Pa Michael Babatunde Olatunji, (late) was a Nigerian drummer, educator, social activist, and recording artist. A native of Ajido-Badagry, Lagos State, Olatunji was part of Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum projects, including the album Planet Drum, which won the Grammy Award for Best World Music Album of 1991, the first year for which the award was given. He was also an inductee into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame in 2001.
Olatunji was known for making an impassioned speech for social justice before performing in front of a live audience. His progressive political beliefs are outlined in The Beat of My Drum: An Autobiography, with a foreword by Joan Baez, (Temple University Press, 2005). He toured the American south with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and joined King in the march on Washington.
When he performed before the United Nations General Assembly, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev took off his shoes and danced. Later, he was one of the first outside performers to perform in Prague at Václav Havel’s request. On July 21, 1979, he appeared at the Amandla Festival along with Bob Marley, Dick Gregory, Patti LaBelle and Eddie Palmieri, amongst others.
Olatunji received a Rotary scholarship in 1950 and was educated at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, where he desired to, but never sang in the Morehouse College Glee Club. Olatunji was a good friend of Glee Club director Dr. Wendell P. Whalum and collaborated with him on a staple of the choir’s repertoire, “Betelehemu”, a Nigerian Christmas carol.
After graduating from Morehouse, he went on to New York University to study public administration. There, he started a small percussion group to earn money on the side while he continued his studies.
He died in 2003 from diabetes, on the day before his 76th birthday.