Ahead of his current tour, the 34-year-old singer spoke to EW about creating an album that "felt accessible to anyone in the black diaspora."

By Stephanie Smith-Strickland
October 11, 2019 at 11:15 AM EDT
Munachi Osegbu

“I think our parents and their parents’ generation had a mission and goal to integrate black people into the mainstream,” shares Jidenna of the ethos behind his latest project, 85 to Africa. “But I think our generation is realizing a different mission, and that is the reintegration of the diaspora into the African continent, and even the African continent into itself.” 

Jidenna’s latest album is, in many ways, a direct reflection of this desire, coding the narratives of global black experiences, both lived and imagined, into heartfelt lyrics and a riot of new sounds discovered along a cross-continental journey. Naturally, the making of the record, which came out in late August, did start with a lengthy travel experience.

“A lot of people don’t know this,” says the singer’s close friend and longtime producer, Nana Kwabena, “but right around the time we started working on the album we found out the landlord at our spot in Atlanta hadn’t been making mortgage payments.” The duo, who had been paying rent on the space months in advance, were floored by the sudden arrival of a family (accompanied by moving trucks) who had, without their knowledge, purchased the home as a result of the landlord’s negligence. Both Kwabena and Jidenna had already planned on spending a few weeks traveling the African continent, but with a sudden chain of events that freed them of the responsibility of a physical space, the question quickly became, “Why not stay longer?”

Forced to leave the apartment, Jidenna began mulling over how he would make his next project a truly holistic display of his evolution. Identity and creativity have always been at the crux of the singer-songwriter’s artistic practice. Still, neither element has ever been set in stone. While the 2015 success of his Grammy-nominated single “Classic Man” was a blessing, it also quickly became a double-edged sword, in which Jidenna’s sound and persona felt unnecessarily tied to the three-piece suits and Harlem Renaissance-esque hair styles and image he’d built around the single. Its success later affected his work on his 2017 debut record, The Chief. “I liked The Chief,” he tells EW, “but a lot of that process involved making compromises with the label. Not all of those compromises felt like me. This time around it was really important for me to create from a place that felt genuine. What you’re seeing on this album has always been who I am, it was just a process to work up to being able to share it with the world.”

“I think what Jidenna is saying is so important,” adds Nigerian-American rapper Kelechi, who serves at an opener on Jidenna’s current 85 to Africa tour, which runs through November. “Not just for black people or Americans or just people from the black diaspora, the message is really quite spiritual and it’s one for the whole world.” 

Jidenna worked with frequent collaborator Nana Kwabena (above) on 85 to Africa
Jared Ryder

Both Jidenna and Kwabena’s perspective as first-generation West Africans — Jidenna’s father hails from Nigeria while Kwabena’s family is from Ghana — has always allowed them to exist in an observational space as both evangelizers and creators of diasporic intersections. “I’ve always toyed with the idea of creating a kind of sound highway across the Atlantic Ocean with my music,” Jidenna explains. “I think it’s so important for the diaspora to feel connected, so the album is supposed to feel like a road trip across our various experiences. 85 to Africa isn’t just a country or even one continent. We were in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Swaziland, South Africa, and Ghana, but we also started out [in] Atlanta.” 

And as Kwabena laughingly points out, the album’s tracklist is at times a very literal reflection of their cross-continental footsteps, especially when one considers how the I-85 (which partially inspired the album’s name) connects much of the American South, a  place where the first song feels as though it begins. “Worth the Weight,” 85 to Africa’s opening number, features Seun Kuti alongside immaculate production from both Kwabena and DJ Dahi (best known as the producer of Drake’s “Worst Behavior”). Like distant family coming together for a yearly reunion, the song sees Jidenna employing a tongue-twisting flow to take aim at everything from the dissolution of colonial histories to the numbered days of oyinbo (the Igbo word for white person) interference in melanated affairs. From there, Kwabena and Jidenna build out a soundscape that canters through the West Indies, borrows from Southern rap tropes, winks at East Africa via Malhun, and references Sufi music, while also indulging in the layered poly-rhythms of highlife music, and even jazz. And then there are standouts like “Zodi,” a deliciously sensual marriage of hip-hop, where Kwabena samples Busta Rhymes’ 1997 single “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See,” but adds a fresh twist with the introduction of highlife sounds cleverly melded with the hypnotic sing-rap style of Ghanaian artist Mr. Eazi. 

A personal favorite, “Pretty & Afraid”, which was produced by Wondaland’s Roman GianArthur, is one of the project’s more quiet victories. Jidenna’s vulnerability — it is the only song on the album that gives us a firsthand look into the artist’s insecurities, encompassing everything from his fear of mortality to unlearning toxic traits he had to accept that he carried —  works well against a psychedelic landscape. “The song really came out of being in a place of questioning,” Jidenna says. “I was thinking about the things I believed I knew about myself and the world, not just as a man but as a human. I was realizing that as conscious as I tried to be of certain things I was still playing into certain roles and expectations. I think it’s unique because we don’t get to see men allowing themselves the space for vulnerability that often.” 

As for the song’s rock-tinged origins, both Kwabena and Jidenna found themselves interested in Nigeria’s booming psychedelic rock scene, which was one of the largest on the African continent in the 1970s. “That’s really the beauty of this project,” reflects Jidenna. “We looked at the past, the present, and the future and we wanted to create something that felt accessible to anyone in the black diaspora because it had all of the elements that make us. I think we’ve gotten away from the idea that black people are a monolith and something like 85 to Africa is just an example of how much diversity there is in our communities.” 

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