By ED English
An outreach coordinator for Planned Parenthood by day and a war paint-clad musician by night, Flint native Tunde Olaniran bridges social justice with gender-bending beats.
“I try to talk about things that are important to me,” says Olaniran. “It’s the content to me that’s the future of music – bringing back some rawness to rap music.”
Basically, if Kate Bush and Missy Elliott had a song baby, it’d be Tunde Olaniran. As a straight man who considers himself a blend of “androgynous” and “genderqueer” – though he takes labels lightly, he says – the 31-year-old refuses to accentuate stereotypes. His stage presence says pop princess – all hair whipping, glitter, capes and futuristic choreography – but his lyrics go gangster.
Like the rap stars of the early ’90s (think Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy) Olaniran is a rebel with a cause. With many causes, in fact. As a social justice activist, Olaniran takes on a variety of issues in his life and music.
One of those issues: When artists play up a persona for popularity. (Cough, cough. Iggy Azalea anyone?)
“I definitely feel like I’m not a Cakes da Killa or a Mykki Blanco,” he shares, feeling it wouldn’t be fair to the LGBT community for him to represent gay artists when he is not gay. Olaniran exists in a musical sweet spot, he explains, created by other LGBT artists’ efforts to open the music industry to new narratives, and in turn, opening people to more identities such as “genderqueer.”
“You are getting a lot of alternative narratives through people’s music,” he says. And narratives don’t get much more alternative than Olaniran, who was born to an atheist socialist mother and a Christian conservative father.
“I think people are looking for that alternative (sound) with that hip-hop vibe to it, but it has a few other elements,” he says, before explaining that some people believe artists are malleable. “I had a conversation with a major label and they were like, ‘We want to sign you. Your whole look is great. But (we) can find someone else to change and cut their hair, and we can do the same thing (as you’re doing).’ And I was like, ‘Good luck!'”
As an artist who meets many intersections, Olaniran says it is his lived experience that his audience identifies with through his music. That, he says, can’t be duplicated.
“I think an artist that tries to put on something that’s completely unlike them is gong to end up, ultimately, Iggy Azalea-ing out,” says Olaniran. “You know it’s just not going to work after a certain point.”
From his own unique life experiences, Olaniran says he sees the opportunity to unite the communities he’s a part of.
“I think things are very … intersectional,” he says with an uneasy laugh regarding unification within the LGBT community. “I feel like I see a lot of race segregation in the LGBT community. Even at Pride, when you play Motor City Pride, you see pockets of color in the audience. When it comes to race, I think it’s so complicated within the black community.”
In this sense, Olaniran believes there are benefits of identity labels for all communities if it means offering everyone the chance to be heard.
“I am cool with multiple identities. We’ll figure it out later if we want to clean it up and repackage it into something simpler, but right now there’s a lot of real stuff affecting people economically – their safety, how they are treated by police, whether they are likely to be in prison, homeless – that is tied up in those identities,” he says. “If certain things stick, then that’s fine. I know people are like, ‘Well, it’s alphabet soup and so many labels. Ahh!’ That’s challenging, but so is having your penis cut off as a kid because your parents don’t know what to do with you. To me, that’s a little more important than whether or not you can remember just one more letter.”
He adds, with attitude: “So, get over it. Learn the word. If it’s gone in a year, whatever; that’s how language works.”
4:30 p.m. June 6
Hart Plaza, Detroit (Main Stage)