Flint Native Tunde Olaniran on New LP, Pride Performance

Photo by Shane Ford

hen you first take in a Tunde Olaniran concert, the visual experience seems out of this world. There are dramatic silhouettes, blue sequins, war paint and alien-like dancers-as if the whole performance was beamed down from some distant planet on the outer edges of space, where people are born innately more cool.

But with a closer listen, it's clear Tunde lives in the real world, where music is refreshingly full bodied with live instruments, the messages are raw with truth-such as, "Get yourself right before you step to me, your emotional state is not my responsibility"-and the Flint-born rapper and singer has arrived like Morpheus from The Matrix to free our minds. Or at least our ears.

"It was supposed to be 'the five transgressions,'" explains Tunde of his initial album release plans. "I had the first and the second, and then I started working with Quite Scientific Records (in Ann Arbor), the label that released my Yung Archetype. So I was like, well maybe I'm not going to do three other EPs by myself," he says with a laugh. "Since this is the full length, I'm like, well this feels like a full work. We'll just bring that concept back and call it 'Transgressor' instead of 'five transgressions.'"

The first single from the album, "Namesake"-officially out June 23, after shooting the music video last month in Flint-will be the perfect party favor to accompany Tunde's month-long tour of LGBT pride performances (he'll be at Motor City Pride at 4:30 p.m. June 6, in Detroit's Hart Plaza). For the record, he identifies as "genderqueer"-a catch-all term for someone who doesn't identify as exclusively masculine or feminine. And arguably it is his gender identity, or lack thereof, that makes his music so universally popular. As Tunde explains, his influence comes from everywhere.


"MIA was a big influence for me because she is super cut and paste. I love taking a sample and turning it into something really fun rhythmically, and I also like finding unusual samples to use in place of (instruments)," he says, noting he draws inspiration even from movie sounds. "Firestarter is one of my favorite movies. There is a scene in the movie where Drew Barrymore's dad, it's whenever he uses telepathy it's that (makes a pulsing noise)-there's like a noise, and I'm like, 'Wow, I want that sound.'"

He adds, "And then how my brain works is, if Kate Bush and Missy Elliott made a song, what would it sound like?"

Tunde's new LP includes an exciting mixture of Detroit and Flint-based musicians, including the rap duo Passalacqua, rapper Invincible and contributions from the band Flint Eastwood. Think of Trangressor as a bridge between the two cities' music scenes, says Tunde-and he serves as ambassador. As was finishing up the last touches on the LP, we sat down with the musician to talk Black music and labels.

Were you formally trained as a musician?

Not really. I was in the typical middle school kind of choir. I did not think I was going to be a singer, though. I think I just started imitating sounds and that's where that came from. I feel like sometimes I am a voice-over artist half the time because I try out so many different voices.

And then I was in a band that played a lot. And I feel like playing a lot of live shows, especially in a rock band, it trains your voice to be a lot stronger.

What's been the theme on this album?

It varies, but I try to talk about things that are important to me outside of just one life. It's less storytelling-Taylor Swift has that on lock-but I think it's funny and silly.

Where do you get the inspiration for your song topics? For example, your song 'Diamonds in my Grill' deals with economic justice. Is this a reflection of your audience?

It's hard to say. I feel like my audience is probably like LGBTQ people, college girls. I go and play like the University of Indiana, and we'd play shows in New York; that's a really good demographic, like college radio is a really good niche pocket.

And then '50s and '60s crusty Stalinists and Marxists who are like, "Yeah, I really like the message."

Really? Marxists?

Because I was raised in that environment. My mom is a socialist and union organizer and I was like always at those meetings. It's really interesting being a Black woman who basically looks like Oprah. Her energy is like Oprah, but she's an atheist socialist, very strong willed. My dad is a Christian Nigerian, super, not conservative, but traditional. They are obviously divorced now. (Laughs)

Is the eccentricity of your stage persona a kind of alter ego mix of the two?

No, it's me. It's just me at my most comfortable. Me having permission to be all the different energies that come to me. Like I can't be that at a board meeting or a staff meeting-just come out in face paint. That is me being completely myself, on stage.

How do you feel about the excess of labels in our society? You must deal with a lot being a Black musician with a big LGBT following but someone who identifies as 'genderqueer.'

I consider myself "straight." But I think the best term is "genderqueer" because I feel like my gender expression is really androgynous. Just thinking about how I am in the world and how I feel comfortable expressing myself, it's always been very androgynous. And so "genderqueer" probably isn't the right term but I don't think androgynous is quite the right term for me either.

Being an anthropology major (in college), I'm totally down with new ways of thinking and I don't necessarily see it as a label but like making the invisible visible. I think if someone's identity is important to them or claiming that identity is sometimes a political act (or) an act of survival, I don't want diminish that and say that it's "just a label." Even if it feels like oversaturation right now, I would rather feel oversaturation than feel like someone has to be scared or just not have their voice be heard representing themselves.

You're in a sweet spot where you can use your narrative and music to challenge ideas of femininity and masculinity in the Black and LGBT community. Do you see the intersections?

There's this really good article I read years ago-it was like about being a "sissy." What does that mean and how that is not necessarily sexuality based. And to me, my performance is like the biggest statement that I really feel like I can make in that regard.

It's not even just men, it's like women are upholding different ideas of femininity that are just as toxic.

And then when it comes to race, I think it's so complicated within the Black community. There are class divides but there are also big generational divides of what is considered respectable and appropriate as a Black person. So it all kind of gets mixed together to me.

Do you see expression in music, art, etc. eventually becoming genderless?

I do think that I can't take away from someone if they feel like there is an intrinsic masculinity and femininity, because you encounter that. I don't want to say that's all a myth or you are just diluting yourself. But I am hoping we can get to a point where there is a little more flexibility in how gender has to be performed. And for me, it is such a performance when you look at historically how people dressed. What people's roles were, who knows where we are going to be in like 20 or 40 years. And it's going to be so silly. We are going to look back and say, "Oh yeah, we thought it was like this."

Hopefully, I can be a cool moment where people can be like, "Yeah I like this. And it's very singular and very interesting and we can rock with it and that's cool."

What is the underlying message of Tunde Olaniran as an artist?

This is going to be really cheesy, I'm sorry. It's a line from the song "Namesake." "If I can be anything, then you can be yourself."

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