TUESDAY NOVEMBER 29th, 2011
Picture this, a performer/activist/educator, the product of a union-organizing, social activist mother and a Nigerian, Christian immigrant father. Tunde Olaniran was destined to bring his own brand of passion and fire to life. A life that includes the new MTV video Cobra, a Master’s degree in Public Administration, touring with bands throughout Europe, on-campus advocacy for women, performing, song writing, and a long-time job in education and outreach for Planned Parenthood.
Calling him eclectic hardly does justice to the man whose childhood took him from Flint to Africa, to Europe and back. “My mom is from Flint,” said Tunde (toon day). “She met my dad when he moved here for college. When I was five we moved to Nigeria for a while. We came back to Flint briefly before my dad joined the army and we headed to Germany.” Much of the Nigerian side of the family had immigrated to London, so Tunde spent a lot of time with family there. Then it was back to Flint for middle school, a move to Grand Blanc for part of high school and a return to Flint Central for graduation.
His thoughtful, soft spoken, manner belies the sense of social justice that powers his long history of challenging authority, the innate leadership qualities that inspire teenagers to come to the table, and the cutting edges of his musical rifts.
At the Lunch Studio in downtown Flint we talked music. “I didn’t feel like I had anything unique,” said Tunde. “I mostly sang in school, not in a church choir or formally.” Music was never a career option until he auditioned in 2003 for Chicago Idol where he shared the stage with R. Kelly and Syleena Johnson and received accolades from then-unknown Kanye West. Tunde made it to the final 15; the experience was to shine a light down a new path.
“Being your own entity on stage in front of a thousand people was amazing,” said Tunde. He came back to Flint and joined the band Taste This. He wrote a song. “I got really positive feedback on it.” It was the spark that propelled him to write others. The band began to do gigs more regularly. “Having to perform is like boot camp. We played three hour shows. It takes tremendous stamina to keep people engaged, make it really entertaining. It was an intense few years.” The group opened for Michael Moore’s movie Sicko in Chicago.
Tunde went on to record the well-received debut solo album, Infinite Modulation (a collection of eighteen original songs), and later teamed up with fellow musician and electro-rock producer Brian Preczewski (aka Controller) from Lake Orion. The men formed the duo, Stereoluxxx.
It was MySpace that led Tunde back to Europe. Impressed with a solo album by German producers Chris De Luca Vs. Phon.o., he sent them his version of the light-hearted Diamonds In My Grill. The men liked what they heard and asked him to collaborate on their album Supercontinental. Tunde wrote and performed three tracks. He went on to tour Europe, sharing the stage with acts like Switch, Ebony Bones, Diplo, XXXChange, and Jahcoozi. “The European tour was crazy,” said Tunde. “It was so much fun.”
After the European tour came performances in Vancouver. An appearance at South by Southwest (the biggest North American indie music festival, held in Austin, Texas),and the Detroit Electronic Music Festival. But the highlight was opening for Robyn at Crofoot in Pontiac. “I absolutely love her music,” said Tunde. “She has been such an influence on me. She’s all about having fun. And that’s what I want my audiences to have – fun.”
Weird-soulful-old school-catchy-uplifting, all have been used to describe Tunde’s sound. “My style has changed over the past three or four years. My music is more passionate. The focus is on simplistic structures, but with urgency. I’m not R&B and I’m not rap. I’d call it a blend of electronica, dance, and darker, idiosyncratic pop.” It’s a style reflected in his new Cobra video that is making the rounds on MTV.
Cobra was shot entirely in Flint’s historic Capitol Theatre. The video was made by Detroit-area artist, musician and videographer Natasha Beste. “I wanted the video to reference Bollywood films at a subconscious level,” said Tunde, “We tried to make it look like it was an old, ‘80’s VHS film.” Tunde explained how you need at least 5,000 hits to leverage better placement on the MTV website. “Enough hits and it gets televised,” he said. And that could open a whole new world for this man who refused to attend a mandatory Bob Dole rally at his high school.
At home around the world, and yet committed to his city, Tunde loves being in Flint. “It has helped me grow. There are so many cool people here – politically, socially, and artistically.” Tunde is on the Board of Flint Handmade, an organization that seeks to nurture a local handmade economy and environment. “My art often intersects with what’s happening in Flint.”
Still, Tunde saves some of his best for the youth of Flint. “I’ve been a peer educator for Planned Parenthood since I was fourteen,” he said. Now Manager of Educational Outreach for East Central Michigan, part of his work involves developing and hosting sex education classes for youth. He is a part of a coalition that has developed an innovative text-messaging system which lets young people text questions to a central location and get accurate information and referrals to local resources.“We’ve convened a youth advisory council that is helping to put on a conference in Flint called MI Peeps.” Youth attending the conference can apply for $2,500 grants for projects that address health disparities in the city.
His current project is developing a new sex education program for Flint schools based on input from Flint youth. “The kids know what they need,” he said. “The performance aspect of my music informs my work with the kids. My kids can act, write a play in a day, and perform. They understand that delivering the message is all about entertaining people.” Yet most of his kids don’t know he’s a performer.
“My music has messages around the power of personal choice, personal freedom, and the conflict that is innate in the human connection. Conflict is not bad. It shows you are achieving something. I learned that from my mother. On the outside, I’m just like her.”
“One of my earliest memories is of me having a tantrum in a store. Instead of trying to calm me down my mother simply left me. When I finally caught up with her she said – I can understand words, but not screaming.” It was just one of the lessons she imparted to her son.
“I have a tendency, wherever I am, to develop a leadership role. Sometimes I don’t want it, but it seems to happen anyway.” In 2004, Tunde helped organize the Voices for Women on Campus group at University of Michigan in Flint. Part of the Women’s Studies program, Voices for Women on Campus promotes social justice, equality and women’s rights by giving voice not only to women, but to all students. “Many of the friends I made during that era helped mold me into thinking about bigger issues. I’m never – ‘we can’t do it’, it’s ‘how we can do it’.”
But on the inside, he says he’s more like his dad. “My natural tendency is to be alone.” This, for Tunde, is a rare occasion these days. He’s coming out with a new album (recorded in Royal Oak), getting ready to release his third video, performing at the grand re-opening of the Cranbrook Art Museum in Detroit and gearing up for an East Coast tour. “The show I’ve put together is probably my best. It has a real androgynous passion about it. Performing is the most fun part of being alive.”