Jidenna Theodore Mobisson is an unlikely pop star -- a 30-year-old Nigerian-American intellectual with a meticulous look drawing on everything from industrial-age suits to West African fractal designs to modern slimmer cuts. But he's become a sensation thanks to "Classic Man," his first single on Janelle Monaé's Wondaland Records. 


The song samples and expands on Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" as a form of reclaiming the original Bay Area hyphy sound -- or, as Jidenna puts it, "taking a piece from the past and modernizing it." What makes Jidenna so magnetic is the way he consciously embodies the presence of the past even beyond his own art, taking broader cues from the 19th century. We got on the phone with Jidenna to talk about recycling history, how to understand the repetition of activist movements, and the power of healing sex magic.

The theme of this issue is "Nowstalgia," and we're talking about how the past has come back into the present. That's something that seems important to you. How do you see the importance of remembering the past in making the present both musically and in fashion?

I think it's important to understand where you came from to understand where you're going. What I see across the board in the millenial generation is a recycling of the past. We have more access to the music, more access to fashion, to images, probably more than any other human beings in history. Because we're taking in so much, we start dressing like a bit of the '90s, a bit of the '60s, a bit of the '70s, and a bit of the '20s. 

With myself specifically, I'm particularly informed by the Jim Crow era. When I really started looking at the statistics of incarceration rates, and the effects of the war on drugs, it was a very racialized and class-driven history. I was appalled, in the same way a lot of people are. I wanted to dress in a fashion that resembled the old Jim Crow, so that it shed light on the new Jim Crow era we're currently in today. The New Jim Crow, of course, has been coined by Michelle Alexander's book, which I read when it came out. 

As far as fashion, that's one of the main inspirations for myself. It had less to do with politics, respectability, and class, so much as it did with being a symbol of the times. I think it's important to dress according to the fashion of the times, and the fashion of the event, and that's what I'm doing, in essence. 

As far as music, I'm inspired by a bunch of eras. Just like everybody in our generation, I think we create a gumbo pot of music. We're not just hip-hop, we're not just rock, we're not "just" anything, specifically. So, in that way I stand in solidarity with a lot of the millenial generation's pace of music. "Classic Man" is both contemporary and draws back to kind of the classic eras of sound. If you listen to the actual music, it's reminiscent of the Bay area's hyphy movement, which is over ten years old now. It also has a bounce that people felt in the '80s when they were dancing, but the vocals have a classic reverb sound that I think a lot of people don't use today on the radio. So it stood out on the radio, to have this kind of bigger, timeless reverberation on the vocals. 

I think, to kind of reel it back, the core of the art that I create is all about taking a piece of the past and modernizing it. If it's the 808s of today, the technology that created the really thick and booming sound, you combine that with the reverb on the vocals of yesterday. You take a suit, or the suspenders of today and you combine it with some of the trends that you see in fashion, like the West African fractal designs of the wax prints I wear as ties or pocket squares, or that I put on the lapel of my blazer, that's very new. That wasn't done in the '20s. Also the suits are way more tapered and tailed to the point where the ankles reveal the socks. These are modern designs, but definitely reminiscent of the past.

You talked about how all this culture and these different times kind of exist at once. Do you see any problems with that, in terms figuring out what the future looks like -- and what would it mean to make something new, keeping in mind this long, relatively permanent memory of everything that's happened before?

I think that there are definitely changes with our generation as far as how we move forward and create something that's new. But the idea of recycling is not a new concept whatsoever.

I'm in Chicago now looking at skyscrapers all over the city, and I'm thinking of what was used to make some of these skyscrapers. There's one next to me made of bricks, there's another one that's made of some sort of glass, or fiberglass, and they're from different time periods. But the architects use the same rectangular model that's been used for the entire 20th century. But one chose to use brick, which have been used for thousands of years. Another one used glass which is relatively new, not older than a hundred years. So they recycled. And these skyscrapers look alike. So what do you do to create something new?

Once you recycle enough, you find some element that a lot of the time technology brings, and that's when you find something new. If you look at music, music stays the same in an era and genre until technology pushes it forward. If you look at rock and roll, it was the amplifier and the electric guitar that Jimi Hendrix -- to name one of the legends -- was really able to really master. He was able to master the idea of feedback on an amplifier, such that he created a new sound that had never been heard in rock and roll. He pushed that forward. The Beatles pushed that forward.

Over human history, we recycle, we recycle, we find things fascinating, and then our interactions with technology produces something we've never seen before. I think our generation's duty is to -- as things like Google Glass and whatever competitors, smartphones, as technology that you wear -- that, rather than looking at a screen all the time, allows you to actually interact with other people -- as that technology develops, we'll have forms of fashion that we've never seen before. 

I saw a runway show with people wearing solar panels. Although it's ridiculous now, I bet you in ten years it won't be so ridiculous if those panels are charging your phone -- and that's a very primitive vision. I think it will go further than that, as we continue to become cyborgs, which I think is inevitable. We'll be changing what we wear, how we dress, how we walk. We may be on Segways, who knows. But I do think technology is the catalyst for really creating something new.

That's not to say that it all comes from robots or machines. It's the ingenuity of humanity. And a lot of times it's not the even ones with the access that create something new, it's the ones who have to create based off necessity. Hip hop was created from people who did not have access to studios, so they went into their parents' basements, dug out old vinyls, and resampled them in a way that hadn't been heard before, and used a vocal rhythm that was not common in the time. They created a whole generation and an economy that we call hip-hop culture today.

To sum up, I think it's a combination of natural human ingenuity, the creativity that stems from necessity, and then the interaction of humans, and the new technology that we create. That's what will create something brand new, both in music and in fashion.

Do you think that the emphasis on functionality or utility has any dampening effect on the expressiveness or aesthetic value of either fashion or music?

We need to use any new device as a tool. We use the tool, we don't let it use us. That's a core value that I think we as a society and world have to reconcile with right now. Because our technology is moving faster than some of our social values are. 

That's the concern you see in a lot of elders and even people in our generation, who are like, "Man, Facebook is ruining everything! And our phones --" I see what people are saying, but it's really like, are we going put in place some sort of value system? Religion, politics, and all the things that are supposed to kind of keep our moral compass going in the right direction -- right now, we question all of them, and we question everything.

We question it because we see entertainers, we see guys like Donald Trump running for president and artists saying they're gonna run. It makes us question politics and religion, at least in the millenial generation, there's a large amount of us saying, "No, we're not religious -- maybe we're spiritual, but we don't believe in any one religion." We're a very kind of individualistic generation. But I think at the end of the day, humans are social beings, and we will need to start forming value systems that don't shy away from technological developments, but embrace them. We need to marry them with humanity as opposed to trying to either divorce them from humanity or letting them run our social interactions with each other.

Do you think that's something history can help with? There's this tendency to think about the Civil Rights Movement in talking about the way current activist movements exist. What role do you see history playing in forming those new value systems?

I think that history is a spiral; it's not linear, or a circle. It's ever evolving and moving forward. What's tough about this is how much access we have -- the internet is almost like a wormhole for us. It changed everything. There have been times where everything changed, like the industrial revolution. But we've moved further than the Civil Rights Movement, for sure. It's great to see some of the social changes going on, like if you look at the Supreme Court's decision on [same sex] marriage and the Black Lives Matter movements. That's great. Those are huge, huge, huge accomplishments that we've seen in our times, and the civil rights movements have been a huge inspiration.

But in terms of the present matter that we're talking about, we have to look a little further back. That's why I study the 1800s so heavily -- not just for fashion, but also in looking for a time when the world was confused about morality, and confused about how to use technology.

So in the 1800s you have both the battle for either preserving slavery or getting rid of it, and the industrial revolution, in the same century. It reminds me of these times where we have so much conflict in our society, especially in America, because of the whole melting pot thing we've got going on here. We're still trying to figure out how to make that melting pot a true fruit salad where people can preserve individuality and communities can be preserved, where you don't lose your own identity, but you still have a communal identity with your city, your state, your neighborhood.

I don't have a direct answer for this question because I haven't found a time that's very comparable to the internet, but what I can say is that the internet helps you travel through space. And pretty soon, if we start using evacuated tube technology that helps you travel to China within a couple hours, or travel to another country that's not on your continent in 45 minutes -- that, combined with the advances of the internet, will change the way people interact so much that the world will truly become a village. I do believe the world will become more localized. People will actually care about who their neighbors are more. There will be a natural cultural diffusion that happens, and that has happened before -- with railroads, ships, explorers going around the world.

Anytime you see those huge leaps in the use of technology, you first see some conflicts -- namely some war -- but I believe that, at the end of the day, humans actually care about each other, and we'll see cultural exchange happening. My hope is that with the internet and the world becoming more interconnected, or realizing it's become more interconnected, we will start to become a more harmonious earth. I believe that's happening, but we don't necessarily see it.

You talk about the 19th century having very similar problems to today. Is there someone you see from that period as having an approach to those problems that you try to emulate?

There was a man named Paschal Beverly Randolph. I wouldn't say that he had any solutions to the time, but he embraced the kind of hodgepodge nature of the 19th century. In fact, I got a lot of fashion from him, even if you look at his image. 

He self-described as a free mulatto man and an abolitionist in a time when slavery was still rampant. He traveled to Europe from New York -- I don't know how he got there -- and studied the occult faiths, because he didn't believe the fundamental Judeo-Christian religions were everything in the world. He wanted to further explore beyond the field of right and wrong. And then he came back with that and became one of the chief facilitators of the occult, nontraditional religions in America. 

Then he became a sex magician, which was basically couples therapy at a time when that wasn't popular. He would invite couples up, and and help them find orgasms between each other. Like, there was a story I read where he would have them make love and, at the point of climax, he would have them say whatever their desire was in life -- let's say it was money, or harmony within their family -- and they would say it at the point of climax. They called it sex magic, because his followers believed these things would happen, because sex was what you used to give birth. His claim was that it would "give birth" to the desires these people had.

He was also a novelist -- he lived a very full life in a time when men who looked like him, people of color, were not freely traveling everywhere in the world. He pushed the boundaries, and I love studying him, mainly because my goal right now is just to learn as much as I can. Any different subject that I can get my hands on, I want to soak in, because I really care about understanding the time that we're in, and I think he did too.

He didn't necessarily solve any one particular issue, but he did what millenials do, which is embrace the times. He recycled, he pushed and learned about the new trends of the time, and he wrote about it and he created. That, for me, is what we do in general; everybody in our generation is a photographer because of our phones, everybody is some sort of creative, everybody wants to be an entrepreneur. He reminded me of these times now. He was definitely one of the guys who stood out, and history doesn't write about him often.

"Healing sex magician" sounds like a really good description of the ideal artist.

Right? The ideal rock and roll star, superstar: healing sex magician. Yeah, man. He was cool.