A Tunde Olaniran performance is everything all at once: Afro-centric rhythms, interpretive movement, gorgeous costumes, pumping bass, with soulful, vulnerable lyrics belted from somewhere deep inside. Then there’s that contagious energy, the kind that wills audience members from their seats.
When Olaniran takes to the Ferndale Pride Main Stage at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 4, Pridegoers will, of course, discover all this for themselves. For the performance, the Flint native says they have two simple goals: getting audiences up and moving, and leaving them feeling “happier and energized.” In fact, Olaniran tells Pride Source they love to see who in the audience is first to “really let loose and start moving along with us!”
But dancing is only one part of a bigger picture. Pride events, Olaniran says, should focus on connection and community. Pride, they say, isn’t about them — or any other single performer. “It’s a community event, and we’re there to spread good energy for the day and to let people feel comfortable, joyful and connected to each other,” says Olaniran. “Pride events should be a place where LGBTQ+ people feel safe and welcomed and appreciated and see that their city, town and neighborhood are there for them the other 364 days in the year, not just for an afternoon.”
Still, they can’t wait to hit that stage. Like many musicians and artists, Olaniran had to hit the pause button on live performances during the pandemic. In fact, Ferndale Pride will mark their first live performance since 2019. “I’m really happy it’s in a city like Ferndale that always has such welcoming energy,” they say.
Back in late 2017, when Olaniran’s critically lauded single “Symbol” dropped, they told NPR that a lyric from the song, which was later included on the artist’s “Stranger” album — “My body is a symbol” — had taken on additional significance in light of Trump-era politics.
“I wrote ‘Symbol’ as the child of an immigrant (Olaniran’s mother was born in Nigeria), under the global specter of violence against Black and brown bodies and in light of the international refugee crisis,” they told NPR at the time. “Now, with the Trump Administration, Black and brown bodies are again held up as political symbols to attack DACA and feed white nationalism. It saddens me that these lyrics feel like they will be relevant for many more generations.”
Since that 2017 interview, the world has experienced significant challenges, including a pandemic that has hit communities of color especially hard. “Being a pandemic-era artist can be very challenging,” they recount. “Sadly, there have been so many examples of why the country I call my home is a dangerous place for my body to exist, as well as the bodies so many of us have.”
Olaniran notes that they are not alone in coming to the realization that the very core of their being — their safety, autonomy and health — are connected to, and dependent on, the community and the social environment the world faces in 2022. It’s a perspective that seems to drive Olaniran’s latest work, which is fierce, brutally honest and layered in musical complexity. The artist regularly posts new music to their social media platforms and is planning a new album release later this year.
That’s not to say musical complexity is new for this creator — Olaniran has rightfully earned a place on the inner track to artists like world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Among their impressive list of independent and collaborative projects is the 2021 release “Notes for the Future,” an album Yo-Yo Ma put together featuring Olaniran and eight other musicians from five continents. Olaniran’s contribution, “Doorway,” is a dreamy track accentuated by Ma’s haunting orchestral trills and slides.
Olaniran has always approached musical storytelling through an introspective, no-holds-barred lens, but in true Olaniran form, it’s not always about them specifically. Sometimes, it’s more about expressing an emotion than a literal take on their life.
“A lot of my lyrics are freestyles that I came back and cleaned up or reorganized,” they explain. “I’m usually not concerned with being autobiographical as much as I’m trying to capture hard-to-describe feelings and energy in lyrical form.”
Case in point: “Propane.”
The multi-hyphenate’s latest single, a collaboration with Ahya Simone and Thair, captures one of those hard-to-describe feelings. “I’m the propane!” they proclaim on the track, an energetic, ephemeral experience that dares listeners to keep their feet still (and which deserves a spot on every 2022 summer playlist). “Propane,” they tell Pride Source, describes the feeling of being so hot, “everyone wants a piece of you.”
About that collab: Olaniran says they played a show in Chicago with Simone, who is based in southeast Michigan, and Thair, a Chicagoan, a few years ago and has been “dreaming” about getting together again. “Ahya (Simone) is an incredible harpist, vocalist, composer, filmmaker and trans-rights activist,” they say, “while Thair has such an incredible voice. ... I’m so lucky they agreed. Ahya really set the tone and energy for this song. She is just a hottie, and everything she does is fire.”
“Propane” is off the artist’s latest project, “Ephemerrreality,” a mixtape packed with collaborations with 26 guest vocalists and songwriters. “The whole vibe of the mixtape is nostalgic,” they say. “It’s a very femme mixtape, and really I tried to approach each song as ‘What song would I love to hear from this guest artist that they maybe haven’t done yet?’” The result, Olaniran says, is a mix of tracks that represent sounds we were hearing in the ’90s, early 2000s and 2010s. “Ephemerrreality” will debut later this year on streaming platforms. “There will basically be new music coming every month this summer,” Olaniran adds.
Olaniran’s approach to creating the mixtape is emblematic of their approach to, well, life. The artist just doesn’t center themself very often, even when they are literally appearing on stage in a spotlight. The musician pours their energy into directing resources to other artists, especially, they say, to Black, queer and women artists. “I am really just one person,” they say. “The main thing I focus on is trying to do what I can to help other artists in my life that can benefit from anything I’ve learned.”
Next, Olaniran will add another hyphen to the list with an upcoming short film and museum exhibition at Detroit’s Cranbrook Art Museum.
“Made a Universe” opens June 18 at the museum. The film and exhibition is the product of Olaniran’s collaboration with several Detroit-based artists. Together, they created the film’s scenography, costuming and props, elements that have been re-imagined as gallery exhibits set up in the screening room.
Visitors, the museum’s website says, will encounter an “immersive, parallel journey through Olaniran’s creative universe. ... The film examines what it means to unlock your power in the face of fear and repression, and how one must unify various fragments of their psyche to connect with the world and themselves on a deeper level.” The short film features a score crafted by Olaniran, who also wrote and directed.
No single performance could encompass everything Olaniran has to offer the musical and artistic world, but if you’re new to that world, prepare to dive down deep into the rabbit hole where Olaniran’s “everything” resides — their growing list of albums, collaborations, art pieces, films and more.
You could start anywhere and what you’ll find is Tunde Olaniran doing what they do best: honestly, earnestly creating from the soul.