“I think our first responsibility is to… tell important stories… that aren’t supported by the status quo.”
In 2016, multiple artists used their work as a platform to discuss acts of injustice and social justice movements. From Beyoncé to Katy Perry, artists and celebrities were not afraid to speak out and make art about social justice issues across the country. Harlem Arts Festival (HAF) musician Samora Pinderhughes was among these artists.
Having been a part of HAF since 2015, Pinderhughes currently lives in Harlem. As a Harlem transplant, Pinderhughes recognizes that his presence in the historic neighborhood is “a complicated reality.” He recognizes that the same struggle with gentrification in Harlem is happening in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Pinderhughes was raised. For this reason, he and his sister, Elena, involve themselves in the community. Samora and Elena work with community-based organizations, like Harlem Stage—a performance center that focuses on continuing the legacy of expression by Harlem artists of color. Pinderhughes is also a member of Blackout for Human Rights, and was the musical director for their #MLKNow and #JusticeForFlint events in 2016.
Samora Pinderhughes’ passion for social justice is not only present in his community work, but also in his music. In October, Pinderhughes released his first album, The Transformations Suite. The six-song jazz album combines spoken word and music to tell the history of resistance within communities of the African Diaspora. We chatted with Samora Pinderhughes about the album and the relationship between artists and social justice.
Ayanna Harrison: What motivated you to create the album?
I started the project while I was at Juilliard—that’s why almost everybody on the album is a former classmate of mine. I started the project on M.L.K. Day, actually, of 2011. We have this M.L.K. Day performance every year we—the Black Student Union—would put on: just one day a year where we get to represent for our people and talk about the influences of Black leadership and things like that. I was thinking about what to do. I noticed around the country, about that day, that when [the general population] talked about M.L.K., it was a very sanitized view of what he was really about. You know a “corporatized” view of what he was about. They basically ignored [the part] of his life when he was talking about militarism and poverty and restructuring. So, the original motivation for creating the project was to look at the later years of his life and be inspired by those years, when he was really radically talking about transformation. You know about how we can’t make reforms in our society; we have to transform our values. We have to transform our institutions. That’s where it started. And then it went away from that, into a general—as well as personal—look at how we can contextualize the past in order to try to imagine our moving forward.
As a composer-musician, what were some musical inspirations you had while writing?
The biggest influence for me—pretty much the biggest influence in my artistic career—is [James] Baldwin. James Baldwin is like my guiding light. I definitely go back to his text a lot, in particular for The Fire Next Time, but also a collection of essays called The Cross of Redemption, which is probably my favorite of his collection.
I listened to a lot of poets—Saul Williams and Audre Lorde… A lot of Nina Simone—a very big influence on the project—as well as classical song cycles by Schumann, and Marvin Gaye.
We loved the elements of spoken word in the album. What led you to decide to incorporate spoken word?
The original reason it happened was when I was putting [the album] together in draft form. The original inspiration was M.L.K., Malcolm [X], TuPac, and a whole bunch of people. I actually started off listening to their speeches and was inspired by them. Instead of using other people’s text… it was then that I decided to use original free-spoken material.
Did the text come from any particular artists, or were the pieces all-original?
All the spoken [words] are original written pieces, that were written either by myself or my friend Jeremie Harris—an actor who studied theater at Juilliard [at] the same time I was there.
“I’m not someone who thinks that it’s enough to just write music about something… You have to be involved in all the ways that you can.”
When did you get into social justice work?
I’ve always been involved in social justice work because of my parents and my whole family. My dad is African American; my mom is mixed. On my dad’s side, my grandmother was one of the most important scholars of her time in Black Studies, and she’s one of the first people to write about genealogy and “finding your roots.” My father is a leading scholar in the area of youth violence prevention and racial understanding—looking at racial violence. My mother is one of the leading academics in the field of green jobs and sustainable development. So, they were always involved in community organizing within the academic field and trying to make people’s lives better.
Why is it important for artists to be involved in social justice work?
I think it’s important for everyone to be involved in social justice work. If you are an artist, that is the tool you have to use. I think, as artists, we have unique gifts, and that comes with unique responsibilities. I think my point of view comes from my favorite artists, and artists I respect the most tell the truth. The personal is political: anything that goes deep and tells the truth ends up being political as well as personal.
Our first duty [as artists] is to tell the truth, which I think already shaves a good 75% off of the general population, as well as artists. It’s easier to say and harder to do. On top of that, I take my cues from my heroes—Harry Belafonte and Nina Simone and [James] Baldwin—folks who not only made work that was addressing [issues], but also put their money and bodies on the line for the things that they believed in.
I’m a big proponent that if you think something is right, you have to do whatever you are able to do to rectify that situation, to fight for justice and equality. I’m not someone who thinks that it’s enough to just write music about something. I think you have to be involved in all the ways that you can be involved… It’s so urgent, like I don’t really have a choice. I think other people have choices—that in itself might be privilege, having the choice not to. But if my homie’s life is on the line or my life is on the line, I don’t really have a choice but to do what I can do, to help.
Art definitely involves radical messages. Artists, too, are ahead of their time—the ones that I love. A lot of time they can kind of predict what’s going to happen, and be a part of what people need to know to address change.
What is the artist’s role in movements of resistance?
There are a lot of roles. I think one of the roles is definitely “storytellers.” That’s the most important role, I think, because we’ve always had griots—we’ve always had storytellers. That’s important in culture and society in general. But it’s also important in movements, because that’s how people understand and contextualize their lives. You can tell people all types of facts you want, but they’re really not going to be moved unless they come into contact with it in one way or another. You don’t want to brainwash people! *Laughs* But music helps a person with stories that they usually recognize and connect with. Then they’re going to have to face that situation. With bringing people into spaces and different [events], all the art forms can be used that way. I think our first responsibility, and a way we can help, is to be storytellers—to tell important stories; stories that are not being told; stories that aren’t supported by the status quo.
Another role that we have is to influence people. Different artists have different levels of influence. As artists, we have this power: people will literally pay [for us] to move them. We can’t take that for granted. There [are] ways to use that platform, where you have the possibility to have people asking you—or coming to you—to be moved. Which direction are you trying to move them in?
The final way is to be leaders of the community: walk the talk. Be in the space where you can do that. I don’t think most people’s jobs involve being artists; most people’s jobs aren’t “artists.” But, for artists, it’s literally our job to be—that’s how we can help people. Be honest about injustice. Be honest about what we see going on, and the complexities of it.