Tunde Olaniran is an enigma. A true multi-hyphenate, the Flint, Mich.-bred singer-songwriter, producer, rapper, choreographer, author, LGBTQ activist and community organizer has become a critical darling in the years since the release of his debut LP -- 2015’s Transgressor -- earning praise and early support from The New York Times, The New Yorker, NPR and more for his eclectic sound, which draws on electronic, rap, R&B, punk, funk, pop and even choir.
For Billboard’s Summer of Pride, Olaniran put together a Pride-themed mix dedicated to all the rule breakers and experimenters bridging gaps and limits in today’s anything-goes musical landscape.
Give the playlist -- which includes cuts from fellow queer talents Kelela, Arca, MNEK and more -- a spin below.
Olaniran provided a few comical superlatives for his top tracks on the set -- from the "best poolside bops" (Danity Kane's "Show Stopper," Kelis' "Bossy") to tracks that "under no circumstances are you allowed to skip" (MNEK's "Crazy World," his own single "Jean Grey") -- and dance-heavy hits that you shouldn't play "unless your choreo is ready!" (Beyoncé's "Diva," Britney Spears' "I'm a Slave 4 U").
He also spotlighted throwback cuts in the "let the first/second-hand nostalgia wash over you" category (Mariah Carey's "Honey," Cassie's "Me & U"), sensual bops in the "let your inner dom(inatrix) or sub shine" group (Arca's "Whip," Years & Years' "Sanctify") and the best songs to play when "banning cops from Pride" (Rico Nasty's "Rage," Mykki Blanco's "Moshin in The Front (feat. Cities Aviv)").
“I’m very turned on by experimentation and rule-breaking,” he tells Billboard of the inspiration for the set. “The early 2000s and current pop/soul music give me the same intensity of experimentation and exploration.” That’s not to say that this time period was "safe” for queer artists, he adds. “Unique voices and perspectives felt like they shined through then and are breaking through again now. In my mind, 2009-2014 sonically was kind of a wasteland.”
Thankfully, in 2019, much progress has been made in terms of acceptance and inclusivity industry-wide, yet Tunde cites the creative theft he often sees from white artists of LGBTQ+ identifying or POC acts, something that has been rampant in the biz since the days of Elvis. “Being a black or brown LGBTQ+ artist in 2019 means everyone is inspired and influenced by -- or literally stalks and steals from -- your creative work and aesthetic," he says. "You rarely see the commensurate investment into or audience for your work unless there is a white or lighter face in the mix."
Olaniran credits his local queer community with “saving” him. “I have had my brain torn apart, recalibrated, and formed by the music of queer black and brown women/femmes/enbies operating within and outside of pop, R&B, soul, hip-hop, rock,” he says. “A lot of them are in this playlist. A lot of them get their shine, some got it after decades of work, some deserve way more right now.”
Frequently described as a "force," Olaniran has never concerned himself with creative limits. In 2017, he made his triumphant SXSW debut, followed by his first national tour in support of experimental duo Sleigh Bells. Then, Transgressor cut “Namesake” caught the world’s ear, thanks to a high-profile sync in an Apple ad for its iPhone 8. The album -- released Ann Arbor, Mich., indie imprint Quite Scientific -- tackled his passion for social justice, including the local Flint water crisis, which began in 2014. In the video for single "KYBM (Keep Your Body Moving)," directed by Natasha Beste, Olaniran pours out a pitcher of water while singing "Keep the truth spilling."
In a 2015 interview with Billboard, Tunde described the situation as a "failure of government at all levels," and opened up about the early warning signs of contamination. "My skin had been getting rashes and stuff from the water," he said in 2015. "They were putting really toxic cleaning agents in the water which I hadn't been drinking, but you still have to shower and brush your teeth. It's really challenging to feel like this super basic thing you need for every aspect of your life can hurt you."
The son of a Nigerian Christian immigrant father and a socialist union organizer mother, the artist was first discovered on MySpace by the Berlin-based producer Phon.O. After briefly touring Europe in the late aughts, Olaniran turned his focus back home to his local music community in Motor City. He’s since become a fixture in Detroit's cultural renaissance, and has collaborated with a vast bevy of fellow local upstarts including pop breakout Flint Eastwood (“Push”), indie folk artist Chris Bathgate (“Low Hey”), Detroit hip-hop duo Passalacqua and Grand Rapids emcee iRAWniQ (“Diamonds”), and Jewish queer female rapper Invincible (“Don’t Cry”). He also went behind the decks (and lens) in a creative collaboration with Syrian-American & Muslim rapper Mona Haydar, which included co-writing and producing her 2017 single "Hijabi (Wrap my Hijab)" and directing its video.
Following the release of his sophomore LP Stranger last fall -- which boasted singles "I'm Here," "Symbol," "Vulnerable," and "Hungry" — Olaniran released his latest solo single “Jean Grey” in June, penned for the soundtrack of the latest X Men film Dark Phoenix. Written mainly as a freestyle, the track finds Tunde musing on the mental strength often required to push oneself into “new modes of thinking, behaving, and existing,” he says. “It’s also a meditation on different forms of power, and how we access or perceive it.”
A “big fan” of the comic and Marvel universe, Olaniran has always had a “visceral” connection with the character of Jean Grey, played by Game Of Thrones star Sophie Turner. “Even though I love other characters like Storm, Shadowcat, and Nightcrawler, Jean was always the person to which I could most relate,” he says. “Her mind is the source of her power, and has limitless potential. Due to this power, there are constantly people — mainly men — trying to control or exploit her, even the ones she trusts and loves. The hook 'jean grey, jean grey, jean grey' is kind of my mantra. It's like a reminder to trust the power of my mind, my imagination, my creativity."
After wrapping up a national tour in support of My Brightest Diamond and making a triumphant showing at Detroit’s Motor City Pride last week, the powerhouse will next join King Princess and more at the 10th Annual Lollapalooza Sideshow at East Room in Chicago on Aug 1, presented by A Queer Pride & C3.