Modern Griots Interview: Tunde Olaniran

Tunde Olaniran is a Michigan-based artist who “marches to the beat of his own drum.” The singer, rapper, songwriter and social activist has a background that defies any expectation others may have of him. Growing up in such places as Germany, Nigeria and London, Olaniran was raised by an American social activist mother and a Nigerian Christian father, all of which exposed him to a wide range of influences. Not only has Olaniran received praises from Kanye West at a Chicago Idol competition, but he has also shared the stage with Syleena Johnson, Ebony Bones, Switch, Diplo, XXXChange, and Jahcoozi. In addition to that, Olaniran has previously worked in two groups, Stereoluxxx, with Brian Preczewski, and taste this!. Some of his songs, including “I’m So Trill,” “Superconfidential” and “I Got It” has received airplay both nationally and internationally. In March 2010, he released the first part of his 3 EP series The First Transgressions and he has had some of his music videos played on MTV as well as has performed at South by Southwest. And with a style and sound that are just as unique, Olaniran is definitely someone that will get your attention.

How would you describe yourself as an artist?

Musically, there’s a blend of genres that spans from hip-hop to soul and techno/electronic sounds. Overall, African/Asian influences creep in through the sounds I sample and mix together. It’s drum and synth-heavy, and pretty danceable, or at least something you’ll groove to.

How did growing up in Germany, Nigeria, England, and Michigan as well as your social activist mother and Christian father impact you and your art?

Just getting to live a life free of absolutes gave me the freedom to think sideways about music, art and performance. I never had a very conventional sense of “THIS is how you are supposed to act, think, or talk,” because norms and values change from place to place.

Who are your major musical influences?

In general, I’m influenced by fantasy and science-fiction genres, in both film and literature. It includes books by Piers Anthony and Ursula K Le Guin, movies like Firestarter and Labyrinth, and comic books like X-Men and Harbinger. In terms of music, I think I’m inspired by artists like Fiona Apple, Missy Elliot, Santigold, Ebony Bones, Robyn, and Lauryn Hill.

What social activist projects are you involved in?

I work in reproductive and sexual health, as well as community empowerment through the arts. For the past year, I’ve been exploring ways to talk about health disparities with youth. We’ve also launched a mobile STD testing program in my city, so we can try to overcome barriers like racism, lack of transportation, etc that keep folks from getting tested regularly.

You were part of the band Taste this! and the duo Stereoluxxx. Can you describe your work with them and whether you enjoy more being part of a music group or a solo artist?

Taste this! was a rock band, and Stereoluxxx was an electro-r&b project. In both, I was the singer/songwriter, as well as occasional producer/arranger/keyboardist. I think that writing for both projects gave me a diverse perspective and now I feel confident in being able to write to just about anything. Being in a band comes with a sense of friendship and adventure, but I appreciate having total artistic freedom now and not having to dilute or compromise for someone else’s tastes.

Your style is definitely outside of the box. Who influenced it and has anyone criticized you because of it?

M.I.A. has definitely influenced my style; I think when I first heard her, I was hearing something that really spoke to me and showed me what was possible. It was like finding my music soulmate! So I started out and fumbled around with different sounds and ideas.. I think I’m still fumbling a bit but there is definitely no blueprint for making the kind of music I want to make.

I don’t think I’ve been criticized by it (although my mom has in the past wished I’d do more Luther Vandross covers, I’m sure!), but it’s definitely a barrier. It’s deemed “too avant-garde” by some. I think the hardest part is when one blog looks at my picture says “we don’t cover hip-hop” and then another blog listens to me and says “this isn’t really hip-hop.” So you get a little bounced around. However, I see it as my responsibility to just keep making music and work to create stuff that catches your ear no matter what you think you’re “into.”

Were there any major obstacles to you becoming a musician, either growing up or in the music industry?

I think my biggest obstacle is just staying motivated and not letting doubts stop you from moving forward. I’m learning that there are just certain steps you have to take. There’s nothing magical about that process.

What are your favorite instruments to work with?

Synths! I love synths and their sound and feel. I’ve got my eye on a new one right now, actually. When I actually buy it, I’ll probably end up writing a whole new album.

Can you describe how you, your style and stage performance (alien-looking female dancers) fit into the afrofuturist aesthetic?

I want to interrogate common narratives of black performance, especially Black American male performance. The crazy thing is that I’m doing it a bit unconsciously. After a recent show, this older guy came up to me and said “You remind me of Sun Ra,” and I had no idea who that was. Although I have a more Westernized perspective, I have also unknowingly absorbed influences from my studies (bachelors in Anthropology) as well as the deeper cultural influences of my Nigerian family (beneath the British/Christian colonial aspects). My performances are kind of like trance rituals, and I want to bring people into that experience. I utilize the wardrobe, makeup, lighting, and choreography to that end.

What are you currently doing and your music plans for the future after releasing your EP The First Transgressions and performing at SXSW? 

I’m planning some east coast dates in Mid-April, and will be filming my next video in March. We plan to release a single and some remixes leading up to “The Second Transgression.”

Thank you to Tunde Olanira and Olivia Dikambi for the interview. Watch his video below for “Cobra” and check out his youtube page to see performances and videos for his EP.

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