For the musician and actor, creating a global Black identity means going back to the Motherland.
As we enter a new year, the term “keeping it real” has never been more endangered. Our current vernacular includes crypto, Bitcoin, and metaverses. The wealthiest are prepared to live off of amorphous currency and in digitally manipulated realties. Reality itself, as we’ve known it anyway, is slowly falling out of style. But Jidenna — musician, artist, actor and all-around “Classic Man” — says society has gotten it wrong. “There’s a quote from the Heaven’s Gate cult that goes something like, ‘Reality is not something you escape from, it’s something you escape to,’” says the man born Jidenna Theodore Mobbison during a morning call from Los Angeles to the East coast. “We’re so busy trying to be real and practical, but that’s not really what this world is made of.”
Jidenna has always moved to his own drum cadence (“Sometimes to my detriment,” he admits. “Other times it was beautiful.”). The Wisconsin-born Nigerian American saw the world beyond North America long before he splashed onto the 2015’s music scene boasting a hit single and a recording contract with Janelle Monae’s Wondaland Records label.
His Igbo father was a computer science professor at the Enugu State University of Science and Technology, which led to Jidenna spending many of his formative years in Nigeria before returning to the United States. After earning a BA at Stanford in Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity, he began a career as a school teacher — but he refused to let the occupation eclipse his music aspirations. And yet, even after attaining stardom, he never stopped teaching. In 2022, the 36-year-old will put the finishing touches on his next two albums, but his primary focus will be educating African-Americans of African descent on how to escape toward an alternate reality on an alternate content: Africa. He’s doing so as a counselor, guide, and face of Birthright AFRICA, a traveling study program for people ages 13-30. The organization, launched in 2015, provides free educational trips to curriculum and visitation on the land of the red, black, and green; with the expectation of accountability and growth from its participants, referred to as “scholars.”
There are two major reasons why Jidenna feels it’s important for African-Americans to not only visit the Motherland and reconnect with their history. The first is to develop “a global Black identity.”
“Just being around [Black Americans] gives you a narrow scope,” he says. “When you start being around [foreign] Black people and seeing the larger successes and challenges we face, there’s a certain type of power you feel because you’re connected to something bigger than yourself.”
And then there’s the magic created when both collective thought and cooperative economics (the third and fourth Kwanzaa principles, Ujima and Ujamaa) are aligned. “When a group of decentralized people are centralized around an idea, this is historically proven to create renaissances, enlightenments followed by some sort of power shift in the world,” Jidenna says. “It’s happened to every group of people, and I want that for us.”
Although Jidenna spent a portion of his childhood in Nigeria, his reconnection with Africa came in 2016 while working on his debut album The Chief. He took his musical team on a sort of hajj, or pilgrimage, to South Africa. The experience was so rich that the collective repeated the trip in 2017. With Donald Trump in the White House at the time, they felt no strong desire to return to U.S. soil — so they remained in Africa until 2018. By the end of that year, the voyages to Africa became a movement. When he returned to the continent with a 50-person collective that included actors Anthony Anderson, Idris Elba, brothers Pat and Boris Kodjoe, and marketing giant Bozoma Saint John, Jidenna found himself positioned as an accidental ambassador for his two nations. It’s why he named his second full-length album 85 to Africa; the number is a tribute to the highway that runs through Atlanta, where he spent significant years as an adult. “Southern Blacks understand the [African] Bush [people],” he says. “They visit and are like, ‘Yeah, that’s us.’”
The 2018 trip was different — more significant; deeper. It began to change how Jidenna saw not only his own people, but also the construct of race as a whole. “Going to Africa reshaped the conversation in my head in terms of us versus them,” he says. “Us versus they is normally Black versus White. When you start going to Africa, us versus they may mean the Chinese government; it might mean Europeans.” Jidenna then touches on how Africa has been oppressed and underdeveloped by the latter for centuries.
“Kosovo gives money to France every year and that amounts to like $500 billion. They have to purchase those francs from France. France doesn’t even use francs!”
Birthright AFRICA’s modus operandi is the offspring of Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African teachings. In the early 20th century, the leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association advocated for “separate but equal” status for African-Americans who were either descendants of slaves or had a direct lineage to Africa. With a global following of over four million, Garvey founded his own nautical shipping company, Black Star Line, then set forth to establish a nation on the coast of Liberia for Blacks looking to escape oppression in the U.S. The program was titled the “African Redemption” and set an initial goal to transport and repatriate 300 African-Americans. “Birthright AFRICA has been inspired by various historic initiatives and Black liberators,” says Walla Elsheikh, Co-Founder and CEO of Birthright AFRICA. “In many ways, Birthright AFRICA can be seen as a 21st [century] Black Star Line forging the connection between the African diaspora and its motherland.”
Unfortunately, due to some overzealousness on Garvey’s part, along with Liberia’s position as politically handcuffed to France and Britain, “African Redemption” never manifested. But it wasn’t the first initiative to introduce Black Americans to the idea of returning to their original land. In the early 1800s, Virginia attorney Charles Fenton Mercer and educator Robert Clergy founded the American Colonization Society (ACS) in response to the increase in liberated slaves at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. ACS, originally known as the Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America, advocated for and facilitated the relocation of more than 15,000 free Blacks to Liberia. Back in 1786, a British organization called the Committee For the Relief of the Black Poor successfully established Province of Freedom. It was a colony in the West African country of Sierra Leone that housed struggling Blacks from Nova Scotia, Jamaican maroons, and people freed from slavery in Britain.
Jidenna doesn’t want any of Birthright AFRICA’s scholars to take the reconnection with their ancestry cavalierly. While the history between the original land and the U.S. is unavoidably ugly, the Cape Coast’s slave castles are the artist’s favorite visit — mainly because reading about the lynchpin of the human race’s greatest atrocity is eye-opening, but to stand where those first kidnapped were shackled will change you forever. In fact, Jidenna’s multiple visits have completely reshaped his perspective on slavery. “One thing that people will see is the cannons along the wall of the slave castle are not pointing towards the sea,” he says. “They’re pointing towards the coast line, and they’ve been in those positions since they closed the dungeons. It negates the myth that Africans sold us and that was it. No. The cannons pointing to land tells you a lot of people were not thrilled that their family was being kidnapped for the European slave trade. They were rebelling.”
If the Birthright scholars walk away with a single message, Jidenna hopes it’s that they have the global power to create a reality that beams red, black, and green alongside red, white, and blue. Whether that will manifest by way of new aged segregation, the adoption of David Hammons’s Marcus Garvey-inspired flag, or perhaps the creation of a new one; for Jidenna, the focus is on Blacks understanding that the war against melanin continues and the conduit to victory is being clear on both your enemy and artillery. “When you start seeing the conversation of the world, it’s not you versus some other ethnic group,” he says. “It’s how much willpower do you have [collectively] to handle your business. So [the mindset] should be that when we don’t have a flag or we don’t like the Grammys or Oscars, we just make our own.”