinking, jerking off at night, singing songs, drinking in a hotel, making 'Bambi' records." This is, he admits, a waste of his burgeoning celebrity, but he's not a one-night-stand guy, and anyway, he doesn't trust random women not to post stuff about him on social media. "You wake up, and a woman's up before you, she's on Snapchat, you gotta wonder. …"
When Jidenna heard about Donald Trump's election, he was "so grateful." "It's gonna make the messages that I have for the world more effective," he says, casually. Really? Jidenna, who, to be fair, is on his third sidecar of the evening, nods. "I prayed, and this is what came in prayer: 'You cannot have Moses without Pharaoh.'" He also received a song in his prayer, with the chorus "It ain't the end of the world/Just the end of the day." He repurposed it for a line in the new song "Bully of the Earth," which is about his dad as much as it's about Trump.
Jidenna himself isn't Moses in his scenario, or at least not the only Moses. ("Do I have a messianic complex? Of course I do. ... All I'm doing is recognizing my power. But do I think I'm above a single human being? Hell fucking no, are you crazy? I'll pick up dirt, I'll clean up shit, I'll do whatever I got to do to live on this planet.") He's "aggressive about being progressive" and convinced that the extremism of Trump's agenda will "wake people up" and create a powerful liberal backlash that could pay off as soon as 2018 – while also paving the way for a new era of deeper music and culture. "Does this sound naive?" he asks. "It does a little bit. It does."
Jidenna isn't scared to echo the kind of bold statements that led some to label even pre-Trump-supporting Kanye as unstable. If people call him nuts, he's heard it before. That college spiritual experience, which freed Jidenna from suicidal lows, led him to drop his engineering studies in favor of courses on religious rituals, and at one point had him "singing with mountain lions" under a full moon. "I've gone way far, bro," says Jidenna, who admires Jay Z's "composure" as much as Kanye's "passion."
musical goals, at least, are simple enough, if lofty – and when he's achieved
them, he'll concentrate on acting (he's already been on HBO's Insecure)
and "entrepreneurship." "Most artists just rule a decade,"
Jidenna says, taking one last sip of his drink, breaking into one more big
smile. "So I'm out here to rule a decade, bro."