Tony Supreme: ‘I’m about exploring wellbeing through music’

Tony Supreme: "I’m about exploring wellbeing and freedom through music" | Soho House

Ten years ago, Anthony Olanipekun finished a prison sentence. Now he’s the CEO of the charity, Grounded Sounds, a Soho House Foundation partner. He tells his story to Ciaran Thapar for his All City newsletter

Thursday 18 May 2023   By Ciaran Thapar   Photography by Tristan Bejawn

In June 2019, when my newsletter All City was a column for British GQ, I wrote an article about the work of a music charity based in Brixton, south London, called School Ground Sounds. I interviewed a range of young musicians who’d passed through their programme, including 17-year-old Paul Goumou. After completing his sentence at the local Youth Offending Service, Goumou was supported to pursue his dream of becoming a professional drummer. Four years later, he now tours with Burna Boy.

This spring, refreshing its purpose and celebrating its partnership with the Soho House Foundation at White City House in west London, School Ground Sounds relaunched to become Grounded Sounds under the leadership of Anthony Olanipekun, otherwise known as the radio host and DJ, Tony Supreme.

I meet with Olanipekun in the cafe of Brixton House theatre to hear more about his own remarkable story. Well-built from a tea-total discipline of early morning gym sessions, with long dreadlocks and rimmed glasses, he carries the considered yet calm air of someone you would want selecting your records, as well as overseeing a charity that works with vulnerable young people.

As we take our seats, he mentions that he’s just returned from a weekend leadership residential in Winchester. It has forced him to reflect on how far he’s come over the last decade.

‘Yesterday was Mother’s Day, so I went to my mum’s house and gave her a card. I was saying to her that 10 years ago I missed it because I was in a cell, you know? I was serving a sentence,’ he says. ‘So everything that’s happening this year feels very important. Seeing where I’m at 10 years later, on this leadership programme that I never thought I’d be on, feels very divine. It is a reminder that a lot of the work I’m doing today started ages ago. I’m only now starting to see the fruits of it.’

Olanipekun developed a love for music from a young age: he was born into a Christian Nigerian household where his dad would play funk, Afrobeat and soul vinyls, and he remembers becoming inspired by watching The Lick with Trevor Nelson, a popular television show on MTV Base in which its namesake would present the latest drops in Black British music.

He grew up in Fulham and went to secondary school in Victoria. These parts of London are not typically associated with poverty or crime, but the educational catchment area Olanipekun belonged to included many teenagers travelling in from south of the Thames. He was a committed student who aspired to become a youth worker, but found the proximate social problems among his peers could easily spill into his own navigation of adolescence.

‘South London in the mid-2000s was a very different place to what it is now. You can walk through Brixton and not be approached now. Then, it was like… I wouldn’t come to Brixton unless I was with someone from Brixton, you know? I got into the cycle of defending myself, and then becoming the aggressor. As I got older, going out clubbing, being in group situations where it’s not really something to do with you, but you’ve got to defend your friends… I kept finding myself in those situations. It was a lot to do with ego and masculinity, with not backing down,’ he recalls.

A mistake while completing his undergraduate degree at university in Essex would land him a two-year prison sentence in HMP Brixton in 2011.

‘It was a moment to reset, strategise and reckon with the position I was in. I did a lot of thinking, I read so many books, I wrote poetry. I started to think about what I wanted to be doing in the future.’

Tony Supreme: "I’m about exploring wellbeing and freedom through music" | Soho House

When I ask if he remembers a particular turning point, Olanipekun mentions first hearing Erykah Badu’s 1997 album Baduizm — widely regarded as a formative body of work for neo-soul, a pre-millennium sub-genre borne out of the marriage between soul music’s easy listening melodies and low vibrations, and the boom-bap drum patterns and danceability of hip-hop.

‘People would send in CDs and you’d do swaps. So there was one time that we swapped a couple of CDs and in the stack we received was Erykah’s album. Me and my cellmate listened to it almost every night for months. It was the first time I felt a sense of freedom because of music. Immediately, I knew there was a deeper level here for me of mental wellbeing, positive messages and soothing sounds.’

After completing his sentence, Olanipekun returned to university to finish his degree. With support from his probation officer, he volunteered for a range of organisations to gain youth work experience. He started delivering workshops in schools for Safer London, a citywide charity that seeks to prevent violence and exploitation among young people, eventually working his way up to managing a cohort of volunteers.

On the side, he performed poetry, learned to DJ and founded his own radio show, Soul Surge. In 2019, he landed a full-time role as a presenter and producer of the breakfast show at National Prison Radio (NPR), which broadcasts to 80% of prisons across the country. It was based at HMP Brixton, meaning that he had returned to the same building of his incarceration – this time as an employee.

‘That was mad for me, a full circle moment. It was like, I’m back, but in a different capacity. I’m helping people,’ he says.

After two years of working at NPR, the pandemic hit. With prisons locked down, Olanipekun handed in his notice. He soon came across the job advertisement for CEO of School Ground Sounds and decided to apply.

‘From radio producer to CEO of a charity? That’s a crazy jump. Initially, I was like, there’s no way I’ll get this. I felt imposter syndrome the whole way through the application process. But I made it to the next stage, then the stage after that… and when I got it, it took me about a year to stand in it and be confident.’

He’s now been in the role for nearly two years. Moved by learnings from his own transition into adulthood, while upholding his ongoing passion for arts education, Olanipekun’s renewed vision for Grounded Sounds is to leverage music to support all young people who are in proximity to the pressures of inner-city life, rather than only focusing on those who are deemed to be most at risk, as many other charities do.

‘I think there is a narrative within society, and the charity sector specifically, that looks at risk in a particular way. If you’re a young person who is “at risk”, to most people it means you are committing crime, you are involved in violence, you’re at risk of prison or death. But from my understanding it is more about geography. If you grow up in an area like Brixton, you’re at risk because you’re a young person, full stop.”
Olanipekun wants to plug a service gap that is lacking for a silent majority of teenagers who, due to being neither the most harmed nor the most academic students, miss out on deserved support.

‘Their grades aren’t bad, but they’re not getting the top marks, and they’re not a cause for concern, educationally. They may be described as easily distracted or talkative, but they’re not causing enough of a disturbance that they’re sitting in the isolation room. They go under the radar. But they’re still going home to areas where their friends are the ones who do have behavioural issues or are getting involved in crime. They’re one decision away from stepping into that risk zone.’

The Grounded Sounds partnership with the Soho House Foundation has granted them funding and allowed for a cohort of 10 graduates of their programmes who have already proven themselves – ‘young people who, if given the opportunity, will use that and flourish,’ Olanipekun says – to gain membership to the club, access to the space and mentorship from people in the creative industries.

Through also continuing to run initiatives like Soul Surge, which is now a registered company and an events platform that promotes wellbeing and showcases soul and jazz talent, he wants to keep exploring music as a force for progress.

‘The music industry can do a lot more,’ he says. ‘So that’s one of my missions, pushing that message to get more people to give back. The personal journey I’m on currently is exploring freedom. How can we use music to create better futures? How can we create a better life for people, even if it’s just an experience that lasts five minutes, or an hour in a workshop? It’s those moments of joy and freedom that I think shift and change people’s lives. I’m about exploring wellbeing through music. How can music be a vehicle for joy?’

Find out more about Grounded Sounds and the Soho House Foundation