Tunde Wey is a Nigerian immigrant artist, chef, and writer working at the intersection of food and social politics. His work engages systems of exploitative power, particularly race, immigration, gentrification, and global capitalism, from the vantage point of the marginalized other. He uses food and dining spaces to confront and close the disparities these inequalities create.
Tunde’s work has been written about in the New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, Vogue, and GQ. His own writing has been featured in the Boston Globe, Oxford American, CityLab, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is a TIME Magazine 2019 Next Generation Leader and NYTimes 16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America 2019. Tunde is currently working on a book of essays slated for publish with MCD (a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux).
Season 2 of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations.
Produced by BlackStar Projects, in partnership with RowHome Productions.
Host and Executive Producer: Maori Karmael Holmes
Producer: Imani Leonard
Associate Producers: Irit Reinheimer and Farrah Rahaman
Managing Producer: Alex Lewis
Executive Editor: John Myers
Music supervisor: David ‘DJ Lil Dave’ Adams, BlackStar’s Music in Cinema Fellow supported by the Pop Culture Collaborative
- Theme song composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by David ‘DJ Lil Dave’ Adams.
- Lolade – “Neverland”
Revolver Restaurant (closed in 2020)
“Black women are the future of the food industry” (written by Tunde Wey, SF Chronicle, 2017)
Fela Kuti 1938-1997
[00:00:00] Maori Karmael Holmes: As part of their enduring commitment to justice, equity, and expression, the Open Society Foundations are proud to sponsor Many Lumens.
You’re listening to Many Lumens where we talk about and find meaning in the intersections of art, social change, and popular culture. I’m your host, Maori Karmael Holmes, founder and artistic director of BlackStar Projects. For this episode, I’m joined by writer, artist, and chef, Tunde Wey. For Tunde, food has become a way of critiquing power and privilege. He’s owned restaurants and created social practice projects that examine gentrification and comment on economic disparity. His writing has been featured in CityLab, Civil Eats and the San Francisco Chronicle. Tunde joined our conversation from Lagos, his hometown and where he’s currently based. We talk about how he owes me a husband and how the familiarity of a homeland can stay in our bodies, regardless of our time spent away. Tunde shares his family’s expectations of him, and how stepping outside of our parents’ desires can be liberating. We explore how his connection to food has evolved, and how he’s merged his art with activism.
[00:01:31] Maori Karmael Holmes: Well, welcome to Many Lumens. I wanted to start off with a pretty basic question. Where did you grow up? I feel like every time I’ve spoken to you in these past six years or so, you’re in a different city. And I’m curious if you also had an equally migratory childhood?
[00:01:48] Tunde Wey: No, I actually grew up in the place that I’m in right now. I grew up in Lagos. I was here until I was 16. And I’m saying that just so you know, if you hear any background noise, I’m in traffic, and Lagos traffic is crazy. I grew up in Ikeja, which is a neighborhood in Lagos, and then I moved to the US when I was 16. So that sort of… It was pretty stable.
[00:02:09] Maori Karmael Holmes: And what prompted your move to the States?
[00:02:11] Tunde Wey: So I had finished high school and the idea was to come to the US for college. I tried. I gave college a try, I guess.
[00:02:20] Maori Karmael Holmes: What did you try? What were you majoring in and where did you go?
[00:02:24] Tunde Wey: So the plan, which is my mother’s plan, was to have me do pharmacy and then do medicine.
[00:02:30] Maori Karmael Holmes: Mm-hmm. Of course.
[00:02:34] Tunde Wey: But then I went to community college, and then I was going to transfer to a four-year college and then do all this, but I ended up spending six years in community college, because I just kept failing all of the science classes, because that was not my destiny. And so, by the time I finished, I jumped from science to studying economics and Chinese for one semester, then I took a long break and I was like, “I just need to get a degree,” and I was studying marketing, and then that ended. So that was the last thing I was doing.
[00:03:02] Maori Karmael Holmes: Okay. So Tunde, can you tell me, at 16, when you came from Lagos to Detroit, is that correct?
[00:03:09] Tunde Wey: Yeah, I came to Detroit.
[00:03:11] Maori Karmael Holmes: And what were you reading? What were you listening to? What were you watching? What were your dreams for yourself at 16, coming to the US?
[00:03:19] Tunde Wey: Man, I don’t even think I knew anything. I remember just being interested in Ameritrade and stock stuff, but it’s kind of hard to explain. It’s like growing up in one country and then moving to a whole new other country. I was just exploring. I would walk from my aunt’s apartment where I was staying, 45 minutes or an hour to the library at a university. And I would just go in chatrooms and I’d be chatting with all these different people on MSN chats and stuff. I would be walking, and as I was walking, I would be memorizing the type of cars that were driving by. I was watching the way people dressed, the way they talked, the way they interacted with each other. So I was just taking in all sorts of random information. None of what I saw was unfamiliar to me conceptually, because growing up in Nigeria, all we consumed was American culture, but being there was different. My sensory reality was catching up to the things that I had in my brain.
[00:04:23] Maori Karmael Holmes: Hmm. Well, I imagine it must have been quite shocking too. I mean, I’ve not been to Lagos, but my understanding is that it’s like bustling metropolis, it’s filled with people, and Detroit in the late ’90s or early 2000s must have been completely the opposite. It must have felt like, I don’t know, like it must have been dropped into like Bizarro World.
[00:02:48] Tunde Wey: Right.
[00:04:50] Maori Karmael Holmes: What was that like, to go from Lagos to Detroit?
[00:04:51] Tunde Wey: Yeah, so we first moved to the west side of Detroit, and those were pretty dense neighborhoods.
[00:04:53] Maori Karmael Holmes: Okay.
[00:04:56] Tunde Wey: Detroit isn’t really a walking city, it’s a car town. I could walk on the street and probably not see anybody for a while. And in fact, I think that’s sort of in a lot of affluent or even middle-class communities, the way you tell who is working class is people who are walking. What was bizarre was I knew who I was, I knew myself, but myself had been transported into something else. The only thing familiar about where I was, was me. That was it. And that’s the same feeling that I had when I came back to Lagos, with a slight difference. So I came back after 20 years for the first time two years ago, and the difference was that I recognized myself, but then I had these nostalgic memories of everything that I was seeing, even though I hadn’t seen it in a while, or hadn’t seen them at all. I’ll go to different parts of town, but everything was recognizable and maybe familiar, but it was still new, if that makes any sense.
[00:05:54] Maori Karmael Holmes: Oh no, it totally makes sense.
[00:05:55] Tunde Wey: I met this white man in Lagos, and this man had the audacity to tell me that he’s more Nigerian than me because I had been away for 20 years and he had lived that amount of time here. And I was just like, “You don’t even know. It’s in my nostrils.” That’s how it is, I smell things that are Nigerian. That’s what it is, it’s my skin. It’s not in how long I’ve stayed or not stayed, you know?
[00:06:24] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. So speaking of Nigerian smells, I want to move a little bit into, what interested you in food? What sort of pushed you into that as a vocation?
[00:06:40] Tunde Wey: Yeah, the reason why I went with food was because of all the things I had done, it was the thing that, at the time, I had found the most success with. So I definitely wasn’t always thinking about cooking, and I came into it by happenstance. I was sort of at a turning point in my life, but I just needed to do something different. And I thought I was going to move to Chicago for school, but I wasn’t able to attend the school, so I decided to come back to Detroit. I just said yes to all these different things that were happening. And one of the things that happened was, I was talking to my former roommate at the time, and he just mentioned in the most casual way ever that he was thinking about opening up a restaurant. And then I said, “Let’s do it.” And he was like, “Sure.” I remember I just started making phone calls, because at that time, in Detroit, I had enough relationships and I knew enough people. In about a month, I had found this restaurant that didn’t need much from us. I had just happened to have finished some work projects that I said yes to that gave me like $4,000, he had some money, about $4,000, and we opened up this restaurant for $8,000, and we just did it. Our restaurant, initially, there was some buzz around it, but that buzz died down and then we were struggling. The concept was, we had different chefs come in to cook multi-course prix fixe meals. So we, me, Noma, we just sort of held the space, and we would do the survey. So as sort of interest was waning in our new concept, this one chef was pretty popular in Detroit. I reached out to him and I’m like, “Yo, do you want to do a dinner?” and he said yes. And the food critic for the Detroit Free Press, which is the largest daily in Michigan, I believe, came through to our little restaurant and she wrote her review. And since that time, we just kept selling out. And I’m like, “Yo, if people kind of fuck with me for this, and they think it’s smart or clever or it works, then I’m going to stick with the food thing.” And that’s what I’ve been doing since.
[00:08:50] Maori Karmael Holmes: So was this Revolver, is that this initial concept?
[00:08:53] Tunde Wey: Yes, Revolver.
[00:08:54] Maori Karmael Holmes: Okay.
[00:08:55] Tunde Wey: The aptly named.
[00:08:59] Maori Karmael Holmes: What gave you the permission to move from the intentions that you had as a teenager to… You abandoned pursuing pharmacy and pursuing becoming a doctor. How did you feel comfortable not doing what I imagine your parents had hoped for you?
[00:09:17] Tunde Wey: I was never going to be a doctor. That was never going to happen. By the time I opened up that restaurant, I was a failure to my parents. I mean, they wouldn’t say it, and maybe they would say it, actually, at the time. No, for real. Between 2013 and 2003, he call those the lost decade in my life. That’s what… He’s dramatic with his words. So I think I had always done things differently, I don’t know why. But what I realized was, every time I went against my parents’ wishes, I was very successful. So that’s a strategy that I began to employ. I’m like, “If my parents approve, I probably shouldn’t do it.” It’s for real, I’m just being… But the truth, too, about them is my parents are always right. They’re always right, but what is right for them is not right for me.
[00:10:14] Maori Karmael Holmes: So after your lost decade, what is it that your parents think of your career at this point?
[00:10:22] Tunde Wey: At this point they’re still… My mom is still disappointed that I don’t have a degree and I don’t have children, and I don’t make enough money for my dad. He wants me to make millions, so there’s that. They’re also… I mean, they say really sweet things. Like my mom, one time, she said something between pride and envy for the sort life that I live. And one time, my mom was complaining to my dad about me not getting a first degree, and my dad said to her that I’m worth more than a PhD. I mean, he never said this to my face, but it’s the rumor in the family, yeah. So yeah, so it’s complicated. I will tell you something, and this speaks to why I’m late for this podcast, and I’m also in an Uber trying to get home, it’s because my mom is currently in the hospital. And so, we’re trying to make sure that she’s fine, as with my brother earlier. The thing that I think my mom is realizing is that she has raised kids that are there for her. And so, all the other shit that she was thinking about like, “Oh, you don’t have a degree, you don’t have children,” it doesn’t matter because I’m in the hospital, sleeping on the couch, watching her as she’s recuperating or healing. And then she always says some shit, she’s just like, “Oh, thank you for your love and concern,” every time. We make jokes about it, but she sees, I guess, to a certain extent, that has more value. Yeah. Actually, I shouldn’t lie. It doesn’t have more value, but it’s valuable, or close to as valuable as a first degree.
[00:12:02] Maori Karmael Holmes: That’s really beautiful. And I want to send healing vibes her way. And thank you for doing this, despite coming from the hospital. Did you develop a love for food because of your mother? Did she have a distinguished cooking practice or foods that you love from growing up?
[00:012:26] Tunde Wey: I definitely didn’t think that I should start cooking because of my mom’s food and cooking. I mean, she cooked as a matter of course because we had to eat, but she cooked well. My parents were actually cool about the kind of food that they exposed us to, because my mom is from two different tribes, and so is my dad. So we ate food from Yoruba culture, Efik food, Itsekiri food, and Edo food, and we ate European food from time to time.
[00:12:46] Maori Karmael Holmes: Speaking of, who makes better jollof rice, is it Nigerians or is it Ghanaians?
[00:12:54] Tunde Wey: Yo, you know what? I’ve never had… Either I’ve never had Ghanaian jollof rice, or when I did have it, it was really, it was not good enough for me to remember. But I would say, and I think other people agree that Senegalese tiep, their chebu jen is like… It’s-
[00:13:11] Maori Karmael Holmes: That’s the best.
[00:13:13] Tunde Wey: Yeah. But yo, you might fuck around and come to a party in Lagos and you have some party jollof. Basically it’s cooked over firewood, so it’s smoke-infused basically. It is amazing. Nigerian food, to me, is one of the best foodways out here, but yeah.
[00:13:39] Maori Karmael Holmes: Our first episode of this season, we interviewed Yaba Blay, who’s Ghanaian of course, but we did a segment with her for a show last year called BlackStar Live, and Yaba learned to cook jollof rice from a Nigerian, Wale Oyejide. But Yaba told us off camera, and now I’m exposing her to the world, that the Senegalese is actually the best. And part of it is that joloff comes from Wolof, it is their rice, so of course they would be the best at it, which I had not known about that etymology.
[00:14:14] Tunde Wey: Right. I mean that is anecdotal. I don’t think anybody can say categorically that joloff is from Wolof. I mean, it sounds good, but nobody knows for sure. I mean, I don’t know.
[00:14:23] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
[00:14:25] Tunde Wey: I have a question to ask you. I just realized this. BlackStar, is it from Ghana or inspired by Ghana?
[00:14:36] Maori Karmael Holmes: Definitely inspired by. Yaba actually gave the name to the festival, but it’s… Because it has infinite meanings, so it is thinking about Nkrumah and thinking about Marcus Garvey, who Nkrumah is referencing. And so, with the very first festival, we were wanting to be Pan-African and thinking about diasporic Blackness very intentionally. And so, that layered with looking at film as the art of light, thinking about Black people in this form, it was like it had a multivalent meaning. Well, this actually segues really lovely into the next question, which is about political imperative. You’re really clear about that in your work. I read that you have said, “My cooking has always been political. It began as an oppositional response to foodie culture, nauseatingly self-referential and boastful.” And I was curious, where does this clarity come from?
[00:15:26] Tunde Wey: My God, I am nauseating when I hear back things that I wrote. When I had the restaurant, Revolver, our food was, just for lack of a better term, cutting edge. There was this new crop of chefs in Detroit at the time that was matching this wave that was happening. So I wasn’t familiar with any of the foods, but I had sort of a front-row seat to what was culinarily relevant in Detroit at the time. And I would taste some things that I absolutely loved. And my partner, Peter, who’s white and American, would be like, “Oh, this is bullshit.” And I’ll taste some things that I hated, and he’d be like, “This is amazing.” And I just realized that I had a different frame of reference. The experience at the restaurant, just little things that happened. For example, we used to play music with the dinners. And so, one time we were playing some Miles, and then I switched it up to some Biggie, and then this lady called me over and she was like, “Can you change the music back to the jazz? It goes better with the food.” And I’m like, “You know that the same projections that have been put on hip hop were put on jazz?” And so, that’s sort of disconnection between the historical reality of music and how that translated just throughout the restaurant, in all these other different ways, just made me realize that there was quote, unquote foodie culture that was motivated in some sense by particular trends. And if you stepped outside of those trends, then you weren’t cool enough or good enough. And I didn’t want to play that game because I knew that I wasn’t equipped. I didn’t have the palette for that game. But what I knew was Nigerian food. Nigerian food was, to me, straightforward. Shit was either delicious or not delicious. We didn’t pass out flavors, we didn’t, at least not when I was growing up, talk about different elements of a plate. A plate didn’t need to have crunch or texture and color and dimension. It just was what it was. And so, I think by dint of me being outside of the game, instead just create my own game, I’m like, “I know this food, I know what this is, and this is the game I’m playing. My position is to re-orient everybody towards my understanding of the world.” And that was where the oppositional reality came from. Who cares if American foodies or white folks or European or anybody thinks that to be classically trained in French cuisine is the epitome of good foods? But there are more conversations and systems beyond all of those things. And so, when I realized that there were other fights to have, I sort of stopped talking about food culture. I only talked about food culture to the extent that I could talk about the other things that I want to talk about, like race. That was where my politics really began to mature and to have an articulated expression, when I started cooking and connecting that cooking to race relations and questions of race in America.
[00:18:50] Maori Karmael Holmes: So I think about some of the projects after Revolver, some of the pop-up projects, like Saartj, where you charge white people basically back for what they did to The Cold Crush, right? And then I think about the project where I saw you last––
[00:19:08] Tunde Wey: I almost spit out my drink.
[00:19:11] Maori Karmael Holmes: I can’t remember the name of it, but the project where I saw you last, where you charged American citizens more than immigrants, do you remember that?
[00:19:19] Tunde Wey: Yeah. Marriage Trumps All.
[00:19:24] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yes. And the prospect of marriage was on the table, and I wanted to make sure you knew that I didn’t find a husband, so you owe me. But I think about-
[00:19:32] Tunde Wey: Are you still looking for a husband?
[00:19:36] Maori Karmael Holmes: Perhaps. But I think about those projects and I think about other projects similar to that as Conflict Kitchen or things that Ghetto Gastro has been doing, and just political food experiments, and wondering where you see yourself in this assemblage.
[00:19:53] Tunde Wey: If we to talk about the evolution of my politics, I would say it went from broad cultural critique that wasn’t grounded in any sort of political theory, moved to critical race theory and understanding the world through a critical race lens, and then it’s encompassing a class analysis as well. And unfortunately, I am sequential in this way. So I think, for me, right now, I think a lot about class, and I need to do better. I need to have my class analysis be more intersectional. My work is currently for me about elucidating how dire things are materially for folk, especially for on the continent. There’s a connection to the US, of course. The obvious connection is one of solidarity, which is like, Black folks in America, Black folks on the continent are the same people, or at least come from the same stock. But there’s another connection that I haven’t been successful in articulating through my work, at least, is that there’s a responsibility that Black folks in the US have as part of an imperial machine. And there is some sort of Black American imperial tendency. And even if there wasn’t, which there is, there has to be the knowledge that American culture, which is American song power, is Black culture. And that is being used to colonize other cultures in different ways. But there’s a soft colonization that has little material effects, or has larger scale effects. I tell people, “Puff Daddy raised me.” All the fucking Bad Boy Record albums, when I was in Nigeria, that’s all we listened to. We would wear like Timberland boots and camouflage pants and Nautica and Polos, that’s all we’re doing.
[00:21:49] Maori Karmael Holmes:Yeah. I think, for me, there’s a connectedness between thinking about the Global South, but there’s also something about the dire material life of Black people in the U.S. And so, I think this conversation or this idea about Black American imperialism is also related to class, right? Not all Black people in the U.S. have the capacity to be imperialist or have access to resources to even enact that imperialism. So I just want to trouble that just slightly, I wouldn’t want that statement to go untroubled in this conversation, but––
[00:22:20] Tunde Wey: I do want to say that I am for and pro all working-class folk. And to the point about not every African American has the ability to exploit this sort of imperial possibility is also connected to the fact that American cultural imperialism, a lot of it is from the exploitation of working-class Black folks too. So that sort of complicated reality.
[00:22:46] Maori Karmael Holmes: I also want to come back, just because you brought it up, and I had it for a different section, but I want to come to it now. So think about gender. You wrote an article, and I imagine hearing things you wrote about several years ago, but in 2017, there’s an article in the San Francisco Chronicle called Black Women are the Future of the Food Industry, right? And you’re uplifting the contributions of some Black women in food justice and culinary movements. And I’m just curious, beyond kind of rampant misogyny and misogynoir in the food industry, what led you to write that? And sort of what has shifted in your understanding of, yeah, just sort of the role of Black women in food?
[00:23:35] Tunde Wey: Yeah. This is the hardest question in the world for me. So I don’t know. This is definitely not the space to share some shit, but I embody all the things I was criticizing in that essay. I did then, and I do now. And there’s no separation between me… Well, there isn’t…conceptually, there’s no separation between me and the critiques that I made about gender. I have, in the past, exploited my male privilege, and something that I struggle with. And in fact, if there was a crux of my spiritual struggle, it’s that. I used to call myself a fuckboy. I used to, as a joke, but also as a truth. Actually, fuck it, I’ll just say it. I was non-monogamous, so dating multiple people, unaware of, maybe not unaware is the right word, but I think creating a lot of trauma for my partners. And then it is like a recent personal thing that happened that I have been processing in my own way for the last six months, and it sort of made me take a decision to take a step back from relationships or even any sort of romantic connection. I’m saying all this to say that I realized that “fuckboy” was not the term that I should be using for myself. It’s like, I am product of some trauma, right? And that trauma and the choices that I made in regards to that trauma, because different people suffer trauma, but people make choices differently, you know? So trauma doesn’t always lead to certain actions. But the choice that I made based on my histories created really difficult situations for myself and for my partners. And so, I started thinking about this label, “fuckboy”, differently. And to me, the question about how I feel about black women and women in general is just a hard one for me to answer, because I’m working through some shit. I’m actively, in this moment, as we are speaking, working through a whole bunch of shit, and yeah, and that’s where it is for me.
[00:26:24] Maori Karmael Holmes: Okay. Thank you. I did want to go back a little bit, and I’m curious if you remember, you emailed me in 2016, I think when I was working at the ICA, and you said something along the lines of, “You need me at this museum. Give me a date.” I mean, it was something like that. And I just remember being completely taken aback, like, “Who is this person?” And I was doing research for our interview. I was watching a New York Times video in which your former partner, Claire, shares this is a tactic of yours, saying “Tunde hits up people and basically says, ‘Give me a check.’ And it works.” And I’m wondering, it must have worked for you, but I wonder if it worked on Black people? Because it didn’t work on me. But I wonder, for you, what was this strategy, and do you continue to push people in this way?
[00:27:23] Tunde Wey: No, I don’t use that approach anymore. I sort of honed that approach in 20… I want to say 2013, when I had my first cooking tour. I couldn’t play games. I was undocumented. Part of why I left my restaurant in New Orleans in 2013 was because I didn’t own the restaurant that I started with my partner. We went to the bank together to open up a joint account, and I couldn’t because I didn’t have an ID or a passport or whatever they needed, because I wasn’t a US citizen. So when it came to this disagreement between my partner and I, I had to leave, because technically, I didn’t own the restaurant, even though my name was in the paper as the co-owner and all that shit. And I wasn’t desperate, because I sort of moved with some intention, but I was like, “Fuck it. I want something, I need it. I don’t have a fallback plan.” That was the work that I was doing, so I approached it with a certain aggressiveness, but I tried to be charming too. And so, that was sort of how I moved then. I don’t think I move so much that way now. I think I’m less impatient than I was then. But also, you did need me in 2016, so I’m just… I was also speaking the truth.
[00:28:47] Maori Karmael Holmes: Okay, fair.
[00:28:50]Midroll: BlackStar Projects celebrates and uplifts Black, Brown, and Indigenous artists. We produce the annual BlackStar Film Festival, Many Lumens, Seen, and other projects, creating the spaces and resources artists need to thrive. Learn more and support our work at Blackstarfest.org.
[00:29:14] Maori Karmael Holmes: You’re listening to Many Lumens. Now, back to my interview with Tunde Wey.
We’ve talked about Saartj, the things that you did after Revolver, you had Lagos as a stall in New Orleans, and then, in recent years, you’ve had a number of online experiments, including selling overpriced salt. And so, so much of this, for me, looks like what people have been calling social practice in the last decade in the art world. And I was curious, are there any other projects or collectives or artists that you drew inspiration from?
[00:29:48] Tunde Wey: I would say I was doing what I was inspired to do. And then later on, I’ll hear about something and I’m like, “Oh shit, this is connected.” So for example, the person that comes to mind is David Hammons. But before him, I was thinking about Fela [Kuti], and not necessarily about his music, but about his whole life as practice. I think there’s an art language that folks use when they say, “Oh, my life is my practice.” But it’s different when you’re someone like Fela, when you went to prison. I’m talking about broken bones and a dead mother, and all of these things that come with living under a regime of oppression that you have to fight against. So I think Fela was a huge inspiration for me. Not his music, but the way he lived his life, because I sort of fancied myself, definitely not to the extent at all that he did, but as somebody that would put myself on the line in my work. That’s the thing that I sometimes hope to move towards, like, “How can I sacrifice more of myself in some way?” So yeah, those were sort of the artists I would be inspired by.
[00:31:05] Maori Karmael Holmes: So one of the things that comes up in a lot of the work is this incredible kind of satirical impulse. And so, I think about a project, Hot Chicken Shit where you sold hot chicken at extortionist prices to fund a community land trust in Black neighborhoods. And your stated goal was that gentrification is outrageous, and so you came up with an equally outrageous plan to fix it. And I was just curious, where does this absurdist tendency, where does this come from?
[00:31:38] Tunde Wey: That is a great question. I think…. Or let me just be generous and say my mother is wild. I tell people that my mother has Miami stripper dreams. My mother’s 72. I’m so serious. My mother is 73 and-
[00:31:47] Maori Karmael Holmes: You have to please explain that.
[00:31:57] Tunde Wey: Yeah, she’s 73 years old and she wants to be flewed out. She’s always like, “Take me on a cruise.” She wants to have just wild shit. There are no limitations. And the closer it is to outrageous and impossible, that’s where she lives. If you have a problem, my mom would be like, “Let’s call Oprah right now, and she will help us.” And my mom once too, she once told me, “Look, just get me Oprah’s phone number. That’s all I need. I’ll do the rest of the hard work.” I’m like, “Mommy, getting Oprah’s phone number is the hard work. There’s nothing else beyond that.” So I think if there’s some sort of genetic connection, it’s that. My mom is always, even right now, she’s in the hospital, she’s thinking about some crazy shit that she’s about to do next. So maybe that’s where it comes from, but I don’t know really.
[00:32:44] Maori Karmael Holmes: I want to bring another Detroit cultural worker and writer, Adrienne Maree Brown, into the mix and ask you, how does pleasure factor into your work? You’re attentive to mise en place, everything is beautiful, but then you’re also always towing the line between aesthetics and politics. Just explain that concept a little bit more.
[00:33:02] Tunde Wey: Yeah. My work to me is not about food at all. Maybe you feel the same way, like your work isn’t about necessarily the immediate title attached to the work. It’s like there are all these structural issues that exist that I need a medium through which to communicate them, and food happens to be that medium. To me, food is disposable. However, I think food is like breathing. By the time the diner comes into the space, I’m not interested in regaling them with stories about how long it took me to make it, or how delicious it is, or any of that. It’s in the background, just like breathing. You don’t know when you’re breathing. I feel the same way about food. I spend, I was thinking about it, I would spend three days by myself, cooking alone to put out the dinner. But once I put the plates in front of the guests, I don’t talk about the dinner. If we use breath as the analogy, it’s like breath animates us completely. It does so much work, but we don’t consider it. In interaction with the diner, I just think it should be in the background, supports the work of living. And in the dining space or in the digital space, the work of living is the work of addressing some of these structural issues, or even now, for me, the personal issues that, it aggregates, create the structural issues that we are facing. There is a destination, or at least a path. And that path isn’t the path to enjoyment, it’s a paths towards a particular purpose. But on that path, something my brother said to me is, “If you stay on your path, everything you want is on that path. But if you go off that path, then you’re going to miss everything else.” That’s, yeah.
[00:34:054] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. I want to talk about food just a little bit more, and I wanted to ask you how you describe your food. And I’m asking that, sort of going beyond this idea of comfort or discomfort, but if you’re cooking primarily Nigerian food, and Nigeria is a big place, right? There’s lots of tribes or peoples, and so there’s different kinds of food. Are you considering your food diasporic? Is it fusion? Is it hybrid? Are you rejecting categorization at all?
[00:35:23] Tunde Wey: When I became more specific about my work, I said I cook regional Southwestern Nigerian food mostly, but really, in practice, Nigerian food is the base, and I go from there. And I don’t know where I’m going, depending what I’m doing. So I did the dinner one time in New Orleans, it was a ramen dinner, but she was like Nigerian food to me. I did the sort of soft boiled egg in the style that I’m familiar with. The broth was crayfish and ehuru, and ehuru which is calabash nutmeg. I mean, folks can call that fusion, because language is semantic. But I think that the food that I’m doing is Nigerian food. That’s just what it is. But then I was doing traditional Nigerian food, then I got bored with that and I just started doing different things. So that’s, I would say Nigerian food, but if I did cook a meal depending on where I was, it might not be immediately recognizable to say Nigerian, but the flavors would, probably.
[00:36:31] Maori Karmael Holmes: Can you talk a little bit about any compromises that you’ve made, particularly when it comes to menus or ingredients that you hope never to repeat?
[00:36:40] Tunde Wey: When I had the restaurant in New Orleans, or the stall, the Lagos stall, the business was feeling fantastically. At one point in time, because people weren’t checking for what we call swallow here, which is dense ball of starch with leafy vegetables too, people weren’t checking for that. They came to New Orleans, they wanted to eat shrimp etouffee, and if they were going to try anything else, it would be a cold chicken sandwich or a chia seed and avocado salad. These were literally things at the market that I was in. So I was like, “Yo, I need to make some sales.” So I made this stew chicken sandwich. I basically toasted some bread and I made a Yoruba stew, which is red bell peppers, onions, and tomatoes, and then you season it, and then you fry it and sort of poach it and all that stuff, with some chicken that I had done the same thing to, I had poached chicken, then I fried it, then I baked it. So it was like a, I call it a thrice-cooked chicken. And then I shredded the chicken into the stew, that became the filling for the sandwich. And people loved it, but I’m like, “Yo, I didn’t come here to make fucking chicken sandwiches.” So I made a choice, as the business was failing, I’m like, “Yo, I’m not going to do this.” If I was going to go out, I was going to go out serving eba and egusi and okro soup. That’s what it was going to be.
[00:38:12] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. Being an African person cooking African food, in a US context, is still, I don’t know, for lack of a better term, exotic, right? So there’s a way in which I could imagine you would be invited to conferences or pop-ups or other kinds of spaces, and then you show up and you are vetted as something new and different, which is a, you know, of being a token of some kind of progress on behalf of that organization. And so, I was just curious what your experience was like. But related to, you have this very specific aim, and the reality is, in order to move that work along, you need resources, you need access, you need exposure, so to speak. And so, oftentimes comes as a token opportunity. And I think just wanting to think about, what is the tension between “This is my project, and this might be the path to get there.”?
[00:39:13] Tunde Wey: Yeah. I think that tokenization is a reality. If you’re playing a game for resources, I find it hard to imagine a situation where you wouldn’t be tokenized. But there’s also a difference, right? There’s a difference between other people tokenizing you and then you performing in agreeance with that tokenization, or you being present while it’s happening. I think it all comes down to politics. I can’t live a life that insulates me from things that I am uncomfortable with, and I’m sure that’s true for many people. That’s the realization that I have. I’m a villain myself to folks, right? And so, if I see people who have been villainized in one aspect, but they have other aspects of themselves that I can connect to, I try to make that connection. Just to sort of concretize this, I think about money. I think about the work that I’m doing, needing resources. I don’t think any money is bad. I don’t think anybody’s bad. I think that there are bad aspects to money and bad aspects to people. But I think if I engage with people or engage with money to further the work that I’m doing, I make sure that I am engaging with them, I’m collecting resources, engaging with money without collecting the ideology that I do not favor. But it’s hard to articulate that to folks, especially when folks tend to demonize money or demonize people. I think of things as multifaceted, because that’s how I am. I have really horrible sides and I have sides of me that are lovely. I think there’s an opportunity to connect to different sides of things and different sides of people. And so, if I’m in a situation where I’m tokenized, if it’s in service or the work that I’m doing, if I’m not adopting the ideology behind the tokenization, and I perceive an opportunity for a greater reward despite the cost, then I would participate. And I think this is life to me. This is politics.
[00:41:17] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. I always think back to Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides. And I think it was the first time I had sort of thought about, it’s all slave trading paper. I’ve never let that go when I think about money. And so, pivoting very directly, I love that you said when you were 16, you were thinking about Ameritrade and stocks, because so much of your work is coming back to transaction and capital and currency, right? There are major motifs in your work, and particularly with your project bullchit.money, which is this digital token share redeemable for a food-based product or experience curated by you. It’s a really interesting take on using the master’s tools to kind of poke at the master’s house. I think the breakdown of bull, as in the Wall Street Bull, chit, as in a token for trade, which is a word really legible throughout the British Commonwealth. Also, of course, it sounds like “bullshit”. And it’s like we’ve been talking about, right? It’s using satire, it’s exploring, I’m imagining some kind of anti-capitalism or at least sort of thinking through what capitalism is doing. And I’m really curious, is this simply tongue-in-cheek critique of crypto, or is it really meant to get us thinking about other kinds of currency and ways of circulating resources?
[00:42:40] Tunde Wey: Yeah. So I think it’s all those things. I think my general position is like, “Yo, this shit is so complex,”––the monetary system. I am not big enough to change sentiment, but there’s an opportunity to make a demonstration, and that demonstration can live in some sort of archive of descent and that folks can reference, even if it’s small and talked away in the corner. There’s a finance scholar, Perry Mehrling. He says something to the effect that financial transactions are our social reality. If you think about when you interact with folks, interact with strangers the most, at least for me, is like when you’re making a purchase. That’s the most consistent thing I think we do. We buy things. It’s a social reality. Trade existed long before capitalism. And so, my work now is sort of focused on these moments, these transactional moments, because they represent a social possibility, a possibility to demonstrate where we are. But I think, for me, the demonstration is important and sort of what you think the critique of the work is, is true. And then, every other thing we find out about what the critique could be and what the problem is, is also true, because we need to design solutions that are as ingenious as what the problems are. And I think part of ingenuity is not thinking through what all the solutions are, but designing a framework that can accommodate more and more solutions. So when I started this Bullchit, I’d actually been reading about stocks and bonds and stuff like that. But the way it worked out and the way I designed it, it sort of spoke to crypto as well. I just think that speaks to an underlying reality of financialization and products, that they all come from the same base motivation to make profits, to be speculative, and to cause considerable financial loss and considerable financial gain. There are other possibilities that they create, but these are the things that undergirds global financialization. I just hope that the work that I do, if it reflects the foundation, and when folks interact with it, it can iterate and morph in different ways to satisfy all the realities that are present and possible.
[00:45:22] Maori Karmael Holmes: I want to uplift another project, your luxury palm wine company, Since Spirits, where palm wine is sold in the US for $192.76 per bottle, which is a figure you created by dividing Nigeria’s external debt borrowed from foreign lenders, almost $38 billion, by the number of drinking-age people living in the United States. And so, I wanted you to say more about this. Why is it significant for you to work with palm wine, and why charge it to the US?
[00:45:55] Tunde Wey: Yeah, I think the palm wine was a personal happenstance. I was doing some filming in the center of the country, Kogi State, with this fellow who, his story goes around rice farms. And then, when we sat down, they brought Ogogoro, which is the spirit distilled from palm wine. And I thought it was amazing. I loved this so much. I sent it to my brother. I sent him, I think, a 15-gallon container. I’m like, “Yo, try this shit.” So we were drinking it at home, and I was drinking, I was making martinis at my crib in Shomolu, which is a sort of working-class suburb over here, and my brother would joke that I was making Molu martinis. But I enjoyed it, and then I just started thinking, as I do sometimes about the work that I wanted to do, which is talk about the global value chain that continues to disregard Black folks on the continent, and the global economic system that is so fucked that it denies monetary sovereignty to Nigerians and folks on the continent, and that our currencies are either pegged to the Dollar or pegged to the Euro, even if they aren’t pegged, because all of international trade is invoiced in dollars, or most of it anyway, not all of it. We are subject to these Forex fluctuations that cause high unemployment, that cause high interest rates, and also cause debt in foreign currency. And in response to all of this, you have these international financial organizations pressing upon us these restrictions that create more problems. They call them structural adjustments, but they don’t adjust the larger structure, they adjust the folks who are suffering the symptoms of the structure. So we’re just in this cycle of debt, poverty, and bullshit, which is not to absolve us of any responsibility, but to just highlight or uplift what this sort of super structure is that exists. I want to talk about this all the time. In my home, I haven’t had power for a week and a half. The roads are shit, the hospitals are shit. And so, it is an opportunity to get people to consume this information by imbibing a drink that is going to be delicious, then I want to share this and be blunt about it. There are a lot of… So I’m saying that, “You’re going to drink this drink, and you’re not going to save anything. You’re not going to change anything. In fact, you are going to be contributing more to the systemic erosion of our economic and social and political system. And to highlight that point, this exorbitant fee based on the external debt that Nigeria has, and then at least be aware that this drink, if you consume it as art, you consume it as some sort of limited edition product as a foodie, or some sort of theoretical position that you agree with or don’t agree with. Whatever your consumption motivation is, it is connected to the dire material dispossession of folks on the continent.”
[00:49:15] Maori Karmael Holmes: I mean, I love the idea. I wish it was more affordable for me, but I often think about alcohol, in particular in the distillation of rum and its connection to enslavement and global capitalism, et cetera, et cetera. So I love sort of even bringing it back to the continent, but I feel like it’s working on multiple levels, which is, one, sort of introducing a new spirit into foodie culture, which is important, but also then reminding us of this materiality and economic impact, so. I also want to ask you about, there’s a similarity I’m thinking about between kitchens and film sets, and they’re militarized spaces, right? Very much taking their cues from military movement. And I know you’re new to sort of the film space, but I’m curious, on a kitchen level, if you’ve thought about decolonizing the kitchen? Was there anything that you have done or thinking about doing that disrupts how kitchens are run?
[00:50:18] Tunde Wey: So I’ve never really run a kitchen in a conventional sense. So when I did dinners, I did dinners in other people’s kitchens. So either I had free range of the kitchen with nobody in there, probably at midnight because that was the only time I could use the kitchen, or I worked with your staff. Or at the sort of store that I had in New Orleans, it was a shared kitchen, so multiple people were there. If you’re trying to cook a meal, democracy doesn’t work there. That is not the way to cook in a modern kitchen. When I go into kitchens and I’m working with people who are familiar with that kitchen, my position is I’m coming in there with food that they don’t know about, and I’m trying to serve it to their customers, or my customers too. I tell folks, “Yo, make this egusi,” and I give them broad directions, and they come back and they’re like, “Yo, I don’t know how to make this.” I’m like, “Yo, it’s chill. Whatever you feel, if it tastes good, go ahead and do that.” But then I promise you, there’s always some motherfucker in the kitchen, because you are open, and that openness is different from what they’re used to. And I’ve had sous chefs or people who work at restaurants that have never tasted Nigerian food before come and challenge me about things. They start telling me how to cook this shit. And I have to check them and say, “Yo, this is not what you think it is. I know I’m being friendly and stuff, but can you just please do what I’m asking you to do? Because this is what I need done.” And so, all that to say is like, I think that in kitchens, and you see this especially in social profit enterprises that are centered on kitchens where folks are using a kitchen to train quote, unquote at-risk folk to sell some food. Those things don’t usually work because you’re trying to inject an ideology into a space that rejects that. If you’re trying to change the system, if you’re trying to change to the militaristic tendencies of kitchens, I think you have to change the larger system. The only caveat I would say is that abuse is different from strict leadership. And strict leadership works, but it’s not a universal answer to all situations. I think in kitchens, if you’re trying to meet a certain guest quarter, you’re trying to produce quality food, there needs to be some sort of hierarchy or some sort of division of labor. It doesn’t have to be abusive, it doesn’t have to be coercive or emotionally manipulative or destructive, but there has to be an order that exists.
[00:53:07] Maori Karmael Holmes: I agree with that. I was just… It’s something that we’ve been talking a lot about in film space, also, I think not trying to flatten the structure, but to think about ways to kind of decolonize disrespect for people’s roles. I want to start wrapping us up. And so, I have some easier questions. What else are you interested in taking on? You’ve been food, writing, you’ve started in film. What other disciplines are you imagining you’ll explore?
[00:53:41] Tunde Wey: I don’t know. I think that… Nah, I’m just trying to work on myself right now because that is a discipline I need to master. So yeah, I’m just, I’m trying to work on me. Yeah, that’s it, that’s the discipline. Yeah.
[00:54:00] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. And what do you have coming up next?
[00:54:05] Tunde Wey: I’m actually going to be in Pittsburgh. I have a residency at Alma Lewis Center. It’s sort of an art center that supports artists of color, so I’m going to be there writing and working on my other projects for the next three months, starting April, I think 16th or 17th. And then I really want to challenge or to be in conversation with affluent Nigerians to situate them in the larger problem that is Nigeria. So I have a show that I’m working on, sometime in the American summer or the Western summer that I would be doing here. And then I have a show in Baton Rouge in the fall, and maybe in Los Angeles, I’m creating a post apocalyptic restaurant that really stretches the comfort of the guests, because they have been dropped into some sort of future that is a product of environmental degradation and some sort of super pandemic. And so, how do you dine in a post-apocalyptic world? And then I’m writing. I have a book that I should have finished four years ago that I’m writing. So yeah.
[00:55:22] Maori Karmael Holmes: What has been a meal or snack that’s been your go-to lately, that maybe sort of has developed in the pandemic, or just sort of where are you finding some comfort with food these days?
[00:55:33] Tunde Wey: Yeah, so I eat what’s called white beans and fried sweet plantains literally three times a day, every day, I don’t cook at home. I haven’t cooked the last six months since I’ve been here in Lagos. Across the street from me is this lady and her daughter. We’ve become friends, and I just, I buy my food from her every day, and it’s just, it’s everything. And that’s what I eat.
[00:56:00] Maori Karmael Holmes: That is the most Virgo thing you’ve said this entire interview. My mother is a Virgo and I have several friends that are, and they have the capacity to eat the same thing, and I do not understand. But that’s great. Are there any dream collaborators that you would like to work with in the future?
[00:56:18] Tunde Wey: Besides yourself?
[00:56:22] Maori Karmael Holmes: Smooth.
[00:56:28] Tunde Wey: No, I’m just, that’s real. I mean, you did say in 2016, I reached out to you. So it’s been a longstanding dream. You know what? I actually met this fellow. Maybe you know him, I’m sure you do actually, Andrew Dosunmu. Do you know him?
[00:56:38] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yes.
[00:56:40] Tunde Wey: Yeah.
[00:56:41] Maori Karmael Holmes: I do.
[00:56:43] Tunde Wey: On some random shit. Friends of mine in Lagos are friends of his, and they invited me out to some sort of music thing, and he was there, and I was just gushing. Yeah. I don’t know if I want to work with him, but I definitely want to shadow him or some shit, just to see how he moves. He’s super Nigerian. He’s Lagos Nigerian, but he’s also in that sort of art house, film world. And so, it’s… Yeah, I think that’s dope.
[00:57:11] Maori Karmael Holmes: Well, we have to have you at the festival, but that is… We will talk about that offline. Thank you so much. This has been really, really, really great. I feel like… I guess what most people don’t know, we’ve been doing these shows mostly in the evening, and this is in the morning for all of us. Not for Tunde.
[00:57:30] Tunde Wey: Not for me, yeah.
[00:57:33] Maori Karmael Holmes: So it’s very much like I woke up this morning to have class, and I really appreciate it, everything that you’ve been saying, and I appreciate your vulnerability, and yeah, thank you so much for sharing.
[00:57:42] Tunde Wey: Yeah. I mean, thank you. I’ve been looking forward to this, and yeah, it was everything that I thought was going to be and more, so thank you.
[00:57:54] Maori Karmael Holmes: To explore more of Tunde’s work, visit his website fromlagos.com. Follow Tunde on Instagram @from_lagos. You can find his recipe for joloff rice at cooking.nytimes.com.
This season of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations. It is produced by BlackStar Projects in partnership with Rowhome Productions. The host and executive producer of Many Lumens is me, Maori Karmael Holmes. Our producer is Imani Leonard. Associate producers are Irit Reinheimer and Farrah Rahaman. Managing producer is Alex Lewis. Executive editor is John Myers. Our music supervisor is David “Little Dave” Adams, BlackStar’s music and cinema fellow, supported by The Pop Culture Collaborative. Our theme song was composed by Vijay Mohan, and remixed by Little Dave. This episode features music by Lolade. You can explore more of her music at lolademusic.com.
Sending you light, and see you next time.