Money has been a subject of so much of your—what do you consider your work? Events? Installations? Public performance-art commercial actions?
My mom’s always like, “How you gonna make money?” and I’m like, look, bro, God will help us all. You can call my work whatever you want.
Let’s just stick with “your work,” then. Your most recent event, in December, involved asking hospitals to buy packaged food at a high mark-up, and you’d give the profits to the communities they served.
It’s interesting, because it dovetails with what we’re seeing right now with the pandemic, because it was about racial health disparities. It was born from a conversation I had with a medical doctor who does social-justice work, Michelle Morse. Infant mortality in the black community is higher than white infant mortality, and one of the places where this disparity is especially noticeable is Kalamazoo, Michigan. So that’s where the work began—we called it BabyZoos, because of Kalamazoo.
If you look at what’s being done to address these disparities, all of the efforts are focussed on medical solutions, with a lot of urgency around improving access to care, improving delivery of health services. But the doctors working on these problems, at least in Kalamazoo, they’ll all tell you the issue isn’t just that, it’s a broad range of factors, the so-called “social determinants of health.” Housing, income, education—all these things actually impact the health outcomes of black folks. So what I wanted to do was focus my efforts on the most direct health-correlation factor I could, which is income. It’s about resource transfer to address racial health disparities.
That was the plan. What I found out was that hospitals didn’t care. Hospitals and health organizations didn’t care.
What will you do next?
I figure it’s easier to focus on individuals, so I’m going direct-to-consumer. I’m launching a pantry-staples brand in the next couple of months that does the same thing I was trying to do with BabyZoos: sell food products, and distribute the bulk of the profits to black communities. We’re not asking questions, we’re not putting folks who get the money on camera, we’re not asking for testimonials. There’s a tendency among folks who are engaged in charity work to trot out the beneficiaries of the charity, and I think that’s fucked up. We’re just going to say, “Hey, take this money, and use it.”
We’re going to be selling salt. The salt is going to be called Lot.
After Lot’s wife, who turned into a pillar of salt?
Yeah, you got it. I’m also working with [the sustainable spice company] Burlap and Barrel on a condiment brand, Disappearing Condiments, which isn’t up and running yet. We’ll be selling fermented locust beans, which are indigenous to West Africa.
Will you be offering asymmetric pricing—charging more to white customers, for example—like you’ve done at some of your events?
No, not with the fermented locust beans. There are some things we’re thinking through with the salt, but I’m not sure if this is the right avenue for it. The idea is just to have a competitively-priced, high-quality product that competes with the more conventional condiments and pantry staples.
Like, it’s just a really good salt, and people buy it because it’s good salt—not because they’re going out of their way to buy it in order to exorcise a sense of white guilt?
What I’ve realized with the work I’m doing, hosting dinners, doing these—what did you call them? Public-performance actions? You have to convince the customer of your ideology before they divest of their resources. With the salt, I wanted to try to decouple the two. If you need salt, buy the salt. You don’t need to believe that you are anti-racist, or believe that you are racist, or even believe that the world is fucked up. You can just buy the salt.
I want to create viable products that can compete in the marketplace, so I can extract as much resources as possible and redirect them to communities that need them the most.
Isn’t this the same approach that you’re so skeptical of in “Let It Die”? That seems like exactly what Reem was trying to convince you of in the first half of the episode.
I guess! This is not an ideological question, right? It’s a material question. When you can’t buy malaria medicine, or you can’t put food on your table, it becomes about more than ideology. It’s a concrete, material battle. I mean, people are dying. Right now, people are dying. A month ago, in Lagos, where my parents live, there were young, able-bodied men going into neighborhoods demanding food from people under threat of violence. There were other people who formed a militia to encircle neighborhoods to keep those men away. This is reality. That’s not a consequence of Africans or Nigerians being incompetent or unprepared, it’s a consequence of a global system that extracts more and more from Africans, people of color, black folks, working-class folks. That needs to be addressed. If that means running a conventional business, I guess that is what it is. I’m conventional in that sense. I don’t want people to die.
Last year, you were profiled by Brett Martin in GQ—and now that piece is a finalist for a James Beard Award. That must feel strange, to see someone be rewarded for observing you closely.
It’s a mindfuck, on a couple levels. A friend pointed out that I myself write about my own life—and now somebody else is being recognized for writing about my life, even though I already do this. Her example—and I thought it was great—was that it’s like somebody going to [the legendary New Orleans chef] Leah Chase’s kitchen, watching her make fried chicken, working with her, taking her recipe, tweaking it, and then winning an award for that recipe. I was like, Shit, that is incredible.
But also Brett, who wrote the essay, is a friend, and he had become more of a friend in the course of the writing of the profile. As we started developing our relationship, I was very critical of his coverage of white people—white chefs, specifically. I remember saying to him, “Brett, this exploration of the minutiae of whiteness is problematic.” I was like, man, we don’t need to read another Sean Brock profile. The shit he’s doing is cool but, with all due respect, we don’t need to hear about him again. Can we get some other people on the books?
Do you hope your profile wins?
I hope Brett wins because I like Brett. But it doesn’t matter to me. I actually got e-mails and texts congratulating me, and I was, like, “No, dude, that’s not me, that’s not me at all.” I have a book coming out about my actual life, so maybe people can tune into that.
When is that coming out?
I’m still writing it. My editors are being very kind to me.
I do want to say, about the profile, that I’m ambivalent about media, but I also crave it. I need it, because my work is not tangible, and it’s small in scope. So I need these media milestones as reminders of my work, to myself and to others. It’s also my calling card. It lets people know what I’m about. When I introduce myself in an e-mail, I say, “My name is Tunde, I’m a Nigerian immigrant, artist, cook, and writer.” And then I hyperlink to the GQ article and something I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle. People click on GQ’s Web site and they see my fucking oily face on there and they don’t even need to read the thing, they just know I’m for real and they give me a chance. I need that.