Tunde Olaniran Refuses To Dilute His Creativity

Oct 26, 2018
Originally published on October 26, 2018 3:03 pm

Tunde Olaniran is a shapeshifter. He's a Flint, Mich. native who's quickly embedded himself into the Detroit music scene; a singer, rapper, dancer, choreographer, producer and activist. Olaniran's first big single, "Namesake," was an unexpected hit, with lyrics about self love and a video full of explosive choreography.

NPR's Ari Shapiro met with Olaniran in his hometown — at a bookstore that, like Olaniran, has refurbished the local community — to discuss his latest album Stranger and how the musician weaves Flint's history into his flashy stage presence and dynamic sound. Hear their conversation at the audio link and read interview highlights below.


Interview Highlights

On Flint's cultural influence

Being in Flint influences my music because Flint has a really radicalized history, in terms of the working class, so I feel like that seeps into a lot of the work that we do. Our history, you can't really escape it, and I think that when it comes to a song like "Symbol" is really about the history of people of color and I just don't think I would've had this same mentality if I'd grown up somewhere else. I think a lot of the people I was raised with made me a more critical thinker.

On wearing your history on your body

When you travel internationally and you're in a black body, oftentimes you're seen as threatening or you're seen as nonexistent. I think larger bodies mean different things to people as well. So I was just thinking about how my body means so many things that I don't intend it to.

It's weird, because I don't feel like I'm trying to be flashy. I'm just trying to be myself. I'm trying to express myself in a way that feels real to me. ... It's really simple, sometimes, but the act of it, on the outside for people, it comes across as a radical statement because so much of what we're able to do as artists gets boxed in so much.

On choosing vulnerability over marketability

I think the songs [on Stranger] are challenging, in some ways, because I think our ears are not calibrated to be on a Spotify playlist. Everything you listen to, you need to not want to skip it on your jog. Artists now are writing to be on Spotify playlists, and I think they're watering down and diluting their own creativity.

On empowerment, visibility and being a role model

It feels surreal, honestly. I feel lucky. I also feel like I have worked really hard to create something that I'm proud to share and that people can connect to. And I hope that, not just be an example but use any kind of social capital that I have as an artist to make a lane for other people that are pushing against a lot of these boundaries. That's the example I'm trying to be.

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When I was getting ready to make this reporting trip to Michigan, I read dense articles about politics and the auto industry. And then I would take a break to listen to music by an artist from Flint named Tunde Olaniran.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAMESAKE")

TUNDE OLANIRAN: (Singing) Now maybe there's a lesson I've been given or some wisdom from the stories that I need to tell.

SHAPIRO: His first big single, "Namesake," was an unexpected hit with lyrics about self-love and a video full of explosive choreography.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NAMESAKE")

OLANIRAN: (Singing) If I can be me, then you can be yourself. Might not be easy. It's like we're never satisfied.

SHAPIRO: Tunde Olaniran was back in his hometown of Flint this week. He had just finished shooting a music video in Nashville and was about to jet off to San Francisco for a show.

You must be Tunde.

OLANIRAN: Oh, hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: I'm Ari. Hi, how are you? Welcome home.

He met us at Totem, a cafe and community center with used books and records for sale. He wore flowy clothes that a woman here in Flint sews for him. Around his neck was a 3D-printed pendant of a hand that a friend of his made.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SYMBOL")

OLANIRAN: (Singing) My family tree been on the run, chased by vampires...

SHAPIRO: Olaniran told me why being from Flint is important to him.

OLANIRAN: Being from Flint influences my music because Flint has a really, like, radicalized history in terms of the working class that kind of seeps into a lot of the work that we do. When it comes to, like, a song like "Symbol," "Symbol" is really about the history of people of color. And I just don't think I would have had the same mentality if I had grown up somewhere else. I think a lot of the people I was raised with made me a more critical thinker.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SYMBOL")

OLANIRAN: (Singing) Can we live forever, make water in the desert? A love we can rekindle.

SHAPIRO: That song repeats the chorus my body is a symbol.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SYMBOL")

OLANIRAN: (Singing) My body is a symbol.

SHAPIRO: What is your body a symbol of?

OLANIRAN: A lot of things. You know, when you travel international and you're in, like, a black body, oftentimes you're seen as, like, threatening or you're seen as, like, nonexistent. I think, like, larger bodies mean different things to people as well. And so I just was thinking about how my body means so many things that I don't, like, intend it to.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

OLANIRAN: So...

SHAPIRO: And as a performer, you're putting your body out there.

OLANIRAN: Yeah. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And you're not dressing subtly.

OLANIRAN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And you're not - I mean, your hair is big. Your clothing is flashy. Your choreography is over-the-top. Like, you're putting it out there.

OLANIRAN: I don't - it's weird 'cause I don't feel like I'm really trying to be flashy. I'm just trying to be myself. I'm trying to, like, express myself in a way that feels real to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SYMBOL")

OLANIRAN: (Singing) A love we can rekindle.

SHAPIRO: I have not seen you perform live, but I was talking to friends who did. And I said, what was the show like? And they said, he was like a disco ball onstage.

OLANIRAN: (Laughter) So my grandmother is Nigerian. She's in London. But she sends me lace and fabric from Nigeria. She's really - she just is really proud of me and finds the coolest fabric for me to wear.

SHAPIRO: So it sounds like you're taking fabric from Nigeria, having it sewn into clothing in Flint. Not to overextend the metaphor, but...

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: ...I mean, like, you are wearing on your body your history.

OLANIRAN: I'm weaving threads across the globe. No.

(LAUGHTER)

OLANIRAN: Yeah, again, it's like - so this is interesting, too. I think when you're a queer artist of color, there's always this push to, like, what's the meaning behind everything you're doing? Sorry, like - it's just like you - it's - sometimes you're just like, I just like - I want to have fun. And like, it's really simple sometimes. But the act of it I think on the outside for people - it comes across as, like, a radical statement because so much of what we are able to do as artists gets, like, boxed in so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VULNERABLE")

OLANIRAN: (Singing) I just want to be vulnerable, so give me a chance to show it all. What love can I give if I can't love myself? Go in and go out of this world by ourselves. And I just want to be vulnerable while I'm still here.

SHAPIRO: One of the songs on this album is about making the decision to go into music full time - "Vulnerable," right?

OLANIRAN: Yep. "Vulnerable" is about, like, me sitting (laughter) in the parking lot at work and, like, not wanting to go in. And one day, I just called up my boss and just told her I had to leave. And I think with that song, it was just like I wanted the sound of the song, like, the arpeggiation of the synth to, like, feel like a weird, like, warm release into something else. You know, I just wanted that to feel that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF TUNDE OLANIRAN SONG, "VULNERABLE")

SHAPIRO: Were you at all worried about writing something that was so honest? It's easy to write songs about having a great night out with friends or generic heartbreak. These songs...

OLANIRAN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Are super personal.

OLANIRAN: Yeah. And it's challenging. I think the songs are challenging in some ways because I think our ears are not calibrated to be - like, on a Spotify playlist, like, you need to not want to skip it on your, like, jog. And artists now are writing to be on Spotify playlists.

SHAPIRO: Oh, wow.

OLANIRAN: And I think they're, like, watering down and really diluting their own creativity.

SHAPIRO: Give me an example. Give me an example of a song that could have sounded different.

OLANIRAN: Yeah, "Stranger" is actually one that has a very mellow verse, and then it switches up to be really aggressive. And I think it's a prime example of, like, what not to do (laughter) if you want to get playlisted because people are going to be like, oh, what? Like, if you hear it, you're like, oh. You don't want to be, like, jogging or, you know, like, writing a report or whatever.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGER")

OLANIRAN: (Singing) To me, to me, to me, to me, to me, to me, to me, to me, to me. Notice all my pain. Don't it look strange outside looking in? Notice something, and it looks strange. Don't it look strange? Man, it looks strange.

SHAPIRO: It seems cliche to talk about being a role model for empowerment and visibility. And yet...

OLANIRAN: I mean, I used to be - I mean, I'm still obsessed with, like, sci-fi and fantasy novels. And I feel like I'm, like, turning myself into a protagonist in one. It feels surreal (laughter) honestly. I feel lucky. I also feel like I have worked really hard to, like, create something that I'm proud to share and people can connect to. And I hope to, like, not just be an example but use any kind of social capital that I'm creating as an artist to, like, make a lane for other people that are pushing against a lot of these boundaries. That's the example I'm trying to, like, be.

(SOUNDBITE OF TUNDE OLANIRAN SONG, "I'M HERE")

SHAPIRO: Well, Tunde, thanks for meeting us for coffee while you're in Flint here at Totem Bookstore.

OLANIRAN: It's really - I'm really, really excited y'all came, like, really, really happy to have you all hang out here.

SHAPIRO: Tunde Olaniran's new album is called "Stranger."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M HERE")

OLANIRAN: (Singing) Where do I, I belong? Ain't no road long enough. Long to roam, long to go. Don't belong, make a road. Running through your city, headphones bang bang, iPhone bang bang, whole gang gang gang. Running through your city, headphones banging, long hair swinging, my own lane and, yeah, I know you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.