Transgressor Tunde Olaniran carves his own path

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

When he would walk in a store and try on clothes, Tunde Olaniran was frustrated with the way they fit his body. So he made his own.

His musical approach is much the same. The Flint singer and producer (he’s also a dancer, a choreographer, a social worker and an activist to boot) doesn’t fit any particular style, so he made his own, which pulls from pop, R&B, hip-hop and electronic music.

Call his style transgressive — a fair descriptor, since Olaniran himself calls his debut album, out Friday, “Transgressor.”

“I’ve always been bored with conventional messages in music, and I’ve always been bored with conventional sounds in music, so that’s probably just how I’m wired — doing stuff that’s a little out there,” says Olaniran, seated in a rehearsal space in downtown Flint where he’s working with his team of dancers on new choreography for his album release party Saturday at Detroit’s Elizabeth Theater.

“It’s the punk in me that wants it to be jarring.”

“Transgressor” is definitely a jarring listen, full of aggressive, maximalist soundscapes that are often abrasive and unsettling. Olaniran alternates between his full-bodied singing voice and his dextrous raps (he raps, but he’s not a rapper), while the production swoops and swirls in circles around him.

“With the sounds, it’s really about digging for super fun, playful, interesting samples and sounds that don’t sound like anything else you’ve heard, but aren’t annoying or weird,” he says. “I think (engineer Jon Zott) and I were teetering on this being too loud and scary, but I was like ‘no, let’s go for it.’ I don’t want you to be able to be like, ‘Oh, this is nice background music.’ ”

“Transgressor” isn’t background music, and Olaniran isn’t a background presence. Everything about him stands out, from his askew hairstyle to his hearty laugh to his bold, forward-thinking artistry.

The new album follows several EPs that have gained Olaniran a dedicated following in Metro Detroit, where he’s a fixture at local festivals, as well as accolades from publications such as Pitchfork, Vice and the New York Times.

That attention has set him up to take the next step in his music, though for the time being, he still holds down a day job in Flint, where he works at Planned Parenthood.

Olaniran’s unconventional path has helped mold his unique style. He was an only child who was born in Flint, but raised in Germany and England (his father, who is Nigerian, was in the Army) before returning to Michigan.

He earned a master’s degree in public administration from U-M Flint before working on music, first with bandmates, but later as a solo act. His local breakthrough came when he teamed up with indie rock duo Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., opening a series of concerts for the group.

His live show was a standout, with Olaniran performing in facepaint and flowing robes while backed by a team of dancers. The first time she saw him live, Flint Eastwood lead singer Jax Anderson was stunned.

“I was blown away by his artistry and his attention to detail,” Anderson says. “Everything was so well put together, every thing was so on point. There was nothing that was set to the side that he didn’t go full force with. That was extremely impressive to me.”

Olaniran is very hands on with his live shows, designing his own costumes and those of his dancers. The choreography spills from his own head; he says it takes about three hours to work out every song with his dancers.

Following the release of his “Yung Archetype” EP in February 2014, Olaniran spent the rest of the year working on “Transgressor” before delivering the final product to his label, Ann Arbor-based Quite Scientific, in March. (He already has plans for his next album, which he says he hopes to write later this year in a rented Detroit apartment in a two-week binge session.)

He builds his songs from the production up, letting the percussion guide his path.

“You can get a lot across with the right kick pattern, with the right low kick at the right moment, and I want to pull you around with the drums,” he says. “I think a lot of my voice comes out in the drums in any production I do. And a lot of people don’t have my voice, so I feel good about that part.”

That voice could have pulled him in a different direction, but Olaniran has stayed true to his own vision — perhaps to the detriment of his own success, he says.

“Musically, as an artist, I could have easily been a gospel artist or an R&B singer, and people make a lot of money doing that,” he says. His approach — part Aaliyah, part Kate Bush — is more fun, he says.

“I feel like the act of making this record, because of who I am in the world, is transgressive,” Olaniran says. “Because it’s like you should either sound like the Weeknd or Luther Vandross, or whomever, and when you perform you should either look like Kanye or you should look like a drag queen. Even within queer communities, what I’m doing is still pretty transgressive, because I’m not giving you snaps in a Z or doing death drops.

“It can feel kind of lonely for a little bit, but I’m glad I didn’t try to bend to whatever the expectation is.”


Tunde Olaniran

10 p.m. Saturday

Elizabeth Theater (Above Park Bar), 2040 Park, Detroit

Tickets $8 or (313) 962-2933