An Hour With… Tunde Olaniran

Musician and activist talks Flint water crisis

Last year, Flint native Tunde Olaniran released his smash hit record Transgressor that resonated with audiences around the country. He was named one of Rolling Stone’s “10 New Artists You Need to Know” in 2015.

This year, however, the experimental pop artist, activist, and outreach manager at Planned Parenthood finds himself in a strange place as Flint has fallen into what many consider the worst man-made public health crisis of the 21st century with the water woes. We met at his west-side Flint house to discuss his experiences.


Hour Detroit: When was the first time you became aware Flint’s water system was poisonous? 

Tunde Olaniran:  Mid- to late summer of last year, but as far as the lead contamination I knew for sure in January. I feel like looking back there were some effects on me because I noticed changes in my skin, like a rash was about to happen. We had really toxic disinfectants to clean (the water supply) because there were recurring bacterial outbreaks of E. coli earlier last year and what were you supposed to do, not use the water? I remember we (Planned Parenthood) talked about it with people in sexual health like if you’re HIV positive you can be really susceptible (to poisoning), so we were worried about that for our clients.


When did you realize you might need to rely on another source for your water? 

I haven’t switched water sources as I don’t have a young child, I’m not nursing, and I don’t have a senior living here. I never drink the water but I shower, brush my teeth, and wash my face. I have a filter for washing vegetables. I know that the consequences are much less (dangerous) for me. Now I get a glass jug of water from the Grainery, a local grocery in downtown Flint. They have an intense filtration system that lowers the acidity without lowering the pH of the water.


How have you seen people dealing with the crisis? 

People have to deal with the anxiety of it. A woman went to a health center and was talking about it; she was talking to a nurse there and they brushed off her fears about this. It made me think about how at Planned Parenthood we can help our clients by keeping them aware and supplying them with filters, fresh water, and cartridge replacements.


Have you tested your water after news broke that some residences are seeing up to 150 parts per billion of lead coming through their faucet? 

I’m going to test my water, but I’ve been replacing the cartridge once or twice a week. I’m looking at house filtration systems to see if I can get something for under $2,000 and have my landlord reimburse me.


Do you have any plans on leaving Flint? 

Not at all. I like living in Flint. I like being here. Most people that spend time here, not canvassing, say it’s like Detroit you’re not sure why, but you end up liking it.


What is it that keeps you here? 

Some people say, “I have to live by the beach or by mountains.” Taking into account factors like income, “Why stress yourself out?” I’d rather not be stressed out, even though this water issue is stressful. It doesn’t outweigh my feeling of peace. When I do an event or (play a) show and I drive home to Flint it’s peaceful coming home is really peaceful. The people in Flint are cool, they’re kind. In my job we have high school peer educators and when we all get together from Battle Creek, Detroit, Ann Arbor, they say, “there’s something about Flint’s personality that is really funny and off kilter and smart.” There’s a cool thing about Flint personalities, it’s indescribable.

Tenacious is kind of the word but (laughs).


How do you advocate for your clients? 

By working for folks that we think we can help through Planned Parenthood. There’s all kinds of (methods) by advising through outreach and awareness with moms-to-be and patients thinking of having children, by advising to pump and dump if you’re breastfeeding in case they have drank the water.

Also we (Planned Parenthood) came out on record as saying this is a reproductive health issue, we do have a stance on this. We’re not neutral. This is happening in Flint, but it’s also happening in a lot of different places. The single thread is our obsession with austerity and tax cuts. So if you look in your own backyard and if you’re supporting policy that is cutting basic infrastructure and basic services that is all part of the same thread to sell off private works.

Thank you for sending water bottles, but you should also be voting people out. I played a show at the Empty Bottle in Chicago in January and there was a band from Wisconsin and they were like, “you guys got it bad” but it’s the same thing in Wisconsin as well; it doesn’t poison your water but it is poison in (government). It’s so easy to go, (Puts on a mock falsetto) “Oh, God bless Flint, they’re in my prayers.”


Name: Tunde Olaniran

Age: 30

Hometown: Flint

Background: Raised in Grand Blanc, Germany, and Nigeria. His father is Nigerian and served in the Army. His mother is a union organizer.

Occupation(s): Outreach manager for Planned Parenthood, musician

Education: Master’s degree in public administration from the University of Michigan-Flint

Influences: Aaliyah, M.I.A., Missy Elliott, Kate Bush

Selected discography: 
Transgressor (2015)

Yung Archetype EP (2014)

The Second Transgression EP (2012)

The First Transgression EP (2011)