The pianist, vocalist, and composer Samora Pinderhughes embraces a multidisciplinary, politically-grounded artistic practice that asks audiences to engage more deeply with the world around them.
“I’m all about complicating things,” says Samora Pinderhughes, laughing a little at the grandiosity of the statement. “In my work, I’m hoping to make people question everything—what they believe, how they live, and what they are implicated in.”
That might sound like an exceedingly ambitious, almost utopian mission statement, but the 29-year-old composer, pianist, singer, and activist explains himself with exceptional humility. He talks specifically, and excitedly, about his heroes and the ideological inspirations for his music—from Central American politics to Nina Simone to Frank Ocean to police brutality—while studiously avoiding empty platitudes. He clearly does not relish the growing spotlight he’s assumed ever since first gaining notice as a preteen piano prodigy in Berkeley, and he’s always at pains to discuss the collaborative ethic his work as a composer, bandleader, and scholar is meant to encourage, more than his specific role in it. “Community” seems to be one of his favorite nouns, eclipsing even “music” itself.
“The composer on high, giving the orchestra my commands, is such a Western thing,” he says.
We sit in the apartment Pinderhughes shares with his partner in the City College area of Harlem, surrounded by books, records, and art—a framed Picasso print, a stylized neon portrait of Muhammed Ali, mounted LP covers of albums from John Coltrane to J Dilla. A copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man lies on the coffee table, near an issue of the film magazine Sight and Sound. The most prominent pieces, though, are the keyboards. From the entryway into the dining room, synthesizers punctuate the decor. An upright and baby grand sit in his living and dining room, respectively.
The pastiche is fitting for an artist with interests and skills as variegated as Pinderhughes’. His list of past and future projects includes genre-defying and improvisatory chamber music suites, song cycles, and sprawling multimedia experiments. Though he’s known best for his jazz piano chops, he also works frequently with veteran Chicago rap superstar Common, primarily as a vocalist and hook writer.
Growing up in the Bay Area, Pinderhughes spent his childhood immersed in Latin music—Cuban, Puerto Rican, Venezulean, and more—while also playing duets with his sister Elena, a talented multi-instrumentalist and singer who has also gone on to have an illustrious career that spans the jazz, classical, and pop spheres. His interest in sociopolitical issues, too, was already burgeoning. As the child of two professors and organizers, Howard and Raquel Pinderhughes, he remembers activism being inextricably intertwined with many aspects of his day-to-day life.
“To me, it was just like living, [Berkeley independent radio station] KPFA on, “Democracy Now” every morning. Always having conversations about what’s happening,” he explains. “I’m a ‘90s baby. Around when I was ten or eleven is about when the Iraq War happened. So I was at all the marches, protests, speeches…that was just childhood. It was a general part of living to just be engaged in the community around you.”
Pinderhughes made a name for himself as a jazz pianist in middle school, after being accepted into a prestigious tuition-free pre-college music program in the Bay Area called Young Musicians Choral Orchestra. His sister was also part of the program, which offers students from low-income households free musical education following a rigorous audition process. “That doesn’t really happen in our [current] society much, especially if you don’t have much money,” Pinderhughes notes.
He continued on at YMCO while attending Berkeley High, the giant public school known for turning out serious musical talent at an exceptionally high frequency. There, Pinderhughes’ breadth of musical and social experience widened as he learned more about disparate elements of Bay Area culture. In addition to performing in a variety of prestigious jazz bands for high schoolers, he became active playing in a number of hip-hop groups—most famously, one formed by future Hamilton star, clipping. member, and actor Daveed Diggs and actor/musician/poet Rafael Casal called The GetBack.
“I learned about this amazing Bay Area legacy of the hyphy movement, but it was also combined with amazing Slam poetry and politics,” Pinderhughes says. “Actors, painters… everyone’s doing ten million different types of art. Now it’s a fad to be multidisciplinary—which is dope because everybody should be—but in the Bay that’s just natural.”
These wide-ranging cultural interests manifested in his work when he entered Juilliard and began to write music more seriously. In addition to studying piano under Kenny Barron, he took classes with composer Kendall Briggs, who later went on to become his private composition teacher. Briggs taught Pinderhughes classical forms and representative repertoire; while Pinderhughes worked on a song cycle, they pored over German and French art song, from Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin to the chanson of Debussy, Ravel, and Fauré. In the realm of chamber music, Briggs notes that Pinderhughes “found a kindred spirit in the harmony, the melodies, and the phrase structures of Poulenc.”
But Pinderhughes traces his musical center of gravity in the classical world back even further. “I’m really an early music cat,” he grins. “I really like Baroque music and Purcell operas. I’m drawn to the tension and release, and the particular tonalities created by the rules they used.”
While working with Briggs, Pinderhughes was also separately developing his best-known work: a sprawling, mutable, jazz-and-soul-influenced work called The Transformation Suite, designed to be played by an ensemble ranging between seven and ten players (“a revolving door of family, with the personnel always changing”). The ambitious collage of a piece scans like a microcosm of Pinderhughes’ wide-ranging musical education, as well as the political and theoretical concerns that ground much of his work. In addition to improvisatory passages by Pinderhughes’ jazz combo, there are sections of spoken word—from actor Jeremie Harris—melismatic gospel-informed vocals, and chamber string flourishes. A variety of texts are used, including poetry from Saul Williams and Tupac Shakur. But the initial inspiration for the piece came from Martin Luther King, Jr.—specifically, the radical ideas he espoused in the last five years of his life.
“He’s debating capitalism vs. communism, he’s talking about the nature of religion, he’s debating Nietzche,” Pinderhughes says of King’s speeches and writing. “He’s getting into this rugged terrain. But people don’t talk about it like that….the reason that so many people can find different uses for him is because they don’t actually want to understand who he was.”
Eight years after its premiere, Pinderhughes remains uncomfortable with The Transformation Suite being viewed as his project exclusively. His name may be stamped on the album, but he views it more as a collaborative scenario or framework that he set in motion. One of the inspirations for his approach was Duke Ellington, whose ambitious big-band and orchestral suites—despite being heavily composed—retained a focus on the individual voice of the specific players who performed them. For Pinderhughes, this ethos has profound implications.
“Politically, we need to build a community ethic,” he explains. “In the piece, we’re talking about building power, and organizing for justice. [The suite] had to have a community ethic because it’s a political work.”
In many ways, then, his next major work, Venus, forms a stark contrast to the suite. Eschewing the earlier work’s cinematic density, Venus is a stripped-back song cycle centered around Pinderhughes’ voice, stark and alone. In the songs, he relates stories and runs through strains of thought that he describes as intensely personal—”things I don’t want to talk about,” he explains. To match the poetry’s vulnerability, Pinderhughes, who is a largely untrained singer, explores the tenuous apex of his tenor voice with soaring melodies that recall two of his biggest heroes at once: Marvin Gaye and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke.
Though the subject matter of the Venus songs is introspective, he still views the piece as having sociopolitical implications. With it, he hopes to cultivate discussion about millennial depression and anxiety, and how it is often exacerbated by social media habits, doomsday news headlines, and more. “These are things that are really important to my generation, and even more important to younger ones,” Pinderhughes says.
The singer-songwriter-like experimentation of Venus has coincided with Pinderhughes testing his vocal abilities out in a much larger arena: his ongoing collaboration with Common. Pinderhughes met the rapper through his sister, who was singing on one of Common’s songs; Samora helped write her verse. Not long after, he began working directly with Common and his jazz-hip-hop supergroup August Greene, which features veteran players Robert Glasper and Karriem Riggins, as well as bassist Burniss Travis. Following the release of August Greene’s debut album in 2018, Pinderhughes and Travis, with whom he says he developed a “symbiotic” working relationship, ended up co-producing the entirety of the rapper’s next project, the Let Love LP, which was released in September 2019. He’s now begun a production duo with Travis, and hints that there is more work with Common on the way.
“The experience has given me an opportunity to exercise my voice and really be a singer,” says Pinderhughes, who has since performed with Common and August Greene around the world. “It was the last thing I would have ever guessed would be a part of my life.”
Though Venus and his growing hip-hop production catalog might suggest that Pinderhughes is gravitating increasingly toward the world of pop music, that would be a mischaracterization of the true focus of his energies this past year or so. In 2018, Pinderhughes was awarded an Art for Justice/Soros Justice Fellow award, which funds the work of “community organizers, journalists, lawyers, policy advocates, and artists who seek to advance reform and spur debate on a range of issues facing the U.S. criminal justice system.” That award spurred the creation of a large-scale multimedia work-in-progress called The Healing Project, which, judging by his description, is more steeped in the avant-garde than any of his other major works.
Pinderhughes say that the center of The Healing Project is once again the human voice. The performance will feature audio of Pinderhughes speaking to people all across the country whose lives have been affected by, as he distills it, “incarceration, detention, violence, and policing.” He foregrounds these tapes in the work, using them as a jumping off point for additional musical material and as inspiration for thematically related visuals.
“I’m transcribing these conversations musically—melodically,” he explains. “I’ve been studying a lot of composers who do that. Steve Reich is very interested in that.”
Pinderhughes is being mentored on the project by renowned actor, playwright, and activist Anna Deavere Smith, many of whose plays—including the Pulitzer-Prize-nominated Fires in the Mirror—derive their dialogue and plots from conversations with people who have been affected by violence and civil unrest. Pinderhughes says his project is also heavily inspired by the work of his parents: his mother created an environmental literacy program for incarcerated people and his father works on plans for violence prevention in cities across the country.
“One of the purposes is to complicate and really destroy the notion to criminality as it’s tied to communities of people of color,” Pinderhughes, who identifies as a prison abolitionist, explains. “A lot of the conversations we have right now around violence and criminal justice are still based on [the concept] innocence, which is very limiting.”
Pinderhughes’ work on this project, among others, delayed pre-existing plans to begin a bold new phase in his career: pursuing a Ph.D. in Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry at Harvard. When I meet Pinderhughes, he is just a few months into his first year of coursework, commuting from New York City to Boston every Monday and Tuesday. At the university, his mentor is Vijay Iyer, the chameleonic jazz pianist and composer with a longstanding interest in activism and sociopolitical studies—in other words, a personality after Pinderhughes’ own heart.
“I knew [Samora] had this kind of research sensibility as an artist, that he had this way of dealing with historical archives, new media, and sourcing information to support his work,” Iyer explains. “It seemed that he could cultivate the intellectual chops to function as a scholar or a public intellectual as well as a public artist, like a Harry Belafonte or a Teju Cole.”
Pinderhughes is someone who has found support through hallowed academic institutions—ones which have encouraged his multidisciplinary interests—but who nonetheless believes those same institutions need to be “held accountable” when they cling to limiting or toxic traditions.
In terms of his own work within academia, he says, he is committed to ensuring the “work itself isn’t swallowed by the institution.”
“It always has to be connected to the people it is supposed to be about,” he elaborates. “A lot of times people make work that is about working people, or people dealing with police brutality, and present it in extractive contexts. Then it’s not part of the solution; it’s just another part of the problem.”
For everything he has already accomplished, there’s little doubt that Samora Pinderhughes is still only in the early phases of a long and influential career—not only as an artist, but as a public figure deeply attuned to issues of justice and equity.
“A lot of us have formed our lives as artists beyond having mere success in an industry,” Iyer continues. “It’s the kind of thing you want to be in for a lifetime, and that means you have to have goals and concerns beyond the vagaries of a business that doesn’t fundamentally care about you. When you are blessed by something like commercial success, you’re not owned by it. He has some clear life priorities about the kind of artist he wants to be in the world.”
One downside of Pinderhughes’ ambitious and multidimensional approach, Iyer jokes, is that he’ll have to buckle down and study for his comprehensive exams at some point. The upside, of course, will be the broader perspective of yet another fresh, rigorous challenge in his life—one that will bring him closer to his goals as an artist, and as Iyer puts it, give him “a new kind of power in the world.” Artistically, that means making work that equalizes different forms—that creates a kind of total musical and visual experience.
“Let’s use all the ways these art forms move people together,” Pinderhughes says, raising his voice in excitement. “If you have all these tools, why would you only use one tool in your whole toolbox to move people?”