Unchained Melody: Who Is Samora Pinderhughes?

Unchained Melody: Who Is Samora Pinderhughes?

Samora Pinderhughes new LP is a battle for black lives—all black lives—whether they be female or male, queer or straight, poor or rich.

With his new album, 'The Transformations Suite,' this gifted musician, composer, activist, and homeboy simply wants to marry the political with the sublime and liberate us through love by whatever means necessary. Is that too much to ask?

Samora Pinderhughes is a study in contradictions.

Black and white. Joyful and blue. A soldier and a romantic. Bold and insecure. Charming and solemn. A musical prodigy who often cannot recognize his own genius. Oddly, these disparate identities reconcile themselves in Pinderhughes. He exists in some liminal space, fully at home, if not exactly comfortable, in the intersections. This becomes evident listening to his new album, The Transformations Suite, released on October 12.

I agree to meet him at his apartment, informally, to chat, catch up, and chill. He lives in one of those pre-war buildings in Harlem that look rather unassuming on the outside, but grand on the inside. But before getting to see the interior, I’m confronted by kind activists in front of his apartment building trying to get residents to sign a petition to get solar panels placed on the roof. I tell them I don’t live there.

Once I arrive inside, I try to take as much of the apartment in as I can in one glance. The first thing I notice is his record collection. Nina Simone. Stevie Wonder. Mahalia Jackson. A signed copy of James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain rests among the albums. There’s also a picture of his family: Pinderhughes, his father, mother, grandfather (whose passing remains troublesome for Pinderhughes), and his sister, Elena, who shares the apartment with him.

Pinderhughes isn’t the only genius in the family. Elena is the Janet to his Michael. She has a tender voice and plays the flute as though it were the instrument of gangsters. She’s a total badass. She is also his constant collaborator and her presence is felt all o ver his work, including Transformations. She’s away on tour and so it’s only me and Pinderhughes in the apartment. It immediately feels large and he seems so small in it.

Here, on the baby grand that his composition teacher gave him as a gift, Pinderhughes conjures the melancholy and intensity that make up his music. Certainly, jazz may be the framework under which he operates, but layered on top are the other elements—poetry, R&B-influenced vocals, and hip-hop inspired sensibilities—that make it harder to pigeonhole. And perhaps that’s because his musical influences are not limited to just musicians. Among many others, he cites August Wilson, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, and his mentor Anna Deavere Smith as having a direct impact on his musicianship.

As we sit at a table in his kitchen, he prepares for us bowls of curry chicken, rice, and tomatoes, and brings two too-small glasses filled with tap water to wash it down. He plays a draft of The Transformations Suite from his Macbook. He’s eager to let me hear his work.

I experienced some of the songs on Transformations when he was musical director for the star-studded #MLKNow event at Riverside Church in Harlem, organized by Blackout for Human Rights, an organization founded by film directors Ryan Coogler and Ava DuVernay, among others. He was also musical director for Blackout’s #JusticeForFlint event. Humble to a fault, Pinderhughes makes no mention of these accolades. One has to Google him to find out he’s worked with legends such as Branford Marsalis, Harvey Mason, and Christian Scott, and has even performed at the White House, Carnegie Hall, and the Blue Note.

We are in the midst of it as we speak. We watch Alton Sterling and Philando Castile bleed out, as Dallas and Baton Rouge find themselves indignant in the face of the inevitable. In the middle of all of this, Pinderhughes wants to use his gift to dismantle the forces that turn black people into cannon fodder. “We shall be changed” are the first words you hear on the title track, appropriately entitled “Transformation.”

On “Cycles,” he uses the pleading tone of poetry to lift Elena’s voice in a swirling effigy to regretful repetition. “Momentum, pt. 1,” recalls hot July afternoon with sticky black bodies in public parks, street musicians pounding on the bottoms of plastic paint tubs, to let go, yes, and also to convey a message only certain people could interpret. And “Momentum, pt. 2,” follows up with a series of pointed questions, like “Why are there millions of poor people in America?” “Who owns the banks?” and “Who owns the prisons and who are its occupants?”

The song, punctuated by Pinderhughes’ mellow keys, makes demands upon a power designed to concede nothing without the threat of bloodshed or its inevitability. It ends in a grand cacophony, which could easily be interpreted as the tumbling down of institutions; and heard above crashing is the sound of a singular voice articulating what is perhaps the most ignored word in the English language when it comes from the mouths of black folk: “NOW!”

Pinderhughes was politicized at a very young age. A keen observer, he recognized injustice early and wanted to end it just as early. He shows me a drawing he made when he was 8 years old, of black people protesting for civil rights, carrying signs that say “End Discrimination,” “We shall overcome,” and “All people are created equal.”

Samora's drawing as an 8-year-old.

Born in the New York City, but raised in Berkeley, Pinderhughes’ father, African American, is a professor at University of California, San Francisco and works as an advocate in youth violence and trauma prevention. His mother, who is of Azerbaijani descent and grew up in the predominantly Latinx neighborhood of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, is a professor at San Francisco State University, where she teaches urban planning. She is also the founder of the environmental literacy curriculum Roots of Success.

He doesn’t say this exactly, but one can tell that it pains him that for some, he isn’t immediately identifiable as black. The skin color and hair texture folks usually associate with the black race nearly escape him.

“My skin is very light, compared to my father's,” he shares. “I always wished I looked more like him because I looked up to him, and because of how people in my community saw him. I looked up to my mother too, of course, but the culture and history in the household was very black-centric. I feel connected to that part of myself, and even as a mixed person I never really felt culturally or historically connected to anything except being an African-American.”

His olive tone and full lips call to mind Latinx or perhaps Mediterranean. The limitations of the Blackness construction—imposed first by white people and then by black people, based on some unsolvable and constantly shifting equation involving one or more drops of African blood—both include and exclude, can make one feel proud or ashamed.

“I remember being in 6th grade talking about parts of black history, and other black students confronting me about how I would present it as my history, when in their eyes it was not mine. I could already understand, I think, and empathize with why they would confront me that way,” Pinderhughes remembers. “And in fact, my understanding, though limited, caused me to further internalize their doubts about my blackness and make them real. I didn't feel as if I was 'worthy' of being a part of the black community.” But Pinderhughes’ blues is one that seeks a lesson in all things.

Samora Pinderhughes.

“I do still think that some of those internal conflicts are good, because I have particular experiences as a person who looks white, and is therefore treated as white by institutions. I don't want to be taking up space that could and needs to be filled by black women and LGBTQ folks. But I am starting and trying to understand that there is still space for me to speak, and that, in fact, I'm being cowardly if I'm not speaking and acting with a revolutionary spirit.”

I wonder, though, if there is any room for a man who wishes love upon the world to manifest it in his personal life. There is no shortage of people who adore Pinderhughes, but when it comes to romantic love, there have been ups, downs, and challenges. “I’m not ready,” Pinderhughes says, a smile betraying the solemn effort it takes to admit it. “I think I need more time to love myself.”

He’s speaking out of his own experiences with shock and betrayal, having learned that not everyone you give your trust to is worthy of it. Perhaps that, alongside the politics, is also present on “History,” another song from Transformations. The music is both heavy and ethereal, yet another indication of how expertly Pinderhughes alchemizes the unresolvable. It’s a soaring melancholy, much like what the struggle for liberation—and love—itself feels like: hope yes, but also pain; both clearly articulated.

However he is regarded by the outside world, inside, Pinderhughes’ Blackness is the source of his pride as well as his sound. He first began playing music—Cuban and Venezuelan percussion—at age two. At age seven, he switched to jazz piano.

“I was a hardheaded-ass child. I was playing drums in a class and in the middle of the class, I shoved the dude playing piano and tried to take his place,” Pinderhughes recalls with laughter. “I was taken by the beauty of the harmony, being able to play chords and create tapestries out of sound. On a basic level, I liked just being able to play pretty things.”

He attended the world-renowned Juilliard School, an experience he says heightened his sense of alienation. “I was a composer in a program for jazz pianists and as much as I love jazz piano, it was the wrong environment for me to thrive in,” he confides. “And conservatory is like graduate school in that it’s only one track and that’s it. It’s like being in graduate school for math when you want to be an architect. That’s fine and you do learn a lot, but you can’t build anything.”

The Transformations Suite cover artwork.

Pinderhughes reports that beyond the academic limitations, he also experienced microaggressions from being a black person receiving an education in a primarily white, Eurocentric institution. Juilliard has a very small student body, which means that its students of color made up an even smaller group. The school cut the Black Student Union in Pinderhughes’ junior year. But the tipping point for Pinderhughes was when he came into school one day distraught about the execution of Troy Davis, who has since become a symbol of a broken, racist criminal justice system, and not a single soul could understand his sadness.

“They either looked at me confused or said something like, ‘Oh wow! Well, I’m just glad your family is okay. I thought something terrible happened.’ I literally couldn’t find one person in a whole day of interactions that was willing or wanted to talk to me about that incident or who understood why it affected me. So I just went to a practice room and started crying.”

The only event at the school that seemed to focus, in any way, on the perspectives of students of color was the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration, in which students performed musical tributes to the slain civil rights leader. It was then that Pinderhughes first had the idea for The Transformations Suite. As with any great artist, rather than allow these experiences to interfere, he used them to ignite.

The night catches us. We’re both tired and before I make the trek back into Brooklyn, he wants me to see something. He shows me his altar to Obatala, the Orisha of wisdom. This is a big deal. If someone shows you their shrine, it’s because they trust you. I’m overwhelmed by the gesture and awed by the array of feathers and candles and figures that adorn the mantle. A practitioner of Santeria, Pinderhughes says he could find neither balance nor freedom in Western religions, and found clarity and buoyancy in older spiritual practices, where, he says, the ruling doctrine isn’t fear, but connection, insight, evolution.

On the final track, “Ascension,” Pinderhughes takes the familiar Negro spiritual— Swing Low, Sweet Chariot—and turns it into a joyful rumpus, the kind meant to raise the roof and the spirit. It’s the kind of tune you two-step with your partner to. It’s necessary to end there, on a hopeful, uplifting note. This is because Pinderhughes knows that whatever form the revolution takes, if love—hard-fought, lasting, black love—isn't the basis upon which it's formed, then it's doomed to fail.

And here, he heeds the words of the ancestors with whom he communes: It isn't enough to free yourself; you must also free somebody else. And so, Pinderhughes goes out, night after night, pounding away at the keys, churning out painful notes, his back to the audience, but soul facing them. He plays a song of liberation hoping that somebody, anybody, will listen, take his hand, and join him.

'The Transformations Suite' is available for purchase on Amazon, iTunes, Spotify, and other platforms.

Robert Jones, Jr. is a writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He earned both his B.F.A. in creative writing and M.F.A. in fiction from Brooklyn College. His work has been featured in The New York Times, Gawker, The Grio, and the Feminist Wire. He is the creator of the social justice social media community, Son of Baldwin, which can be found on Facebook, Google Plus, Instagram, Medium, Tumblr, and Twitter. His first novel is in the revision stage and he’s currently working on the second.