“I think Cher is amazing. I’m a fan of Cher and a lot of different facets of her career, her personality and her politics,” says Tunde Olaniran, a musician and activist, from his hometown of Flint, Michigan. “But I will say that I’m embarrassed for my state if Cher has to save our city. Like ‘Cher, help us!’ It feels like something out of [Adult Swim’s] ‘Venture Bros’ where like David Bowie runs the league. ‘What is happening?’ It’s embarrassing.” He later adds Flint “shouldn’t need Big Sean to save our city.”
As fan fiction-like as it may sound, Cher along with other musicians like rappers Meek Mill and Big Sean have helped put a national spotlight on Flint’s water crisis while donating water, money and/or raising funds.
The tragic situation began in April of 2014 after the city, under the auspices of an unelected emergency manager appointed by embattled Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, switched the water supply from Lake Huron via Detroit to the polluted Flint River as an interim cost-saving measure. That fateful decision resulted in drinking water with poisonous lead levels, E. coli, Legionnaires disease and other maladies in a city of roughly 100,000, of which a majority are African American. A congressional representative on the U.S. House Oversight Committee, which began hearings on the Flint disaster in Washington, D.C. this week, called the situation in Flint a “failure of government at all levels.”
“My skin had been getting rashes and stuff from the water,” says Olaniran, who like many other Flint residents long suspected Flint’s water supply was contaminated well before the national media and government caught up to the crisis. “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 32-year old musician raises these and other issues on Transgressor, his excellent full-length debut that dropped in August on Ann Arbor based indie Quite Scientific and is filled with electro-funk, skittering electronic beats, punk urgency, R&B grooves and Olaniran’s powerful versatile voice. In the video for “KYBM (Keep Your Body Moving),” directed by Natasha Beste, Olanirans is seen pouring out a pitcher of water while crooning “Keep the truth spilling.” On “Diamonds” he begs, “Just turn my water back on,” a reference to water’s privatization, rising rates and shut-offs.
“There’s been this push to privatize water but for us it’s a basic human right and in my mind that’s what it should be. We’ve been dealing with really high water bills. I’ve been in solidarity with folks in Detroit who are dealing with large swaths of water shut-offs to poor and working people.” Olaniran is connected to Detroit’s larger cultural and political scene and recorded Transgressor there, collaborating with and befriending several Detroit musicians including Britney Stoney, Mic Write and Invincible. “These issues all kind of seep in — for lack of a better term — into the art and the music on my albums and videos.”
Olaniran isn’t only dedicated to fighting for social justice in his music, but also in his day job as an outreach manager for Planned Parenthood where he’s in constant contact with the larger Flint community. “Even now, there’s still an awareness issue,” he says, “especially among vulnerable people for whom English is a second language. They’re not as keyed into every form of media and may not be fully aware of things like boiling water actually makes lead poisoning worse. There’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Part of that work, says the musician and activist, is restoring representative government to Flint. “You saw this wave of black cities across the state of Michigan getting emergency management and essentially the people we elected no longer had the powers we had given them. Ultimately control of the city’s major decisions weren’t in the hands of the elected officials. To me the emergency management is unconstitutional, it denied the fact that we are a voting citizenry. To me the Governor wanted to prove he could have a budget surplus but it was on the backs of children, the backs of poor people and the backs of people of color. I think a lot of people are really upset. And with that you see people intersecting between art and organizing to raise these issues.”
Which brings us back to musicians supporting Flint, for which Olaniran is deeply appreciative but thinks there may be better ways to help. “Big-ups to Cher, Big Sean, Meek Mill, thank you so much for caring about the city,” he says. “Honestly, it’s amazing that people care, the people of Flint appreciate it so much, especially because our own government ignored us and what we were saying for so long. But I would say we need filters. If you really want to put money towards this, get some families house filtration systems, shower head filters, CDC approved lead filters, that’s a more sustainable solution and it’s better for the environment. It may not be as big a PR picture to have giant trucks delivering water, but if you can give like 100 families a home filtration system, that’s going to benefit generations of people.”