When an artist’s debut track hits as hard as Jidenna’s “Classic Man” did this summer, you have to wonder if he’s a one-trick pony. But in his early afternoon ACL Fest set, the first artist signed to Janelle Monae’s Wondaland Records proved he’s got a dapper top hat full of magic ready to marvel the world. In less than 40 minutes, he channeled his Nigerian father, confessed to attending an “Eat Pray Love” signing, railed against police brutality and hosted the most body-positive twerk contest in the history of hip-hop. Before he thoroughly charmed the ACL crowd and established himself as an easy breakout, we sat down to chat with the Classic Man.
Austin360: I know you lived in Nigeria for a while. When was that and what was it like?
Jidenna: I lived there from a few weeks after I was born to age seven. It was great. It’s a country that very unlike America; it’s very focused on academic excellence.
You went on to become an engineer, right?
I studied engineering initially but then I switched to my own major called ritual studies, the study of how you create trances in the human being’s brain basically. This was all at Stanford.
So how do you create trances in a human being’s brain?
It’s a combination of things. There’s an overload of the senses at places like ACL, the festival scene in general. That’s actually why people come to festivals. … Certain groups, especially the ones that tend to headline, they have all the things that I studied: certain rhythmic patterns, certain melodies, just the general loudness of festivals. There’s a lot of ways to create trances but that’s definitely one.
How does that play into your music? Are you trying to entrance people?
I think every musician is, yeah. Every musician’s a shaman of some sort, even if it’s just for him or herself. I definitely am, but right now I’d say the trance is more in the substance than the music itself and the image and the music. For example, with “Classic Man,” I think it’s entrancing to people who are used to an image or used to cultural values in hip-hop or urban music R&B that are not what I’m portraying.
How do you define a classic man?
I say for me, he’s a man who cares more about character than fashion. The fashion’s just an extension of himself. He cares about his community. He’s interesting because he’s interested in people and has a lot of interests. He believes that well done is better than well said. And I always say a classic man is only a classic man if he surrounds himself with classic women who are excellent. I don’t know any great men ever who were just great men by themselves without the accompaniment of great women. I was blessed to have a great mother and two great sisters. They were the ones who helped me understand what it meant to be a man as much my father did.
You are associated with a specific look and a very specific fashion. How did you develop that style?
It was a combination of things. First of all I started thrifting many years ago like many of the millennial generation and the generations before us. … If you look at the fashion trends… we recycle a lot. For me, it was too much to keep up with the trends. Like literally, I couldn’t afford it at the time so I started thrifting, and one thing you find in the men’s section everywhere at Goodwills across America is suits. I wanted to modernize and make sure it was tailored and fit well. At the same time, I started looking at pictures of my father. My father passed a few years ago and when he passed I wanted to embody him, and he used to walk with a cane and he wore three piece suits especially in the ’70s.
Those are the two reasons I started, and the third reason I always speak about is the Jim Crow era in the U.S. This era is made famous for lynchings and whatnot, segregation, but oddly enough police and vigilantes murdered more, especially African American males… in the second half of the 20th century. And now, the 21st century, we’re murdering at an alarming rate. We have more people in prison in general and definitely more African American and Latino men and women. So I wanted to shed light on that, and to me the best way to shed light on what’s deemed as the new Jim Crow era was to reclaim the old Jim Crow.
How did you meet Janelle Monae?
We met at a masquerade ball that I was hosting with my social club. We used to host these balls in the Bay Area in California and I invited her out and she took the stage by storm, I was intimidated by how amazing and electrifying she was. So that was when the Electric Lady met the Classic Man.