Jidenna On What It Means To Be 'The Chief' On his debut album, the "Classic Man" singer reaches back to his Nigerian roots and explores the concept of a figure whose fierceness belies his deep love for family.

Jidenna On What It Means To Be 'The Chief'

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JIDENNA: (Singing) I'm a classic man. You can be mean when you look this clean. I'm a classic man.


The 2015 hit song "Classic Man" introduced the world to Jidenna. And his look matched his sound - three-piece suits, polka-dotted ascots and red hair slicked down in a wave that would have made Nat King Cole jealous.


JIDENNA: (Singing) I'm cool like Nat King Cole.

CORNISH: In fact, one day, a friend's manager took him aside and said...

JIDENNA: He's like, yo, your show is great, and, like, you have so much potential, and I want to help you. But he said, you're too perfect. You're too perfect. And, man, that stuck with me.

CORNISH: So for his first full-length album, Jidenna found himself drawn back to his roots - Nigerian highlife singers and his father, who passed away seven years ago.

JIDENNA: My father would tell the story like this. He's like, you were conceived in Nigeria, and then I brought you to Wisconsin to make damn sure that you and your mother - to make sure that you had the blue passports.

CORNISH: With his Nigerian dad and Bostonian mother, Jidenna spent his childhood moving across continents, cities and boundaries. His debut album is called "The Chief."

JIDENNA: The chief was really my father and my grandfather. It's also my highest self or the best parts of them in me. My father came from a village, and then he and my mother worked hard to create a middle-class upbringing for us. Sometimes we were below the poverty line. Sometimes it was an EBT card, you know, that we were using for my pops groceries.

But we did get to a decent middle-class life, and we did - my siblings all and myself went to great schools. So that, I realize, is what a chief is. It comes from a place of love, oddly enough, but it is the darkness that can occur in somebody when they're defending the people they love.


JIDENNA: (Rapping) Savage are the man and his band of thieves. So heavy is the head of he that wears the ring. But a lion don’t ever lose sleep when it come to sheep.

All of the men in my family - myself, my brother and my father and my grandfather - are all Tauruses. And when I buried my father in Nigeria, after the burial, we were riding off, trying to make a flight. It had been a very high kidnapping season in our area, and we knew looking like foreigners would make us, you know, more susceptible to that. So I made a song about all the thoughts that were going through my head when I buried my father.


JIDENNA: (Rapping) Now, don't fumble. Don't stumble. Don't trip. Kidnappers could snatch you and ambush your kids.

My father said, once you're bitten by a snake, you'll jump even at the sight of a lizard. But when I was 6 years old, we did get kidnapped. Our family members - we were robbed. I was shot. And I watched my mother get beaten. And that was one of the earlier memories of my life.


JIDENNA: (Rapping) So the prince got knights in all black hanging out the side doors, AKs on they back shining like swords. Pops would say, once you're bitten by a snake, the paranoia make you pop a lizard in the face.

I don't feel like I suffer that much in life. I really don't. But that's my perspective. But I have to show people my life. If I don't feel like I suffer, let me show my mother's struggle. Let me show my father's struggle. Let me show moments where, you know, I'm battling with the idea of having one love versus many.

When I was younger, I looked at my father as the bully of the Earth. You know, I hated him, couldn't stand him. And now I got an album dedicated to him.


JIDENNA: And that's how it goes. You grow up, and you realize, hey, the bully was not so bad. Or maybe the bully was so bad, but I grew up to be bigger than the bully because the bully was just a man.


JIDENNA: (Singing) I thought you were the bully of the Earth, but you were just a man, just a man.

In some cases, it might be your mother, the bully who's just a woman just trying to make, who's trying to teach you. So as you grow, the bully in school becomes smaller. The bully at home becomes smaller.


JIDENNA: (Rapping) Been awhile minute, Papa. I switched styles on you, Papa. You're boy got a new barber. You're daughter got a new daughter. And bought a ride for your mama. I moved the tribe out to Georgia.

There's a proverb I use in "The Bully Of The Earth" where I say, you're not a man until your father dies. That was - my father said that to me. It was one of the last things he said to me before he passed. And I didn't believe in it until he passed. But for some reason, my father said it (laughter), and I think it was because he didn't want me to be a man yet and wanted me to stay in my place.

So that song really hits on the coming-of-age story, and that's what I hoped that the album kind of show. Hey, here's my trials and tribulations. Here's some of them at least. Some are fun. Some are beautiful. Some are ugly. But these are all the experiences that - and settings that made me the character that I am.


JIDENNA: (Singing) Oh, Bambi, I won't lie. If I weren't in this spider web of mine...

CORNISH: Singer and songwriter Jidenna - his debut album is called "The Chief."


JIDENNA: (Singing) Then, darling, you would be love of my life.

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