Jidenna’s music video for his song “Classic Man” exemplifies the idea of racial crossing in that Jidenna is a black man, but his song and video reflect classically white ideals of what makes one a “classic man.”
What does it mean that this Nigerian-American seems to be embracing and promoting white culture? These standards are rooted in European ideas of what a respectable male figure in society should look like. For instance, the historical origin of the traditional men’s suit dates back to 17th Century England and is derived from the royal court dress of the time. Jidenna’s fitted suit is certainly a contrast from the hoodie and backwards cap worn by the teenage boys who are seen getting arrested in the video. Additionally, his hair is slicked back rather than natural.
This music video reflects Kant’s ideas, as described by Nell Painter in The History of White People.
“…Kant actually attacks the idea that standards of human beauty may differ by culture. Beauty ideals are universal, he maintains, for ‘the sort of beauty we have called the pretty figure is judged by all men very much alike.’ Cueing on Chardin, Kant agrees that ‘Circassian and Georgian maidens have always been considered extremely pretty by all Europeans who travel through their lands,’ as well as by Turks, Arabs, and Persians” (p. 48).
While Kant is describing women in this quote, his point can be applied more generally to standards of beauty and personal appearance. According to Kant, these ideals are not just limited to the nationality in which they are rooted. Because the culture of whiteness is so pervasive and dominating, it makes sense that many white beauty standards have been so accepted as the main standard in our society. However, Jidenna explains in an interesting interview with Fader Magazine that his collar was specific to what was worn by the freed slaves during the Jim Crow era. His purpose in choosing the specific outfit he wears in the video is to represent his history as a black American. This shows the way in which a style so deeply rooted in whiteness was adapted by another culture, so much so that its entire meaning is different for the other group of people.
Where Jidenna further subverts the “classic man” archetype is in his definition of the term. Jidenna, in a behind-the-scenes Vevo interview, describes his definition of a classic man as someone who is “sharp in mind, body and style… a dignified gentleman, a neighborhood man; a man who stands up and therefore stands out.” While these aspects of a “classic man” may seem to fit in with a traditional, white rhetoric, Jidenna refocuses them on black men through the imagery in his music video.
For instance, the video depicts a scene where Jidenna and a group of similarly well-suited black men are walking through an urban area when they spot two black kids in hoodies being harassed by police. Jidenna and company talk the police down, seemingly using white associations with the classic man aesthetic to their advantage, and take the youths to a classroom filled with yet more well dressed black men. In this classroom, they receive a lecture, are taught chemistry, chess, robotics and self-defense. This scene includes all three sharpnesses that Jidenna claims are essential to the classic man – of the mind, body and of style. After this whirlwind and, most importantly, racially unspecific education, the teenagers receive a firm handshake and are sent back out into the world armed with qualities of a classic man that do not diminish the agency of their blackness.
Another powerful assertion of blackness in the video comes in an old-fashioned barbershop, a place for grooming and the sharpening of style. In the barbershop, there is a framed sign that says “I AM A MAN” which is an exact replica of the signs in the picture below and to the right. This sign was used in civil rights protests throughout the Jim Crow era as a declaration of independence from oppression and a demand to be seen as equal. This sign truly epitomizes Jidenna’s classic black man: one who certainly “stands up and therefore stands out” as can be seen in the image.
- Lee Owen and Lexi Stern