As I sit down to interview Jidenna, he stands in front of me, peacefully stirring an espresso. Before joining me, he shoots it down like some kind of tequila, then seemingly revitalized and freshly infused with coffee-driven adrenaline shouts out a cowboy ‘woo!’.
On sitting down, he enquires as to whether the interview will be filmed, I tell him no and with slight amusement on my face, as if knowing his next step, I point towards the device recording him. A smile breaks out across his face and without encouragement he leans into the microphone addressing it with the same energy he would if MC’ing his own rap show – “Hey guys, What’s up?” – announcing his presence is a common theme of Jidenna, artistically, visually and as a genre transcending creator.
Jidenna is present and rich, and I’m not talking Quavo Ratatouille chain rich, although I’m sure if Jidenna was feeling boujee enough to rock something similar, he would do it with the class and execution only he is capable of. But I’m talking soulfully and intelligently rich, the kind of vibe that, in ten years time, will have either elevated him to the role of philosopher, or at the very minimum, will have formed a hell of a lot of quotes that he’s come to be defined by. And so, I gently ask…
If you had to describe your music as an energy, or the energy that your putting into it, how would that take form?
Wow, what?! Thats how we’re starting?! With this energy, and aura, what kind of aura…wow, this is great, I like it.
Okay, well let me bring it to the physical world. I would say the type of music I make is akin to water, the power of water. Water is really cool, it can be really chill, or it can be a tsunami. Water comes to cleanse everything, it gives life but can give death. I believe that the music I make is like that; it can be disruptive, it can be controversial, or it can be in the background just chilling, in the soundtrack with your life. I’d say its water energy. I don’t know if you know the Last Airbender – its this cartoon, the little avatar – you learn all the elements there. I’m the water, the water side.
How do you feel your new track ‘Bambi’ fits into that, is it the shifting kind of song or is it the one in the background?
I think that it plays both roles, you can bump it in the back like, ‘man this is good vibes’, but also I think what you get from it penetrates your ribs. It goes all the way into your soul. I’m glad that happened, it happens to people, I watch it happen. It happened to me, while I was making it. That’s the true testament, I was taught that when you get goosebumps in the studio, there’s a high chance that everyone else is gonna get goosebumps, that’s how you know you have a big record. So I’m glad that people love ‘Bambi’.
The other thing about water right, is that it can take different shapes, in anyway that you pour it. If it goes in to fill a room, its gonna take the shape of the room. It moves between things and I’d say this, I definitely move between things, I move between genres and ‘Bambi’ is one of the pinnacles on the album that moves between multiple genres. But then, its just a classic song at the end of the day.
If we’re speaking in a lyrical sense, on the idea of being in the background or shifting your soul, what does it mean to you?
My brother once told me you have three shots in life to fall in love, first of all some people don’t even get three. But I’ve never heard of anybody with more than three, so that song has a little bit of regret in the feeling of it. It feels great, it might be a summer’s day or winter’s day, the song can feel warm but there’s a little melancholy in it. That’s because I’m talking about a love lost, the one that got away, the one that when you talk to your family they say, ‘whatever happened to Bambi?’
Your dad is like, ‘That Bambi girl, why did you ruin it?’ So that’s what the record is, its a true story, its not like something I thought of. But its the first time I really tried to show that side of myself. I’m from Nigeria and the US, two countries that are all bravado. All mighty chest pounding people, New York to Lagos. But that song was like when I’m alone in the private, quiet times before you go to bed, and your scrolling through Instagram looking at your past lovers. Your like ‘Damn there she is’ and you make a record about it.
So the goosebumps were a kind of catharsis for you?
Yeah definitely. My friend, who I work with, she’s actually on the first track, ‘A Bulls Tale’. Amaka told me the best thing is to either laugh or cry on a track and that’s where your gonna get the best melody, she taught me that. I used to study Marvin Gaye, she said if you listen to him, the same place he cries from is the place he laughs from. So on ‘Bambi’, that came from a cry, whilst I was doing a reference track for the song. Then I wrote the lyrics, then boom, in the same couple of hours. The track came from me really feeling an emotion and really trying to emote. Do what actors do, feel it. It was a cry, like ‘oh my god I’m really in it’, so I found the melody through that. I actually laughed as well.
Melody through emotion?
Earlier, when you spoke of different tracks and the power and effect it can have on a soul, has there ever been an album/track or artist that has saved you in a similar way?
Plenty, it just depends on when you hear a song or album that moves you. I think that most recently Kendrick Lamar’s album, ‘DAMN’, I love that record, its moved me. Gambino’s record, ‘Me and Your Mama’, honestly that entire album moved me at that time. Drake’s album, ‘More Life’; I’m a big fan of all his works, they did something for me. I root for other artists to do that for me, so hopefully I do that for them. All those bodies of work really hit me, they were amazing. Of course, Janelle Monáe has been working on her album, I get to hear before anybody, she’s got some records on there that do that for me. Wow, the intro to her album is just…. it touches me.
How do you manage to balance the bravado you speak of alongside a connection with spirituality and intrinsic awareness, as a human being navigating this industry?
Early on in the day, with a morning ritual, that’s how you centre yourself. But I have a ritual in the studio – I have a shrine, I don’t really like being in regular studios. I’d rather be at the crib. I was talking to Quavo from Migos about this, we both engineer most of our sessions. Quavo is a great engineer, we did the record ‘Let Out’ together, parts of his verse I’m behind the boards whilst he’s recording. Usually you don’t see artists doing that, we have an engineer there, but we’re like ‘yo we’re quick on it’. In my studio we have a shrine, there’s a bunch of holy books there, like the Holy Quran, the Holy Bible, Bhagavad Gita, and a bunch of Deepak Chopra books. There are candles and spirits, two decanters of brown liquor and light liquor, some herbs and spices. I mix all that, and that’s my ritual, I make the records.
Did you learn that from previous religious studies?
Yeah yeah, I studied a lot of religions. My goal when I was a little boy was to learn – I’m shitty I haven’t learnt all of this – but it was to learn the prayer languages of all the major religions so I could pray with anybody in the world. That was what I wanted to do. I haven’t succeeded yet, but what I have succeeded in is having an appreciation for all types and ways of life. I think that is why I am able to connect with people in the world.
Out of all the religions you’ve studied or practiced, what one in your existence right now is most relevant?
It varies, you know when people are like, ‘all religions are the same’, they’re not. They are different ways to the same goal, yes. But there are a lot of routes you take and each route you’re gonna see a different scene. I think most recently its the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita starts off with Arjuna, he’s worried about war. He sees his family members on the enemy side of the war. He’s asking Lord Krishna, ‘Yo do I have to do this? Do I have to pick up this sword and go to war, when I see my family and friends on the enemy side, I might have to take their lives’. That is such a powerful thing for me right now. I’m still young in this music industry, to take on the war, that’s how I feel. I feel warrior spirit all the time. The things you have to do, it can be complex, it can be hard for your ethics as you grow; even becoming an adult. That most recently has hit me, so Hinduism right now, is where I’m at.
Have you ever read a fable or story of morality as a kid that’s stuck with you?
Yeah yeah, Sufism. Rumi, one of the most well renowned poets ever, comes from Sufi Islam, he has this quote that I live by: ‘Beyond right doings and wrong doings is a field and I’ll meet you there’.
I love that, it reminds me of a song title by Jay Z and Kanye, ‘No Church In The Wild’. I believe there is no mosque or church in the wild, when you’re in the wild of your spirit, or just literally in the wild, you start abandoning all these rules. You live by human rules, and human rules are beyond right and wrong. Those are the proverbs I’ve been living by.
You were a teacher before stepping into the music industry, was there ever a moment in that career where a child educated and stilled you?
Yeah, all the time, I learn more from kids than I do adults. Its like the littlest children or the oldest people, or someone from another country, or when you go to a place where they don’t speak your first language, it changes you. I don’t have one story in particular, but I think a lot of the time its the children that can educate, they can see the world in the most pure way.
If you were to explain your music as a colour palette that illustrates the energy of it and yourself, what would that look like?
I know what it is. Depending on what time of year it is, there’s usually a time in the beginning of the evening, 6pm or 7pm, where the colours of the sky start to change from whatever it was in the daytime. It goes from these twilight colours; from the colour palette of magenta, pink, orange, yellow, blue, indigo, that whole sunset. That is where I am, I’m in that sunset/sunrise- what we call the magic hour – I don’t know what y’all call that here.
Then there’s like a blue hour, because then, after the sun goes, below the horizon for either sunrise or sunset, this blue washes over everything. Just that little portion of time – ‘because its not long for sunrise or sunset – that little hour or two hours is my colour palette. For the next album, that’s where I’m gonna stay. I have these smart bulbs in the studio and I set it for those colours. All the music I’m making right now is for and in that colour palette.