Tunde Olaniran of Flint, center, performs with backup singers Emma Davis of Flint, left, and Cientell Amori of Detroit at the Loving Touch in Ferndale. (Gary Malerba / Special to The Detroit News)
Tunde Olaniran stands out. Even without the facepaint and flowing robes he favors on stage, Tunde (pronounced TOON-day) can’t help but make an impression.
He’s a singer-rapper-dancer and cheesestick enthusiast from Flint who grew up in Germany and London and once performed for Kanye West. His father is Nigerian; he’s steeped in voodoo culture and has a master’s degree in public administration; and if you’re having trouble sifting through the Affordable Care Act’s Health Insurance Marketplace, he can help with that, too.
“I feel like I am really just about something unique,” says Olaniran, while working on new music with Jon Zott in Harper Woods earlier this month. Olaniran’s talking about his approach to music, but he could just as easily be talking about himself in general.
He has been performing as a solo artist for around six years, and things started really clicking for him last year when he opened up a handful of shows for Detroit pop-rock duo Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. Now Olaniran is preparing to release a new EP in late February that he hopes will break him through to a larger audience, and he headlines Hip in Detroit’s second anniversary party Saturday night at the Loving Touch in Ferndale.
Musically, Olaniran makes hip-hop-influenced R&B with heavy industrial electronic flourishes, like Timbaland’s work with Aaliyah set to “Yeezus.” Or maybe what he makes is just simply Tunde music.
“I like taking the third or fourth choice, not the first or second,” says Olaniran, seated in Zott’s basement while taking a break from working on a song called “Critical” that deals with a family member’s cancer diagnosis. “There are enough love songs, there’s enough ‘we’re-in-the-club’ songs, there’s enough J. Lo and Pitbull songs with that same beat. Musically, lyrically, I get bored, and I want to make something I’m into. So I’m unique by default, because I want to hear something different.”
That perhaps comes from Olaniran’s upbringing. An only child, he was born in Flint but spent his elementary and middle school years in Germany and London because his father was in the army. When he moved back to Michigan, he lived in Grand Blanc before settling back in Flint; returning to his hometown was a shock to the system.
“It was really weird, because I hadn’t been around black people,” he says, detailing times in Germany when he was the only black person kids around him had ever seen.
When he got back, he was slow to catch on to hip-hop, but Aaliyah made an immediate impression; her silky voice over Timbaland’s idiosyncratic beats struck a chord.
He tooled around with music while blazing through his undergraduate and graduate work at U-M Flint, but never took it seriously until the mid-’00s when his mom pushed him to join an “American Idol”-style contest in Chicago. Kanye West was one of the judges, and he got to perform with R. Kelly, and while Olaniran didn’t win the contest, he placed well.
“The idea of, ‘I’m Tunde, I’m performing, you’re an audience, you’re liking it,’ that was like, ‘Oh, this is dope,’ ” he says.
He joined a band, and when that fizzled out he became a solo performer and worked on his act. Working the Detroit circuit led to an opening slot and eventually a musical partnership with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., which features Olaniran on its upcoming mixtape project.
On stage, Olaniran is a full-on entertainer, pulling off choreographed moves with his dancers (yes, he has dancers) and putting on a show for fans.
“The movements are visual cues for the audience in a way,” Olaniran says. “It’s about framing and setting you up visually to make you think a certain way or react and move along with us in the song in a certain way.”
His upcoming EP includes the song “Brown Boy,” which was first released as part of his “The Second Transgression” EP in 2012. The song deals with his own identity issues, as well as people’s perceptions of him.
“Trying to figure out who I am, what to be, but it’s just not happening,” he sings, leading into the song’s chorus: “I’m every single thing you think of me, I’m a sinner, killer, drug dealer, refugee.”
“Brown Boy” is one of Olaniran’s biggest statements as an artist, and he thinks it’s a strong anchor for the project.
“This is what I’m about as an artist,” he says of the EP, which will be released on Ann Arbor-based Quite Scientific Records. “These are (the songs) that get people hype from the live shows and this is what gets me hype, and that is the main goal.”
Hip in Detroit second anniversary
with Tunde Olaniran, the Handgrenades, Rebel Spies,
Autumn Wolf and the Ill Itches
9 p.m. Saturday
The Loving Touch
22634 Woodward, Ferndale