It’s easy to write off Jidenna as a well-styled flash in the pan. The inaugural signee to Janelle Monae’s Wondaland label brandishes a penchant for three-piece suits and perfectly coiffed hair, while also catching flack for his not-so-subtle critique of race relations in minority neighborhoods and a controversy-inducing open letter to Nigerians. Yet as polarizing as he is, Jidenna's infectious debut single “Classic Man” has been steadily climbing the charts and has earned remix cosigns from Kendrick Lamar and T-Pain.
After spending time as an intern at the Martin Luther King Institute transcribing CIA's wire taps of Dr. King and developing a passion for the Civil Rights era, Jidenna has honed a look that simultaneously pays homage to the Antebellum South and his Nigerian roots; it lets the world see his personal politics before he’s ever uttered a word. Below, Jidenna lets FADER in on the substance behind his flashy suited-and-booted style. Is he more than just a modern day dandy?
Have you always been keen on suits?
There have been different moments in my life when I was really into them. Some of the earliest pictures I have are of me in a suit in Nigeria, when I was like five or six years old, with my father. He used to wear three-piece suits and walk with a cane.
Did he wear that every day?
Yeah, every day. But in that day and age, he had bell bottoms. He would walk around with a three-piece suit and he would have a red cap on with a white feather signifying his rank as a chief. My style definitely stems from him, first and foremost.
I grew up designing my own clothes. In Nigeria, everyone makes their own clothes. It's not a big deal to make bespoke suiting, it's just a way of life. I would hire tailors from Nigeria or Ghana. Some of the best tailors in the world are from Dakar.
And what about shirting? That's a very specific collar that you're wearing.
Yeah, all the collars that I wear are in the style of the 1800s.
Why that era?
I was studying the Jim Crow era and 1865, beyond that Antebellum south. I wanted to know what the freedmen that fought in the Civil War looked like right after the war was over. The freed slaves that went to Nova Scotia or went up north and started settlements—what did those men and women look like? I was fascinated by that. I wanted to have a collar that was very specific to the old Jim Crow, and this was one of them. Some people call it the club collar, or a double round collar.
"I think all style is a form of resistance."
It seems that in all the aspects of your style, the influence of history is present. Each piece is clearly referencing a specific time. Is a suit a history lesson for you?
That's a great question. For me, I wear a suit because I need to remember what's happened before me. I wear what I want every day. Our generation is super individualistic and that's cool, but it only gets you so far—you need people. We’re social beings and I need to know and remember where I came from.
The suit is actually easy to wear every day. I just gotta switch out my shirt, switch the colors, switch the tie, and then it's a brand new fit. To me, it is the fashion of the times. I just have to remember that every day so I know what I'm fighting for. To me, that’s what my style represents.
Do you consider style a form of resistance?
I think all style is a form of resistance. If you work in a corporate office and you wear a certain type of suit, especially as a woman, you're resisting the outside. Like, I am here. I don't work at McDonald's. I don't work on the street. I work in this office. I'm resisting that life. When I was a boy, I was sagging my pants like everyone else. Some boys become men and continue to sag their pants because that's their form of rebellion. Like ‘I don't want to wear a suit. I don't want to dress up. I don't want to pull up my pants. This is who I am, I'm resisting against that world, and I don't want to live that life.’ So, absolutely—I think everybody resists some other culture when they dress.
There was an interesting vignette in your video for “Classic Man” where you and your suited crew are walking down the block, and you come across two or three guys who are being stopped by the cops. Why was that a crucial scene to include in your video?
There's a lot of anger against police officers, especially in African American and Latino communities, and there has been for a long time. I have that anger, too. I'm very very critical of what this country has done with policing. But I do believe that there are good policemen and women. I wanted to make sure that I portrayed an interaction that I hope to see in these communities. I wanted to show a cooperative exchange, one that's not snitching and not deadly.
I'm sure your time working at the MLK institute was very influential. Who are some of the other influential figures that helped you kind of come to this understanding of the world?
Madame C.J. Walker, Elon Musk, Young Thug, Hillary Clinton, Ghandi and Hitler. I’ve been studying people that were not ordinary, for better or for worse. In Hitler's case for worse and actually, to some degree, Ghandi too— because his opinions of black South Africans were not positive. But women like Madame CJ Walker, the first millionaire, she was unafraid to go out there. She was brilliant and had a brilliant business model.
What about Young Thug has been so influential?
I think a lot of people try to be someone else, and Young Thug really is who he is. I love his melodies, how he dresses, how he carries himself. The others ones I look at them for their leadership qualities. I look up to Elon Musk for his social entrepreneurship. Hillary is top general, man. Whether or not you like her, women have the very very difficult task of answering the question, 'Do you have to be a bitch to be in power.' When I hear all of these comments about Hillary, it upsets me because it's like, 'yeah she's a bitch...' and I'm like, yo, she's just a leader. You don't have to agree with her, but she's not a bitch. She's just a powerful woman.
Given your view of style as a means of protest, where does the music come in for you?
Music is the means. In the same way that Marley believed that he would create peace on the earth by spreading reggae music, I believe that these values of human connection and of intimacy are super, super interwoven into "Classic Man" and every record that I put out. That message will be in everybody's earbuds, and therefore it will change the minds, the hearts, and the souls of all human beings around the world. I do believe swank music is the next frontier.