While you might not expect someone born in Wisconsin to have an immigrant story, Jidenna Theodore Mobisson does. He was born in the small city of Wisconsin Rapids, but returned to his parents’ home country of Nigeria soon after, spending the first six years of his life there. When he returned to America a few years later, instead of a joyous homecoming, the six-year-old Jidenna experienced something different.
“Coming to America: number one, I was a foreigner; two, I was an African; and three, apparently, I was black, in that order,” he recalls of his early years, shortly before his headlining show at The Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto.
“That’s kind of how the kids tease you. That’s the first thing you realize: ‘I’m different.’ And I think that quieted me as a kid. It made me very observant. It made me feel like I had to assimilate into American culture and I did that. I tucked my foreignness away, my Africanness away, [and] even when I was really young — tucked my Blackness away.”
Many children of immigrants will identify with Jidenna’s upbringing and the focus on hard work and schooling that came with it. “My family really didn’t have a lot of money growing up, and education was the way that we were taught that we could get out of being on the lower spectrum of income,” he shares.
“Now I wasn’t poor because I’ve seen real poverty and I would never claim that, but I grew up in working class neighbourhoods. My parents were both educated but they both came from small towns, small villages. They literally taught me that education is the way out, and that’s why I have such a strong emphasis on education.”
Jidenna would eventually get into Harvard, but decided to attend Stanford University instead, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in 2008. Before his big break, Jidenna unexpectedly became a teacher: “I never wanted to be a teacher in my life and I hated it when I was in it. I was just good at it and it involved music. Sorry to disappoint you and anybody who’s reading this, but the truth of the matter is I was a broke artist and needed a job.”
But the job brought its own knowledge. “In the program we taught history through hip-hop and did test prep through hip-hop,” he explains. “The reason I can honestly perform now as an artist is because of the kids. They were getting up in the morning and listening to me talk about futile systems; that’s the toughest audience you’ll ever perform at.”
After leaving teaching and working on music for a few years, Jidenna struck gold with his 2015 single, “Classic Man,” eventually signing with Janelle Monae’s Wonderland Records. Jidenna — a believer in speaking things into existence — wasn’t surprised at his success. For him, it was finally his moment.
“It was a relief because I’ve imagined most of this,” he says. “I’m not one of those artists that’s surprised. I think this is how the universe works — you write down what you want, you imagine it, you visualize it and then it happens. So all of it was a relief that everything came true.”
After the success of “Classic Man,” Jidenna would release his debut album, The Chief, in 2017, as well as an EP, Boomerang, in the same year. But he would spend the next two years evolving as both an artist and a person.
Part of his self-discovery meant returning to Africa, which resulted is his new album, 85 To Africa — that foreignness, Africanness, and Blackness he tucked away as a child was finally free to flourish and thrive.
“I wanted that growth and evolution, and that’s what has happened to me with this album,” Jidenna reflects. “This album is the rest of my life; it’s what I’ve always been about.”