On twerking, joy and acceptance: Tunde Olaniran’s SXSW show is a celebration

Tunde Olaniran plays Thursday at the Sidewinder during South by Southwest 2017. Eric Pulsifer/For American-Statesman

On paper, what Tunde Olaniran does in his live show should be a well-intentioned trainwreck, derailed by trying to be too much. A socially conscious mash-up of hip-hop, punk, funk and R&B with choreographed dancing and an audience on-stage twerk-off at its close? How could that possibly work?

Picture: Before his SXSW Music showcase slot Thursday night at The Sidewinder, two vertical banners are unfurled: “This is a safe space.” A sound bite of a TV news story about the lead in the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, plays as two dancers in all white save for black string veils over their faces stoically take the stage, followed by the towering Tunde Olaniran himself. In glimmering golden garb he moves at a deliberate, thoughtful pace as if in some sort of ritual.

By this point, you may find yourself deep down wondering if what you’ve walked into may be too much reality for a festival that serves as an escape from the real world’s headlines and heartaches. Free beer! Buzzworthy bands! But you’re intrigued.

Olaniran introduces himself. He lives in Flint. He explains the banners. He wants this to be a place where people can be accepting — of themselves and each other — a place where we can “exchange a little joy.” OK, you think. Maybe joy’s something you could get down with.

Then the music starts. Heavy beats rumble in the air. Tunde springs into action with his dancers and he lets down his hair, setting long braids free in a wild whip of circular headbanging. The crowd loses it.

Tunde Olaniran is currently opening for Sleigh Bells. (“We call them ‘Bae Bells,’ because they’re so sweet,” Olaniran said.) And the two acts make an oddly perfect pairing. Olaniran’s banging boombox beats have a similar bone-rattling effect and there’s an energy to Olaniran’s performance — an energy that would leave you feeling fully charged even if he swapped the positivity and conscious messages for more trite and tired song topic fodder. He’s equally well-equipped at soulful singing and funky falsetto as he is at rapid-fire rapping and layering piles of auto-tuned vocals into a futuristic distorted robo chorus. Then there’s that bit about joy in the set’s mission statement.

Of course, songs about acceptance and joy may sound a bit too kumbaya for SXSW. This is SXSW, after all, all corporate and cynical and tiered with primary and secondary access and you’re not allowed in here, sirs.

Olaniran’s triumphant set and the crowd’s enthusiastic reception of it — with its joyous and silly moments (like the aforementioned all-hands-on-deck twerk-off) — proves there’s still room for heart and human moments at SXSW, if you know where to find them.


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