Tunde Olaniran Wants You to Be You and Be Great

The Flint, Michigan, pop experimentalist talks about how to make political music that isn't corny and shares the video for "Namesake."

Jul 20 2016, 3:59pm

Photo by Jon Shaft, courtesy of Tunde Olaniran

Last year, around the time that Tunde Olaniran released his excellent, explosive, genre-mashing album Transgressor, I gave the singer a call to talk about it. He was shopping in a suburban Michigan Target between Ann Arbor, where his work as an outreach manager and teen educator for Planned Parenthood had taken him for the day, and Flint, where he lives. We were covering the kinds of topics that inevitably come up when discussing Olaniran's music—personal and racial identity, developing new structures for pop music, etc.—when he was interrupted by a fan he described as a "soccer mom." He laughed, coming back on the phone. "If you could see where I am, it's like, you literally just left a PTA meeting. She's like 'it's lit'!" Tunde Olaniran's music may dive into serious territory, but his persona is above all one that embraces the absurdity and excitement of everything.

These kinds of reactions, though, are becoming more common as people stumble across Olaniran's music, helped along by critical acclaim and the recent placement of his single "Namesake" in a Motorola commercial. Olaniran pulls together the accessible charm of mainstream pop anthems with abrasive electronic tones and rapidfire rap verses, all the while coursing through topics like self-esteem and systemic racial violence and Taco Bell combo meals. Transgressor, even moreso than its engaging predecessor EP Yung Archetype, is an album that feels like a rubric for some imminent sci-fi pop future. I could honestly see it as part of Beyoncé's musical vision board, both sonically and thematically.

"I've always been really interested with the idea of transgression because with like the idea of you do something that can be so silly and innocuous and innocent, or it's not even that big of a deal, but society's reaction to it is a million times worse than what you even did," Olaniran said, explaining the title and citing actions ranging from wearing an unusual hairstyle to shutting down a highway in political protest as these types of transgressions. "Namesake," which we're premiering the video for below, tackles this theme from a personal angle of "scattered autobiography." And speaking of autobiography, it comes at a pivotal moment in Olaniran's musical career: Today's release coincides with his last day of work at his job, as he heads into music full time. "I've worked at Planned Parenthood since I was a kid in their high school peer educator program, so it feels like I'm leaving home or something," he shared over email.

The video itself is a fairly stripped down dance scene in a park pavilion. It's an impressive and moving display, but, in true Olaniran style, it has a funny backstory, too, which involved a high school girl who was working at the park having to kick out a group of "biker dads" who were barbecuing there so that it could be filmed. Such is the way with Olaniran: Everything has a lot of meaning, and anything can be a lot of fun.

Noisey: What were you trying to accomplish on Transgressor?
Tunde Olaniran:
I really wanted to actually just put forward—when you strip it down to the skeleton it's just really basic-ass pop songs. Like, they're really just basic. But we have a lot of interesting sounds plugged into the blank spaces of where, it would be like, "this is the bridge, this is the whatever." We'll have like a cat meowing instead of a wall of synth. So I just had to kind of bring the sounds that like piqued my interest as I scoured the internet into something kind of coherent. To me, it's just pop songs but geared toward non-traditional subject matter. But the reason I love it is it moves me. I really wanted something that moved me, and that I felt like people could sing along with. I wanted people to have little parts of the songs that they love. Even if it's just moments, I want every song to have something where it's like, "oh yeah I'm just waiting for this part to happen." But I also wanted it to be something where you wouldn't put it on and it's like, oh this is background music. So it's kind of aggressive and abrasive and loud intentionally. I just don't want it to be like you can ignore it if it's playing. And maybe it's annoying, but I'm kind of ok with that too.

Photo by Tim Jagielo, courtesy of Tunde Olaniran

Why do you say that? Why is it so important to grab people's attention?
It's not even that. It's my attention. I get bored really easily listening to music. I just have that very short attention span, so I need something that keeps my attention, because if I have to perform this or be behind it, I don't want to be bored listening to it. Also, performance is really important to me. Every song, I have to be able to imagine like myself performing it. I think people get the album more deeply if they see a live show.

When you were writing these songs, would you write the song and then be like, "ok, how can I come up with an accompanying live thing for this to make sure it's good enough to include on the album"?
It usually starts with production first, but especially as I'm writing the lyrics, putting the vocal arrangement together, I'm imagining what is gonna happen onstage. And if I can't, if I don't like what I see, then I probably will not finish the song because I'm not feeling that it's gonna be fun for me to perform this. Even if other people like it, why should I be stuck performing it? I work with some people, and they're literally writing a song just so like Toyota will pick it up and put it in a commercial. Which, make your money, I'm not gonna hate on that, that's great, but—and this is probably why it's hard for me to get licensing—I don't write toward that end. I'm so happy writing. It's like really joy, joyful feeling for me.

Do you have a dance background?
No, I was just fat. I didn't dance. I wasn't like the cool-fat yoga people that you see on youtube. I was just not an athletic person, and I actually had no rhythm. Growing up, I wasn't around black people, or black culture, 'cause we were in European culture, or like British Nigerian culture. So I didn't have a lot of that, and I kind of picked it up seeing videos, like Missy Elliot videos. And I'm just kind of a mimic. So I just started copying stuff.

Was there a moment when you kind of like became more interested in that?
Around 2010, 2011, I was performing as a solo artist. I was in a band before that, and I started performing as Tunde. I did a few shows where it was like, me and a drum machine and keyboard, and I'm like 'fuck, I want dancers.' I realized that I kind of knew what I wanted it to look like, and I just started working on it more and more. Giving yourself permission is the first thing that you have to do. I've just now stopped apologizing to my dancers over and over. They're like, 'shut up, it's cool.' I've gotten way more confident in the past two years.

Tell me more about your experience of growing up in England and Germany.
Nigeria was a British colony, so a lot of people from there live in England. I lived in London. I would basically end up staying with my grandmother or aunt and with my cousins. I don't know if you end up being the opposite of your parents, but my mom is a very, super outgoing like amazingly warm, loving person. We always had people in the house, and so I think because of that, I became really like, not isolated in like depression, but I just liked being alone. I was not only an only child, but I liked being alone. And then when you're in a country where you don't necessarily know the language, or you're very clearly not from that place—even with my dad's family, like, they claim me, I'm Nigerian, but I didn't grow up speaking Yoruba because he didn't teach it to me. So even within that family I'm very much an outsider. Like, I remember telling my grandma, you know I'm a witch right. And she was like, whatever, like she's still very Christian, religious. So me being like a vegetarian, all this stuff, they would kind of just roll their eyes, without really understanding maybe who I am as a person, or what my values are, or appreciating that my values can be different. So all those things kind of left me feeling isolated, but just led me to turn inward more, and like focus on a fantasy world a little bit. Probably a lot of that comes out in the music and the imagery.

Still via YouTube

How much of your childhood was spent abroad?
Up until high school. I was born in Flint. And then for a bit my dad took us to Nigeria, but then I came back, and that was the biggest culture shock, being in Flint as a teenager. I remember my first day of school. Looking back, it was 50 percent black—it was actually half and half—but for me it was like an all black school. It was odd. It wasn't a hard time, it's just a lot of new experiences and a lot of new influences. Like still today, I don't say the n-word. That is not OK anywhere in my home, growing up. I've caught myself accidentally saying it and like look around, like is my mom here?!

I wasn't like an outcast or whatever, but I had a close, small group of friends. I was actually volunteering and working at Planned Parenthood in high school, so a lot of my friends were through that. But I feel like I've come to really love Flint. To the media, or the outside media, it's really just like, "what a horrible place to live!" But, I really like it. And everyone from Flint that's an artist, if they're a good artist, they're so crazy good. I think there's like a passionate kind of intensity that comes from living in Flint that you don't necessarily get elsewhere.

As you've evolved more with making music, have you developed a clearer sense of what you want your music to be about? Many of your songs lean into political topics.
I think the stuff that I'm talking about in the songs is just what I have always thought about. Obviously and hopefully your values change and evolve, so that will change the music. But I also don't want to make music that someone else could offer.

I feel like almost every pop song out now sounds like the Ferngully soundtrack. It's like Phil Collins, Ferngully. I just want it to be like there's a point that I'm specifically doing this, that it's not interchangeable, it's not disposable. And that you can get something out of it beyond just like: I love this person. That's what most music is like. Or, I think you're great. We're both rich. Great. Or like, people don't like me, and I don't care that they don't like me. That's the basic point of like so many songs. And there's something to be said for doing it really fucking well. There's something to be said for someone that can make a tired ass subject still feel fresh. So I'm not discounting the fact that that can happen. But I don't know if I can necessarily do that. And I don't feel like there's a need for me to be contributing more of those songs.

So I want to do something that feels like you're not gonna get quite this kind of thing from any other artist. I also just feel like it's really dumb for me to be scared of talking about lots of things that are important to me, that I work toward in other parts of my life. Then in my music I don't talk about it? That just seems strange. I want to make music that I want to dance to and I want to perform to, but I also want to feel like I said what I wanted to say about this issue, but in a way that isn't preachy. We have a lot of music like that, where it's like very preachy, and I don't want to like cloud the enjoyment of a song.

I's very difficult to make music that both has a political message and isn't lame.
Have you heard Afrikan Boy, “Lidl”? The lyrics are: "one day I went to Lidl. I was really really hungry. I wanted some food, so I stole it." It's super basic-seeming, but this song is amazing because it's real! You're talking about you're fucking broke, you're an immigrant in this country, you get put into this fucked, this ridiculous prison system. All that's in there, but he just was like, “I was hungry, I didn't have any money, so I stole something.” To me that kind of shit is great, if you can keep it simple but really be real with what's happening.

Your music has a lot to do with personal identity. Are there things that you feel like your music has done a really good job of bringing out, that maybe you weren't expecting to explore?
I don't know how people would maybe look at other music I've released, and be like “this was always there,” but I felt like there was a particular kind of aggression that I hadn't really brought out before Transgressor. It's like wielding a measured kind of aggression that felt really good to get out in some of the delivery. Like with “Everyone's Missing,” I had written that song, but I had this workshop and we were talking about people passing away. It was originally an acoustic song on cello with a friend that I had written, and when I produced it, one of my friends, one of the people at the label was like, “I feel like there's even more you can say about this, like maybe you should add another verse.” I didn't want to, and then I started, and I was like “oh shit, I'm like really angry.” I'm glad she made me write this because I think that third verse was probably the best one.

The first line is "grief and mourning kendo." Kendo, it's a meditative art. You meditate through repetition of movement. And it's a martial art, so it's like a self-defense. It's because we are having to constantly reset our grieving cycles, whether it's a national loss, or we've lost a lot of people in Flint. You feel like you're just constantly grieving. And then also just being upset. I think I wrote it after the Eric Garner verdict. I was being really upset, and I'm like OK, we're gonna write this and get out.

Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.