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Singer-Rapper-Activist Tunde Olaniran Takes Pursuit Of Boldness Beyond Flint

(Shack Shackelford)
(Shack Shackelford)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Singer, rapper, activist Tunde Olaniran is bringing his Flint, Michigan, sound to the national stage.


Tunde Olaniran, singer-songwriter, producer, choreographer, activist. Native of Flint, Michigan. His new album “Stranger” was released in October. ( @tundeolaniran)

On Point Playlists: Tunde Olaniran

Interview Highlights

On upbringing and identity

“I was an only child and just in my head a lot. I felt like everywhere I went I was kind of the weird one, whether it was an all-white suburban school. My father’s Nigerian and joined the military when he moved to the U.S., and we were stationed in Germany or going to London to see his family there. Always being not black enough, not white enough, not refined enough, too loud of an American or not Nigerian enough. Just all of these scenarios, always kind of feeling like a bit of an outsider and a little isolated. So that like really colored a lot of my experience, and I think leads into a lot of my songwriting, but also, I feel like this deep well of sympathy for anyone that feels weird or feels outcast or feels like they don’t fit in.”

On his music-making process

“I’m really addicted to sounds, and I really feel strongly about sound design. And for me, so much of it just starts on my really old, ancient PC … percussion, certain samples, those things usually come first. And when there’s a rhythm, and I can hear a rhythmic pocket, that’s usually when I’m able to add in, and finish it all quickly. There’s been some tracks that were done like so long before, and I’ve had to figure like, ‘Oh, what I am going to say in the song?’ because I know I want the production to be part of the record, and that is its own statement, I feel.”

On finding an audience

“For me I just had to be like, ‘My music is not going to be for everyone and for everything and I need to like it first, foremost.’ I do a lot of editing, but I also like have been encouraged by finding that audience and just being patient and saying, ‘OK, how can I do this in a way without compromising what sustains me?’ But it can be hard, and I think that for artists it can be easy to fall into the trap of wanting to sound like certain things. You just have to do it really well. Like, you’re going to have to do that really well to stand out.”

On his song “Paladin”

“That song is kind of about Yoruba culture, and dealing with prejudice within that culture, and not kind of fitting with certain ideals. It can be a very religious culture. So many people can relate to, especially on the holidays now, just dealing with dividing from your parents’ or your grandparents’ views, especially religious views; spiritual views. … You think you are saving someone, but you’re really harming them. That, to me, was like the biggest thing.

“That had to do with me kind of having a conflict with my dad’s side, the Nigerian side, and being like ‘Y’all need to understand that I’m not going to subscribe to certain things that you want me to.’ … I present feminine, I identify as gender non-confirming, them just questioning that and really just harassing me online about it. Religion is often used in certain cultures to just control people. I’m not saying religion doesn’t do good things for certain folks, but this is one facet of it that I’ve experienced.”

On fame

It’s funny because there’s like a beyond-Teen-Mom-level of, ‘unless you’re Beyoncé, it’s hard for people not to say ‘So what’re you doing?’

“I’m a working-class artist and I am very proud of being working class. I left my career like two years ago, my ‘day job.’ I’m sustaining myself doing the music and art that I want to do, and that’s kind of my goal: Can I do this and pay my bills and also reach people?

“It’s an issue that I think leads to a lot of depression and anxiety for artists, a feeling like you need to be doing more, you need to be better, and I just want to say to artists, what you’re doing is enough, and make sure you still feel happy about what you are doing. Again, there’s a larger issue of like, if we had health care that everyone could afford, some of these things would shift. People are busy trying to subsist and survive, and that really affects your mental health.”

From The Reading List

NPR: “ Don’t Be A ‘Stranger’ To Tunde Olaniran” — “A Flint native who’s become a staple of Detroit’s music scene, Tunde Olaniran knows his way around hyphens: A singer-rapper-activist-choreographer-producer-you-name-it, he presides over a bighearted sound and style that revolve around spirited statements of affirmation, a sprawling artistic palette and the pursuit of boldness in every sense of the word.

“The irresistible 2015 anthem ‘Namesake’ (from Transgressor, Olaniran’s auspicious debut) helped raise his profile via word of mouth and placement in an Apple ad. Now, he’s returned with his second album: Stranger, which expands on themes of individuality and ambition as channeled through hard-won self-belief. Amid arrangements that feed off a spirit of zippy elasticity, the singer ruminates on his pursuit of belonging (‘I’m Here’), risk-taking (‘Vulnerable’) and the strength humans need in order to strive and thrive (‘Mountain’).

“But Stranger isn’t all pep talks and soul-searching: In ‘Celine Dion,’ for example, Olaniran has a blast bragging about a flair for low-budget fashion while name-dropping the titular singer — not to mention Lady Gaga and Tilda Swinton. ‘Coins,”‘as its title suggests, is a springy ode to getting paid, albeit one that finds a way to name-drop Steven Universe. It all adds up to a finely calibrated mix of purpose and playfulness, executed to stylish perfection.”

WDET: “ Flint Native Tunde Olaniran Reflects on Big Year for His Music” — “Our region has been known for generations as a hub of innovation in music. Artists from our area are part of a family tree — a continuum of musicians who redefine or shape their genres for the generation to come.

“That includes Tunde Olaniran, a Flint native and a musician with a physical presence that’s as eclectic and boundary-pushing as his music.

“This year, he released a new album of personal and entrancing stories on Stranger.”

Paper: “ Tunde Olaniran Is Running Up That Hill” — “Tunde Olaniran, a queer musician and activist based in Flint, Michigan isn’t afraid of a challenge, especially when it comes to making art. In addition to his own work, Olaniran produced rapper Mona Haydar’s viral track ‘Hijabi,’ which was widely praised as a top feminist single of the decade, and he directed the video for it.

“Olaniran’s new album Stranger is out October 5 and it fiercely addresses matters of the heart, systemic injustice, and self-esteem over clanging, wildly experimental electronic arrangements, and rapped and sung verses.

“His newest single, ‘Mountain,’ continues in this vein, though it initially started as a country song about staying motivated. ‘I was in the studio and my friend Seth Anderson said, “You can’t just stop halfway up the mountain! You either climb or fall,”‘ Olaniran tells PAPER. ‘I realized that creating music and art was worth some sleepless nights and uncertain times.’ ”

Allison Pohle produced this show for broadcast.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.