One of the most magical nights of my summer was attending Tunde Olaniran’s album release for Transgressor. The word magical is overused to describe things. What I mean specifically is that it felt like an act of magic—the supernatural ineffable that occurs when witnessing someone harness all of their energy with precision and intention. I’ve attended a fair amount of live shows over the course of my life, but rare has been the occasion where a musician has shook me so hard it lingered for weeks afterward. I can count those moments on one hand: Lauryn Hill performing a surprise show with a large band in late 2010; the haunting wail that is Mal Devisa in the basement of the Whitehaus, where I used to live, in Boston earlier this year; watching Erykah Badu play with the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra on my birthday two years ago. Add to that number the Transgressor album release.
For much of this summer, I have felt strangely incapacitated—not in any urgent medical sense, just drained and weary from the world around me. I am still having an exceptionally difficult time coming to terms with the death of Sandra Bland earlier this summer. I processed it partially by writing this series of dead letters, which compounded a series of personal devastations. I wrote and edited poems. I tried not to spend so much time stressing myself out while taking on several projects and keeping myself very busy. I went to three writing retreats. Nothing has “fixed” the way I feel, but there has been respite and necessary reprieve. One of the things I loved most about the Transgressor album release was the sheer number of women performing on stage. Part of what made processing the public speculation around the death of Sandra Bland so difficult was this idea that the movement against police brutality focused so heavily on the deaths of black men and boys that it was the first significant focus on the death of a black woman. I’m highly sensitive to gendered bias in activism and the arts, almost to a fault, that seeing women of color dominate a bill in this atmosphere genuinely uplifts me. The DJ of the evening was Mother Cyborg, who is one of those DJs that stays getting it right all the time. Then there was Little Animal, who I had heard a lot about but not seen before. Their blend of shy and sultry and weird and howling is truly wonderful. In the middle slot was Bevlove, who looks like a rollerdisco goddess and belts to beat the devil. And then came Tunde Olaniran, straight outta Ferndale and a cloud of smoke and the evaporated sweat of the packed audience.
While I have a background in performance, there is no part of me that can imagine how one pulls off singing, dancing and serving space-age resort couture with the fever pitch that Tunde does. The number of hairflips alone was dizzying. To perform an album from beginning to end is one thing, but to make it earnest and spectacular all at once is another. While I could go on for several paragraphs about the power of Transgressor musically, I don’t intend to write a full review, and really you should just listen to it and buy it here. What’s significant to me here are the two spoken word interludes that happened during the show: the first, an audio clip from the movie The Craft, which has been one of my favorite movies for two decades, and the second…well. The second had me in tears. I am an avid listener of precisely one podcast, and it is The Read. For the uninitiated, The Read is Crissle and Kid Fury, sounding off on pop culture, giving listeners good advice, and then reading (in the ballroom/Paris is Burning sense) someone or something into the dirt. The week of Sandra Bland’s death, The Read came out a day earlier than normal, with a changed structure—beginning with the read of the arresting officers involved. Crissle unleashed a righteous and unrelenting tirade against all that was wrong surrounding Bland’s death. In the middle of a highly energetic and polished performance, Tunde Olaniran allotted space for his captive audience to listen to a black woman address the needless death of another black woman, and it felt radical and powerful and surreal.
While the performance itself left me energized and inspired, it was that non-musical interlude that bolstered me and helped me re-center myself. It made me remember how interconnected art is with its circumstances. While I read a fair amount, I often look to other art forms for inspiration. None of my writing would exist in the way it does without the music, paintings, film and other media I regularly consume. One of the most personally influential works I encountered this summer was the Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? about Nina Simone. So much of that film wrecked me emotionally. I found it particularly heartbreaking to listen to Nina Simone say that her years in the Civil Rights struggle, and all of her protest songs left her regretful. So much resonated. The poetry manuscript I spent much of the summer working on is called The Dozen. For a while, I felt stuck, certain that this collection of mostly political poems would not stand the test of time. I worried that it wouldn’t even stand up over the span of time between this summer and the book’s release in March. I worried that the poems were going to be something I later regretted.
Watching Tunde perform, I considered what it would be to complete a body of work and then embody it physically. I thought about what it might mean to transgress fear and just write into all of the visceral grief of the moment. When I returned home, I realized what had been missing, which was a personal writing algorithm in music. I created playlists that directly corresponded with the text. I recognized that one of my projects—The Black Death Mixtape directly coincided with the writing, to the point where I forgot what it was like to write without it. I thought repeatedly about the ways in which Nina Simone was wrong to regret, because so much of her regret came from the idea that there were no freedom fighters left. By the time I had the second to last draft complete, it felt like Tunde had helped me get free. --Casey Rocheteau
P.S, You can see Tunde performing this weekend at the Hamtramck Labor Day Festival: http://hamtownfest.com/index.php/schedule/