Samora Pinderhughes (Getty/Frazer Harrison)

Say you want a transformation? Composer Samora Pinderhughes searches for uncompromising unity through music

Jazz composer Samora Pinderhughes has been called the musician of the movement. He's about to get very busy


Max Cea
January 21, 2017 4:58AM (UTC)

“It’s been an interesting first week,” Samora Pinderhughes said of the new year. This was at noon on Jan. 4th, precisely halfway into the first seven days of January. Already, though, the young pianist and composer had experienced a full week’s worth of action. We were having what for me was lunch and for him was breakfast at the Harlem Public, a new bar made of old bricks and reclaimed wood that resides at the corner of 149th Street and Broadway. Pinderhughes has light skin and big facial features that appear bigger than they are because a grey “FlINT” beanie so often covers his forehead and a gap-toothed smile so often opens his mouth. He laughed, a bit punch drunk, considering all he’d done.  

His January began, he told me, alongside two of his “older brothers” from his childhood in the Bay, “Hamilton” star Daveed Diggs and the poet and playwright Rafael Casal. Diggs and Casal are longtime close friends and collaborators. In their early 20s they recorded music together as The Get Back. Pinderhughes is nearly 10 years their junior, but his ability on the piano was far beyond his years, and Diggs and Casal brought him on as a member of their group. “He brought this amazing energy to the stage and to the vibe of our group,” Casal told me. “We played venues that were 21 and up, so we'd have to sneak him in early with the gear. And then he'd have to stay there from the 4 p.m. sound check until we played at 11 at night. He's such a brilliantly collaborative artist and person that he never really complained about it.”

Advertisement:

The three old friends had been in Chicago, along with the singer Matthew Santos and the production group The The Olympicks, to record a full-length hip-hop album in the span of a week. New Year’s came midway through the project, and when they went out to celebrate they ran into another Bay Area musician, the rapper Too Short. (A good New Year’s, it was.)

On Jan. 3rd, after wrapping the album, Pinderhughes returned to Harlem, where he lives with his younger sister, Elena, who is also a musician. Once home, he commenced sound mixing on the score he crafted for “Whose Streets?”, a documentary about the Ferguson uprising set to play on opening night of Sundance Film Festival. The festival’s imminence made for a tight deadline on the score and a late night for Pinderhughes. “I was up until 6 in the morning,” he said.

Working through the night has become familiar for Pinderhughes. “There'll be three days where I'll get four hours of sleep a night or even less,” he told me. “And then to compensate, when I have a day off I'll just sleep half the day.” Though Pinderhughes doesn’t take exhaustion lightly — he worries about the effect it has on his mental health and tries to compensate with a healthy diet and by receiving acupuncture — it’s a price he’s willing to pay for the opportunities he’s currently being afforded.  

Advertisement:

Whether bad times make great art is up for debate. But it’s clear that bad times make political art. Turbulence and tension puts a premium on art and artists that can puncture or help process the moment. Pinderhughes is such an artist. And he’s been busy, among other things, creating what some have surmised will be the soundtrack of the social justice movement.

***

Samora Pinderhughes was born on Sept. 4, 1991, to a mother from Azerbaijan who grew up in a Puerto Rican New York City neighborhood and an African-American father. Both parents are academics and progressive community organizers in Berkeley. They named him after Samora Machel, who led the Mozambique rebel army to victory against Portuguese colonizers and became the country’s first democratically elected president. “That's who they named me after, so you already know, ‘Okay, there are certain parameters set on what I'm supposed to be doing,’” Pinderhughes said.

Advertisement:

Had Pinderhughes not been accepted into the Juilliard School in 2009 to study jazz music, he likely would have followed in his parents’ footsteps. But at Juilliard he found himself to be a more proficient artist than organizer. He has continued to aid Bay Area community projects and has become involved in Ryan Coogler’s Blackout for Human Rights, a collective of artists and concerned citizens that aims to address “the staggering level of human rights violations and injustices against fellow Americans throughout the United States.” But his professional work has incorporated activism into art, whereas he has done the opposite in his volunteer work.

In his young career, the project he has become best known for is called “The Transformation Suite.” It is an ambitious six-part jazz and spoken-word piece, part meditation on being black in America and part command for society to give black Americans justice. The “Suite” was released as an album this past October to friendly press and heavy praise from fellow artists. The Grammy-nominated trumpeter Christian Scott called it an “urgent and powerful record.” The actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith, a mentor of Pinderhughes’, called it “a nuanced, delicate, and powerful perspective on heavy and important topics."

Advertisement:

But Pinderhughes was — and is — in search of more than raves. Though he has no illusions of where significant societal change is won (in the streets more so than in the studio), his vision for the “Suite” was always that it would be something that could affect more deeply and lastingly than a conventional album or concert. One of his inspirations was Anna Deavere Smith, whose shows will sometimes incorporate panel discussions at intermissions.

“I think with music you have a certain level of opportunity,” he said. “It's very different than talking at somebody. I think we've been successful at having the piece be a space that's inviting but also uncompromising. I use the word ‘transformation’ very specifically. It's not change. It's not a smaller word. It's really all of us or none of us. I mean that as, ‘You all have to get on board with the side of justice.’ We're going to be nice, but it requires everyone. I don't think I have naivete about what that really means in terms of scale.”

***

Advertisement:

The germ of “The Transformation Suite” was born on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2011. Pinderhughes was a sophomore at Juilliard. The school’s Black Student Union put on an annual MLK Day celebration in which various students spoke and gave performances. Pinderhughes and a friend named Christophe Abiel, who was studying to become an actor, set speeches from iconic black civil rights figures, including Dr. King and Malcolm X, over original music in a piece they called “Requiem in Blues.”

“Requiem” was a hit, and Juilliard offered to send Pinderhughes to Brazil with a band on behalf of the jazz program. Around that same time, though, Abiel left Juliard. He would not be allowed to go on the trip. Pinderhughes didn’t like the idea of performing the piece without its other half, so he composed a new work which, like “Requiem,” focused on African-American history and the movement for social justice.

“My starting point for the suite was a question: When and how did Martin Luther King's message become so safe?” he wrote in a Juilliard op-ed. “Why had history sanitized his message after his death, so that it had become an excuse to talk about how far we had come, rather than to push forward with radical imagination and urgency?”

Advertisement:

For this piece, Pinderhughes wanted to use original poems rather than historic speeches so that he would not run into copyright issues. There was one particular poem that he had in mind. He had heard it at that same 2011 MLK Day show.

It began:

The sun slapped me last night

Rippled me to the edge of earth

Advertisement:

Where angels fly with broken wings and love with shattered hearts

Moonwalk in their minds to the sounds of teardrops

Beating Michael and Marley, Mayfield and Marvin

Rest in peace. . .

The poem’s author and performer was Jeremie Harris, who is currently a cast member of the FX show “Legion” but at the time was a junior studying acting at Juilliard. Harris was inspired to write the poem after a Juilliard service trip he took to New Orleans. “I’m from New York, and when we were in the airport, coming back to Juilliard, I was just thinking about these people who I was working with in New Orleans,” he said. “It seemed like they were forgotten. You have this country that has so much brilliance and beauty and economic power within it, and then you have all these groups of people who are on the edges, people who are seemingly forgotten and looked over. So in the airport I had this idea of, 'The sun slapped me last night / rippled me to the edge of earth. . .’”

Advertisement:

When school let out for summer, Pinderhughes began composing the new work, which he would call “The Transformation Suite.” Originally, he only asked Harris to contribute the one poem to a section of the “Suite” Pinderhughes would call “Cycles.” “But then when I put that poem in, that voice became so specific that I was like, ‘This has to exist throughout the whole piece,’” Pinderhughes said. “So I wrote the music for all the other sections and I wrote program notes and I came back to Jeremie and was like, 'I love this poem. But could you do more?’”

Though Harris didn’t have experience writing for music, he agreed. That fall, Pinderhughes, Harris and a large band of fellow Juilliard students toured the “Suite” around Brazil and recorded most of what they had. But then the project stalled. Recording and shopping an album was a new process to Pinderhughes, and he became discouraged when he had trouble finding a home for the record. “I didn't necessarily believe in myself enough to think that I could do it on my own. And I also took being unable to find a place for it as a sign that it's not good. So I shelved it,” he said.   

The record remained shelved until the summer of 2014. “Then things started popping off and people were hitting me up like, ‘Where is it at?’” Pinderhughes said, referring to the rash of police killings of unarmed black men. “What spurred us to start working on it again was really when Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner. When that happened, people were saying ‘I need this.’"

Pinderhughes felt the same need. But because the piece was originally more focused on the past and the present than on the present and the future, because it was imagining a social justice movement that now existed, he felt the “Suite” needed updating. “That would be really weird to perform in 2014 with the Black Lives Matter movement going on. People would be like, ‘Uh, dude, that does exist.’ So we then tried to envision, ‘What is the moment for our generation where we take charge of this and what do we do with that?’”

Advertisement:

For Pinderhughes, that meant using the “Suite” as inspiration to aspire to our highest ideals. “The ‘Suite,’” he said, is about creating a vision where “we don't have limits on how we can picture our society. We don't stop and say 'I'm not going to stop and think about what a system without police would look like because we have to have all these steps first.' Yes, I understand there are steps. But if we don't think from that level, we're only going to get to what we plan for.”

***

As the clock ticked past midnight and Jan. 6th became Jan. 7th, Samora Pinderhughes paced in the space-station-white hallway outside of the New School’s Glass Box Theater. He and his band were dressed in black. It was the second night of New York’s Winter Jazz Fest, a six-day marathon of jazz music held at a variety of downtown Manhattan venues. “The Transformation Suite” was one of the marquee performances related to social justice, the year’s theme, and so earlier in the week Pinderhughes got a shout-out in The New York Times. By show time, the small theater was filled to capacity. The crowd waited and Pinderhughes paced. He was missing one of his singers.

Pinderhughes and his band knew the singer was in a cab, but didn’t know when he would arrive. No one appeared particularly nervous. Most of them had performed the “Suite” upwards of 50 times. And because Pinderhughes tailors each show to the respective venue, audience and moment — he’ll edit lyrics, rearrange music (like his mentor), insert panel discussions, sometimes project images of black Civil Rights leaders in the backdrop — his band is comfortable in uncomfortable territory.

“When you don't know what to do or what's happening it brings everyone more together,” said Riley Mulherkar, who plays trumpet on the “Suite.” “You have to rely on each other to figure out what's going on. There’s a collective feeling of unpredictability, on the stage and in the room, like being on a roller coaster ride.”

At quarter past 12, the New School’s Jazz Fest production coordinator said, “My thought is to push you guys on stage in three minutes. And then make it work from there.”

“That’s okay,” Pinderhughes said in a low, calm voice. “We'll go on if we need to go on.”

The group huddled. Pinderhughes' sister, Elena, who is the band’s other singer, suggested that they skip the first section, in which the missing singer figured prominently, and go back to it when he arrived. The others agreed that that was the best course, and that was that.

“It's really a collective,” Pinderhughes told me, describing the way he leads. “I don't really make most of the decisions. I make some of the decisions. But it’s very democratic. I'm lucky that I have a lot of folks that are a part of it that — just, I trust them completely.”

The reason Pinderhughes has such deep trust in his band quickly became apparent. Each of the 10 members played their role exquisitely, giving sound to a narrative bigger than any one of them but that encompassed each of them. In return, rewards were sprinkled throughout: a sax solo that popped, a flute solo that fluttered. Midway through the show, the missing singer, Vuyo Sotashe, seamlessly joined the band. And, my god. Pinderhughes’ composition juxtaposed the beauty in his voice (for instance, when he sings “Swing lo, sweet chariot” in a refrain) with the feminine power in poet Jules Ladimer’s teary spoken-word pleas for change “Now! Now! Now! Now!”, and the result was sublime. Such moments were heightened by their narrative placement and lent credence to one of the piece’s underlying points: A diverse America — represented here by a diverse band — is a beautiful America.

***

Pinderhughes spent this year’s MLK Day at Riverside Church. Riverside is an 86-year-old Gothic skyscraper across the street from Grant’s tomb in Morningside Heights. Inside, it’s easy to feel swallowed by both the building’s drip castle grandeur and its history. It was there that the UN’s Secretary-General Kofi Annan spoke following the 9/11 attacks; that Rev. Jesse Jackson eulogized Jackie Robinson in 1972; and where Martin Luther King Jr., in 1967, gave a speech opposing the Vietnam War.  

For the second straight year, Riverside was playing host to Blackout for Human Rights’ “MLK Now,” a celebration and call to action in the name of Dr. King. Pinderhughes, who is the “MLK Now” music director, arrived at Riverside at 10 a.m. to run sound checks, straight off a red-eye from Los Angeles (he had been working on an upcoming project for Common). When I asked if he had slept, he said, “Maybe a half hour.”

The event went from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. For most of it, Pinderhughes was behind the piano. He played lightly behind speeches by David Oyelowo (reading James Baldwin’s “The American Dream and the American Negro”) and, later, Q-Tip (reading Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again”), adding melody and gravity to their words. Bits of his “Transformation Suite” were spliced between speeches and other performances, too. The “Suite” effectively acted as a score to the event, sonically bridging the civil rights past with its future. “Samora Pinderhughes, I think, is the necessary movement musician we need,” said Pastor Michael McBride, a member of Blackout who helped to organize “MLK Now.” “Every movement needs a soundtrack, as I say.”

The event’s director, Rashid Shabazz, likened the role Pinderhughes could play in the continuing fight for social justice to great current and former activist-artists. “When we think of a Harry Belafonte, when we think of the Ryan Cooglers and Ava DuVernays, Samora, for a millennial and for this generation, is that.”

The last speech of the day was given by the actor Andre Holland (“Moonlight”). For the second straight year he performed Malcolm X’s 1964 speech “The Ballot or the Bullet,” which urged African-Americans to vote, and if necessary take up arms. When he was introduced, Pinderhughes told me, “This is the best part.” He took a seat along the wall of the church, next to the poet Joshua Bennett. They ‘uhh-huhhed’ in agreement at lines they liked. And Pinderhughes put his hand to his mouth in the middle, amazed at the relevance of the words 50 some odd years after they’d originally been spoken.  

And then Holland got to the end. “So, I say in my conclusion, the only way we're going to solve it we’ve got to unite in unity and harmony, and black nationalism is the key. How we gonna overcome the tendency to be at each other’s throats that always exists in our neighborhoods, and the reason this tendency exists, the strategy of the white man has always been divide and conquer. He keeps us divided in order to conquer us. He tells you I’m for separation and you for integration to keep us fighting with each other. No, I’m not for separation and you’re not for integration. What you and I are for is freedom. . .” Here, Pinderhughes jumped out of his chair, feet leaving the ground, arms raised.

That idea, that freedom is achieved only by following diverse paths, is central to the content of “The Transformation Suite.” But it’s also central to how Pinderhughes operates as an artist. He is a master collaborator, who, both as creator and conduit, is seeking connection. He has built a career by uniting a diverse group of brilliant artists around an uncompromising message and trying to bring the audience along with him.   

When the show ended Pinderhughes walked around the stage and talked to fellow organizers about how they could make the event better next year. And he called dibs on a 40-foot-tall “MLK Now” banner with Nina Simone’s face on it. There was more work to be done and plenty to feel inspired by.


Max Cea

MORE FROM Max Cea


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Daveed Diggs Jazz The Julliard School

Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •