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May 5, 2021

In Conversation with Tunde Olaniran

By UMS Education

Tunde Olaniran

As part of his UMS Digital Artist Residency, Flint-based musician and activist Tunde Olaniran has embarked on a project that features art-making across disciplines, community collaboration and co-creation, emergent technologies, and video animation.

UMS 21st Century Intern Catherine Moore recently sat down with Tunde to talk about his UMS Live Session, upcoming projects, and collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma.

Read the interview below:

Catherine Moore: We are so excited to present your UMS Live Session, streaming now until Monday, May 10. What could viewers expect to see in this session? 

Tunde Olaniran: I wanted to create a performance that captured how I’m feeling right now as a person and an artist. I usually would be doing a lot of dancing and rolling around feverishly on stage – well, I might be doing a little bit of that – but recently I have been feeling very protective. I haven’t ever performed my new single “We Don’t Want to Hear It,” and I had to decide how I wanted to present this song. It’s a chance for me to think about my voice, and use it in a way that is more intentional.

I wanted to create something that didn’t feel like I was just going through the motions. I don’t feel like jumping all over the place right now. We’ll have movement, but we wondered: What would that look like if that movement was slower and more deliberate?

The piece is centered in subliminal space, creating doorways and traveling through them. My friend is a set designer, and our idea for filming this project was to use cinematography similar to surgical cameras. Our idea was to literally dig inside ourselves and find intimate spaces that can feel warm and comforting, but also feel like you’re trapped. It creates this duality of emotions.

With our sound, we’re trying to create something that sounds darker and more intimate.

This performance is in anticipation of a record you’re releasing in the fall and an exhibition at the Cranbrook Museum of Art in 2022. Describe to us what you’re planning. 

The Cranbrook exhibition is a performance-based installation with six Michigan area artists, and this current Live Session being released through UMS is acting as a sort of teaser for this larger project.

The Exhibition is called Made a Universe. I’m making a short film that melds real-life experiences from me growing up as a black artist in Flint with surrealist horror, giving shape to the subtle brutalities of capitalism and exploring how we as humans respond to oppression.

The six-part episodic narrative will take place over a day and a night. The main character takes this journey where he’s swallowed up by a series of different portals that unlock actual superpowers. These portals are reflective of inner demons, and personal experiences. The main character has this series of strange and surreal challenges that leads to a questioning of whether these powers will be used for or against him. The project takes my obsession with superheroes and comics and melds them together.

Each episode will play out in six distinct visual settings created by Michigan artists that work in sculpture, dance, and video art.

Tunde Olaniran by Landon SpeersTunde Olaniran Photographed by Landon Speers


What’s your connection to superpowers and comics? 

I’ve been a casual X-Men fan for a long time. A couple of years ago, I had a conversation before one of my shows where we talked about how the X-Men are queer coded.

I realized, then, that they were less this team of heroes and more this team of freaks who had been ostracized because of something they were born with and could not change. They’re not like Superman or Wonder Woman. They seep acid out of their pores. It’s not attractive – it’s scary. They find their own family and home, and they discover that the very thing that makes them frightening or demonic is what gives them their power.

My favorite thing about the X-Men is that they don’t win all the time. They actually lose a lot.

The past year has transformed the performing arts industry and how artists and audiences approach creating and experiencing art. How has your role or process in creating performance art shifted?

There was a quote that I saw recently that read, “We’re not machines, we’re gardens,” meaning that we have different needs depending on the season and time of day. In planning the UMS Live Session, I had to ask myself what I needed from my own artistry. I realized that I needed to feel totally enveloped in this project. Because this session is referencing the tone of the script for Made a Universe, my work on that project has also changed how we approached the session.

I finished the script for Made a Universe throughout 2020, and of course, living through this pandemic has shifted the tone that I have written with. It’s influenced everything from the way we’ve envisioned filming the short film to the character development of the protagonist. I’ve been home alone by myself for this entire year, so this feeling of isolation and drilling down into the space around you is going to be a theme throughout this entire project.

Tunde Olaniran by Landon SpeersTunde Olaniran Photographed by Landon Speers


You came together with Yo-Yo Ma in 2019 for the Flint Day of Action. How has being from Flint influenced you and your artistry? And what was it like to bring an artist like Yo-Yo to your hometown?

When Yo-Yo was planning to come to Flint for the Day of Action, the residency’s planners asked me to participate with him in some way. I was able to drive him around and give him a tour of the city, giving him a sense of the geography and meanings of the landscape within the city. I think he brought some great folks in the community together.

For me, being from Flint has always made me want to contextualize history as much as I can when I work with other people.

Flint’s history, especially when it comes to the Black working and middle class, is really strong. This history has given me an insistence on bringing a class analysis whenever I’m working on a project – it’s in my DNA. If I wasn’t from Flint, I don’t know if that would be how I would operate. I’ve been raised by people who are focused on ensuring that their history is not erased. I can help continue to create community and contribute to the cultural scene.

Yo-Yo sees all the blessings in his life, and he wants everyone to also have blessings in their lives. Throughout his travels, he has grown to see everyone as being part of one human race, and he wants others to see this, as well. He was a great collaborator for this advocacy.

After the Day of Action, you recorded a song with Yo-Yo. What was the inspiration and process behind that recording?

I hit it off with Yo-Yo and hoped that the Day of Action wouldn’t be the last day we would hang out! Later, I was touring in Boston, and I was asked if I wanted to get in the studio with Yo-Yo, and I was like “Um, Yes?!”

I had two weeks to plan the recording. I remember sending voice memos to my recording engineer, and I asked my producer to come from LA to Boston for the day. He created the session for our recording in the airport – you don’t get Yo-Yo for more than three hours, and I wanted to make the most of the session.

Yo-Yo and I talked on the phone about what we wanted to say with the song. I wanted to make sure that he could speak through my lyrics. In our conversation, he said that as he got older and further into his career, he wanted to be able to bring as many people into his space of connection and love as possible. I was fascinated and inspired by his ideas, and it gave me a great idea about the chord progression and shaping the tone.

I was trying to create a humming chant that felt like a meditation. Yo-Yo played over and over the progression. He played for two hours and we recorded all of it – it was so beautiful. As a vocalist, I had never felt an emotional connection like that to an instrument.

Months later, I puzzle-pieced his recordings together with lyrics that spoke to my conversation with Yo-Yo about how fleeting time is. The song is about reflection, and knowing that you’ve done something worthy of the life that you’ve been able to have.

Yo-Yo Ma and Tunde OlaniranYo-Yo Ma and Tunde Olaniran at the Flint Day of Action, 2019


You and Yo-Yo are very different artists. What was it like to collaborate with an artist who often works in such a different genre? 

I didn’t grow up singing in any sort of tradition – church, choir, anything. Sometimes these opportunities can be a benefit.

When working outside my usual genre, having a collaborator between me and other artists can help translate my ideas to their traditions so that we can best work together. When I was recording with Yo-Yo, our engineer was amazing at working out string arrangements, which was something I would not have been able to do.

When you’re an indie artist, there’s pressure to do and be everything at once. That’s why I like working with specialists, because they’re able to bring ideas that I would have never been able to come up with, and in turn, I’m able to enrich their practice. We are able to learn from each other, and support each other’s artistry. 

Can you describe your artistic process?

The mixtape is a great example of my process. I wanted to do something that was unrelated to the record I’m recording and was fun and for myself.

For me, the mixtape was a way to connect with people after being alone for most of this year. I started hitting up artists that I admired and people that I’ve always wanted to write for. I started having all these collaborative zoom calls with artists.

It’s been a lot of trial and error, and I’ve learned how to be comfortable and get something out of a very sterile format. Designing an artistic process is unique to the person and situation, but safety and comfort are always necessary. “Studio Granny” was my nickname because I’d always bring a bag full of snacks and cough drops and tissues to sessions to make sure that everyone was comfortable in the space that they were working in. People need to feel safe in your space, whether virtual or real.

Before we start creating. I always ask, “Why are we doing this?” because that really shapes the process.

As I create, I try to also ask, “Is the spell working?” Good art is like a spell that’s being cast. For me, that’s “Bodak Yellow” by Cardi B. No matter where that song was played people were entranced by it. It transforms spaces, reality, people.

Tunde OlaniranTunde Olaniran Photographed by Steven Piper


What are your post-pandemic dream plans for future performances and collaborations? 

I have no idea what the future will look like as far as performance goes, and I’m trying my best to not cling to any sort of semblance of the past.

With the film I’m currently creating, I’d love for that to open doors to more film-making. I’m currently working on a TV pilot script right now with someone that’s connected to this project, and I’m learning a lot about the pitching process.

I’d also love to be working for other artists and producers more. There are artists on this mixtape that I’d love to be directing their Grammy performance one day.

All I want is to make more music that would connect with other people in whatever way possible. Of course, I want to keep being ambitious with how my music is performed, but that’s my main goal.


(This interview was edited for clarity)