People Who Make NY Special

Fighting for Change With Samora Pinderhughes

This young and talented “freedom artist” sets his sights on art to move audiences emotionally and politically.

Samora Abayomi Pinderhughes wants to start a revolution—through art. At just 25, the multidisciplinary independent artist, social activist, and pianist is already an in-demand collaborator and a highly respected composer. He has toured with revered saxophonist Branford Marsalis and trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah; written work with Herbie Hancock, Robert Glasper, and rapper Common; and produced a critically well-received, multimedia-heavy album, The Transformations Suite. The Harlem resident is also a member of the social justice collective Blackout for Human Rights and a 2018 Working Group Fellow at Joe’s Pub, where he continues his monthly residency on May 3. Did we mention he’s 25?

The accomplished artist is thoughtfully outspoken about the inextricable nature of his art and his politics. In advance of his upcoming concert at Joe’s, Pinderhughes spoke with What Should We Do?! about his work and why “everyone should feel obliged to be engaged in the struggle for freedom, not for some but for all.”

What Should We Do?!: What was your path to becoming a professional musician?
Samora Pinderhughes: I’ve had a variety of training, starting with my early life in the Bay Area. Music is in the water out there, in the energy and the history of everyone who came before, and especially in the extended family that surrounded and supported me coming up. I studied under a lot of local teachers and musicians within the Cuban, Venezuelan, and Puerto Rican communities, who informally took me under their wing and tried to show me the ropes. Some of the lasting lessons there were about the spirituality and importance of rhythm. Every rhythm has a different purpose, whether it’s to call spirits into being or just make you dance.

Later on, I joined the Young Musicians Choral Orchestra, an arts organization for young people who come from low-income families. It provided summer intensives where you can really go deep; there’s a choir, music theory classes, private lessons, a big-band orchestra…pretty much everything a young musician could want, completely free and available for those who otherwise likely wouldn’t have access to music instruction at all. It’s an amazing program that really helped guide me. The YMCO was where I first learned about jazz and harmony, and that led to my enrollment at Juilliard, studying under masters like Kenny Barron, Frank Kimbrough, and especially Kendall Briggs. Mr. Briggs taught me counterpoint, which changed my whole concept of composition.

I always knew that I wanted to work in a multidisciplinary format. My heroes are people who work across many fields: James Baldwin, Nina Simone, Spike Lee, Lorraine Hansberry. I’ve been lucky enough to gain the mentorship of the great playwright and performer Anna Deavere Smith, which has led to exposure to an amazing array of people in all sorts of creative worlds. I recently did a residency at the Sundance Composers Lab to learn more about how to make music for film. I’ve been acquiring a lot of different tools from a lot of different people, and it’s left me where I am now, which is finding ways to use music as an entry point to art without boundaries of medium or style. If I want to reach an audience, I want to have access to as many ways as possible to do it.

WSWD: Is there any benefit to imposing genre labels on what you do?
Pinderhughes: Genre, in my mind, is a selling tool. There are exceptions; hip hop as a movement and as a genre allows for a shared cultural and artistic language. But overall, and especially when it comes to my own music, I really try to avoid discussion of genre. I always prefer to talk about what the music is about and what its story is, rather than, “It’s classical” or “It’s jazz.”

WSWD: So what is The Transformations Suite about?
Pinderhughes: It’s really just my introduction; the first piece that I’ve put out into the world. I think I have a long way to go, but I’m grateful that it’s been well received.

The origins of Transformations stem from the struggles of the people of the African diaspora and how their history applies to the present day. We’re facing a lot of the same issues that our ancestors fought against, and they have lessons to teach us. That’s the broader message of Transformations; the other major influence on the piece is the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Fifty years after Dr. King was assassinated, certain elements of his work are lionized, but much of what made him who he was has been intentionally obscured. If you take the time to read the teachings of Dr. King, what you find out is that the aspects that have been hidden are ideas that he was remarkably consistent about and that remain confrontational to the current political order: anticapitalist sentiments, support for black militarism, the underlying reasons that class and race are intertwined. I wanted to use his body of work to expose how the reigning powers present a highly abridged telling of history that amounts to a set of lies and omissions.

The hope is that I’m able to provide people with a set of tools to [help them] stand up for positive change. Transformations is an activist piece and an active piece. I want to use music as a prism to look at the past, to better understand the present, and to present a strategic plan for the future.

WSWD: And has the audience response matched what you’d like to see?
Pinderhughes: What I want to see is revolution! That’s when that work will have achieved its goal. But as far as individual response, I have seen people leaving energized, ready to fight and forced to grapple with new ideas about their place in the world. It’s a troubling time right now, so I’ve been pleased to hear people tell me that in hearing Transformations, they feel re-energized.

WSWD: Do you consider yourself a political artist? Is that a role you think more artists need to take?
Pinderhughes: I don’t necessarily consider myself a political artist. I like to think of myself as a freedom artist. The difference is that politics is an arena one can choose to participate in, whereas the fight for freedom is one that we all need to be involved in. The realm of the political is representative of the existing, suppressing power structure. Some of us receive more support than others from that political structure, so we can be led to believe we’re free when we’re not. For me, the urgency is there every day, because I can see my people without freedom. Fighting to change that isn’t something about which I have a choice. Some of us feel like they have to address this more than others. I can understand that if you don’t have the consequences of, say, white supremacy and misogyny put in your face every day, maybe you can be cool with that, but you are implicated. Other people have to live with the ramifications of your inaction.

Now if you ask me if all artists need to follow that path, it’s tricky. I think the primary goal for an artist should be radical honesty, to accurately reflect what they see in society. For different people that means different things. That said, I do believe everyone should feel obliged to be engaged in the struggle for freedom, not for some but for all. If you’re not, even if you benefit from what is corrupt, you’re just part of a lesser world that could be better.

WSWD: Do you see the resurrection of revolutionary thinking as a generational shift?
Pinderhughes: Possibly. I’m very proud of my generation. There’s a lot up against us, but I’m excited about the moments of change we’re seeing occurring all over the country and all over the world.

WSWD: Do you approach working with established musicians differently than when you’re working with your own combos?
Pinderhughes: I’m always nervous when I’m collaborating with someone whom I respect. That just makes me want to do work that they’ll be proud to be a part of. I approach those situations with the mind-set that they want to work with me, so I should be me. I try to show up prepared and focused and grateful.

WSWD: What are you reading and who are you listening to?
Pinderhughes: I’m always reading a few different things. Right now, for fun, I’m going through the Harry Potter books. I’m continuing to explore work in the theater, and I want to get better with dialogue, so I’m reading Federico García Lorca.

Musically, I’m currently into a lot of Stevie Wonder, a lot of Prince; I’ve been doing brackets on Instagram, which means relistening to classics. For new music, I’ve been enjoying Young Fathers; they’re super-interesting. A friend of mine, Leon Bridges, has some new work that I love. He’s a brilliant artist.

WSWD: What should people expect from your shows at Joe’s Pub?
Pinderhughes: I’ve done several shows at Joe’s, and so far I’ve made a practice of not announcing what I’m doing beforehand. I’m trying to keep it mysterious. What I’m hoping is that people start spreading the word because they see a performance and they don’t know what they’re going to get if they come back.

I will say that I’ve got some new music out just now, a soundtrack I made for a short film released earlier this year called Concussion Protocol by Josh Begley. We finally got around to releasing it as a single, so that might well show up somewhere.

Rapid Round!
Samora Pinderhughes’s Faves…in a NY Minute

Ice cream?
Van Leeuwen.

Breakfast?
Caracas.

Museum?
New Museum.

NYC-themed movie?
Do the Right Thing.

Live music venue?
The Jazz Gallery.

Theater venue?
The Public Theater.

Bookstore?
Strand.

Details:
Samora Abayomi Pinderhughes
Joe’s Pub
425 Lafayette Street, NoHo
Thursday, May 3, 9:30 p.m.
$15

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