Frost Amphitheater

By Yoshi Kato

Samora Pinderhughes' performance of The Healing Project takes place at Bing Studio on April 2 and will feature Bay Area jazz artists Marcus Shelby, Howard Wiley, and Elena Pinderhughes, as well as spoken word artist Bobby Gonz.

Those who have followed the Bay Area jazz scene for the past decade and a half have likely come across Samora Pinderhughes. The Berkeley native was a piano prodigy who rose through the ranks of the Jazzschool, Berkeley High School, the Young Musicians Choral Orchestra (née Young Musicians Program), and Julliard before collaborating with the likes of Common, writing musicals, and scoring films.

Jazzschool founder Susan Muscarella, Ph.D., was Pinderhughes’ third piano teacher and recognized his talent early on. “Samora was a naturally gifted jazz musician in every respect,” she wrote in an email. “In particular, he had great rhythmic feel—especially for someone so young. He swung hard from the get-go….”

Currently a doctoral candidate in Harvard's School of Music, Pinderhughes is premiering his years-in-the-making multimedia The Healing Project in the Bay Area. His Bing Studio performance on April 2 features the debut of material from Grief, his new Healing Project-related album. He'll sing and play piano and electronics with a rhythm section of Marcus Shelby (bass) and Howard Wiley (drums) along with special guest Bobby Gonz (spoken word) and sister Elena Pinderhughes (flute, vocals).

Pinderhughes spoke with Yoshi Kato for Stanford Live Magazine recently by phone from Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, where he was in the process of setting up his The Healing Project exhibition. He discussed being inspired to create The Healing Project, delving into singing for the first time, and receiving life-changing insights.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Yoshi Kato: The Healing Project has just become such an expansive work. Tell us about how the seeds for it were first planted.

Samora Pinderhughes: I've been working on the project as a whole for the last eight years. It does have many different tentacles. I actually call it a constellation of works.

The original inspiration or idea behind the show was actually that it would be a performance project, because I'm a musician. I'm an interdisciplinary artist now. But I wasn't when I started this!

I wanted to make a piece about the experiences of trauma and then healing from structural violence. And when I say structural violence, I say that very intentionally, because I think a lot of people call it The "Incarceration" Project. Incarceration is definitely a big part of what the project is talking about. But it is not the whole thing.


Yoshi: Can you describe The Healing Project's main "tentacles?"

Samora: Sure. The first is the exhibition, which is at YBCA. But it's not just the sound, it's also a bunch of visual works not by the people in the interviews. The visual works are basically a set of companion pieces to the ideas that are in the interviews.

And then we have an album, which is coming out in April, called Grief. It's an accompaniment to the project with song and lyrics that I wrote. So they're not the interviews. They're basically my "Nina Simone songs" about the subjects of the interviews.

The third element, which will come out in May, is the archive—a digital open-source place for everyone to hear all the interviews. So we're basically giving every different way for [the audience] to get into the ideas behind it. And for the purposes of the Stanford Live show, we're coming back to the origins of [the project] as a performance piece.


Yoshi: And which aspects of The Healing Project will you present at Bing Studio?

Samora: We're going to play some of the material from the album Grief. But in addition to that, we're also going to perform some of the interviews and the [through-composed] music that goes along with those. It’ll be the first performance version of the project.


At his Bing Studio performance of The Healing Project, Pinderhughes will perform tracks from his soon-to-be released album, Grief.

Yoshi: What are some other areas that the project addresses?

Samora: When I say structural violence, what I mean by that is all the forms of violence that come out of the structures and institutions of colonialism, white supremacy, and the American state.

Obviously, the prison industrial complex is the most prominent form of that, whether that's through prisons, policing, detention, immigration policy—all that. But then you also have things like the realities of poverty, the unhoused, gentrification.

You even have interpersonal violence, which I believe is sourced through structural violence. A lot of the community folks that I work with say, "All violence is structural violence at the end of the day" because the source level of all these things is structural.


Yoshi: So these myriad branches grew from the same source.

Samora: This project is really addressing all of those root causes. One of the purposes of it is to really connect the dots between those things. Because a lot of times, particularly in the popular sphere, that can be very siloed.

For instance, in the last few years there's been, obviously, an incredible conversation around policing and the issues with policing. But that conversation is not always tied to immigration enforcement.

That conversation is not always tied to the realities of community violence and how policing actually makes that worse. That's sometimes even connected to prison and the courts, which is wild to me. I was looking for a way to do exactly what I'm talking about through the art.


Yoshi: And that's how The Healing Project was birthed?

Samora: Yes. The only way to do that was to make it a project that was truly bigger than myself. Although I would bring my personal experiences to it, it had to involve the experiences of many people around the country to really get that scale. And I had to build and create a container that could really hold all of these different interlocking realities at the same time, as well as the other side, which are the solutions.

It's an abolitionist project that's trying to get towards actually talking about how people, in spite of those conditions, have found all these ways to heal. They've found all these ways to cope and have developed ways of taking care of themselves and of others.

Through his music and interviews with those affected by incarceration and other forms of structural violence, Pinderhughes highlights the emotional process of healing from institutional trauma.

Yoshi: Others might channel this into an oral history or a series of magazine articles. How did this "constellation" emerge?

Samora: My original idea was inspired by one of my primary mentors, Anna Deavere Smith. Anna had been mentoring me since I was basically at Julliard—not through Juilliard but by happenstance through a couple of mentors from my past. Marcus Shelby was the one who introduced us.

I had already been studying with Anna, and I had been observing her techniques. As a result of that I was, like, "Oh! I really want to do an interview-based project. I really want to try to take what I've learned from observing her interviewing process, and she thinks so much about sound—even as a theater artist."


Yoshi: Anna's quite the impressive mentor to have!

Samora: I learned so much about language and thinking about language and sound from her that I wanted to do that. So I started interviewing people, and that became a six-year process of interviewing over 100 people in 15 different states around the country for six years. And literally hundreds and hundreds of hours.

I recorded all these interviews as audio-only. I wanted to put people at the center of those experiences and not objectify those people. The visual language can be tricky: People watch so many documentaries that the moment you put people's faces in front of them, they make a million assumptions about who that person is and what they're dealing with.


Yoshi: The Healing Project, and Grief in particular, marks your official debut as a vocalist. You could be successful doing a "Piano and a Microphone" tour like Prince did right before he passed. How did it feel to bring that form of expression into the mix?

Samora: When I started this, I didn't sing at all. Finding my voice—physically as a well as existentially—has been a life-changing thing. I just find it a very pure outlet and a very true barometer. You can't hide your voice, you know?

I have this other instrument [the piano] that I've worked on for 20 years. So I think I hid for a long time not singing because I didn't grow up being trained [as a vocalist]. 


Yoshi: With so much going on—globally, of course, but also nationally and locally—the messages of The Healing Project are especially timely.

Samora: One of the things that I'm the most excited about to share these interviews is that I literally think that the interviews themselves will change people's lives. And I don't mean just emotionally or informationally. I was asking people, "What do you do when a person that you love dies? What do you do when you're stuck in the cell all day, and you have to make your way through?"

I've done these interviews, and I've learned how to deal with those things in ways that I never knew. I literally operate differently now based on these interviews. One of the directives I'm going to give people is "Takes notes." People don’t usually say that at a concert or a performance. But you find that gem, and that could change your life.




Samora Pinderhughes is a composer, pianist, vocalist, filmmaker, and multidisciplinary artist known for striking intimacy and carefully crafted, radically honest lyrics alongside high-level musicianship. He is also known for using his music to examine sociopolitical issues and fight for change and works in the tradition of the black surrealists throughout the African Diaspora, those who bend word, sound, and image towards the causes of revolution.

A South Bay native and resident, independent journalist Yoshi Kato contributes to the San Francisco Chronicle and DownBeat and has enjoyed Stanford Live concerts from the Modern Jazz Quartet at Memorial Auditorium in the mid-‘90s to Yo-Yo Ma, I’m With Her, and the SFJAZZ Collective at Bing Concert Hall in the 21st Century.



Samora Pinderhughes
The Healing Project
Sat, April 2 
8:00 PM
Bing Studio

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The Healing Project
Presented by Samora Pinderhughes & YBCA
March 24–June 19, 2022
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

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