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An artist's 'Healing Project,' focused on incarceration and violence, wins $1 million

The multidisciplinary artist Samora Pinderhughes, whose Healing Project has won a $1 million grant from the Mellon Foundation.
Ray Neutron
/
Courtesy of the artist
The multidisciplinary artist Samora Pinderhughes, whose Healing Project has won a $1 million grant from the Mellon Foundation.

There's a multidisciplinary artist who is so remarkable that although he is just 31 years old, he's just been awarded a rare $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to fund his work: Samora Pinderhughes.

Pinderhughes does many things. He's a vocalist, pianist, composer and filmmaker. He's also very much an activist against mass incarceration. For the past eight years, he's been working on something called The Healing Project. As the name suggests, it's about healing and leaving yourself emotionally open — to your own feelings, to the experiences of others, to generosity. That openness to vulnerability is also clear in Pinderhughes' sweet, warm voice and in his wide vision for his work.

He was inspired by the plays of one of his mentors, the playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith, who often bases her work on documentary interviews she's conducted; she asked him if he was interested in exploring something similar. It led Pinderhughes — originally from the Bay Area, and now based in New York City — on a journey to conduct conversations with people across the U.S. about incarceration and structural violence.

Pinderhughes has always been involved in activism: his parents are professors and community activists. "It was very natural for me to start creating things that had a message," he observes.

He later attended Juilliard as a jazz student. "I was there for piano performance," he says. "I think off the top it was probably not the right place for me — but I just didn't know that at the time that composing was a job! I wasn't like, 'Oh, OK, I could be like my own artist and make my own work.' I found amazing teachers there — Frank Kimbrough, Kendall Briggs and Kenny Barron in particular — who allowed me to be myself." At the same time, he says, he felt he was surrounded by fellow students who were more interested in being the strongest possible technical players.

"Meanwhile," he adds, "I was very concerned with what was happening in the world, and how to say something about that through the music, and how to collaborate with different disciplines. I wanted to make things with the actors and make things with the string players. I was a little bit lost in the sauce there."

One particular inflection point sparked Pinderhughes into using his music to address racial violence directly. "I think what really happened was the Ferguson uprising and Mike Brown's murder, it just really charged something," he observes. Ultimately, that led to the creation of Pinderhughes' ambitious 2016 work The Transformations Suite, which melded jazz, spoken-word poetry and visuals into a plea for social justice.

In its current form, The Healing Project is also made up of many elements, including music, films and visual art. It's meant to be performed and experienced in many different ways and in different places. Pinderhughes, who is of mixed-race and Black ancestry, says that there is one central question at its core.

"That ended up being the question of healing from structural violence," he says. "By structural violence, I mean just basically any type of trauma that could come from violences that are created by the society. So that could be imprisonment, that could be police brutality. It could even just be something like poverty and just like the circumstances of one's upbringing and environment. It brought me on a journey of talking to hundreds of people around the country about their experiences and their ideas, most importantly, about healing and what they've been through, how they've come through it."

Those hundreds of conversations included people who are currently incarcerated; many of them contributed their own art to the project. Pinderhughes worked with a constellation of professional artists and musicians to make meditations on those conversations, including the album Grief. Other parts of the project include live performances and a visual art exhibition on display last year at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

"I didn't really want to limit it," Pinderhughes says. "So I basically did everything that each person asked me to do. If they wanted to send me pieces that they had drawn through the mail if they were incarcerated, those go up in the exhibition. If they wanted to talk about the realities and experiences of loss and grieving, we would make a film about that. If they wanted to talk about the process of healing from long periods of incarceration, we're going to make a composition about that."

The expansiveness of The Healing Project — part creative vessel, part catalyst for activism and part new collaborative model — is so dynamic that it attracted the attention of the Mellon Foundation. Emil Kang directs its arts and culture program. He was blown away by Pinderhughes' vision.

"I started asking him about his own artistic practice and he started to in some ways bifurcate his work: to talk about his music over here, his lived experience over here and his commitment to abolition work over there. And how he longed for the day of a time when he could actually bring all of this together."

"To be frank," Kang continues, "I was saddened by what he was saying to me, but yet I understood exactly what he was saying — that the ecosystem that we have now, especially in the performing arts, still exists in a transactional way, where an artist just puts out their work and hopes people get it somehow. At the Mellon Foundation, as we are trying to push forward our own work and what the future of the performing arts looks like, we really do believe it's in the guise of contemporary performance — in a way that allows artists to be able to show the totality of their humanity in their work, and not just the virtuosity of their skill."

It is extremely rare for a single performer to get a million dollars from a grant; that's about the same sum as a Nobel Prize. That money is going to allow The Healing Project to be manifested into even more forms, Pinderhughes says. He also avers that this is very much a collaborative effort: "Everybody that was a part of the project had a stake in the project, so everybody that has ever been a part of this project co-owns this project with me. Everybody that has been a part of the project has just as much say over what is in it as I do."

"I'm really honored and humbled to receive this opportunity to just take this project into the stratosphere," Pinderhughes continues. "It's only the beginning, really, of what we have planned. I am an artist and I believe deeply in the power of art, but I also want to materially create change in the lives of the people that are a part of it and also in the communities that it wants to serve."

For example, Pinderhughes plans to make a printed book version of The Healing Project, because so many participants are incarcerated. They're not able to access the collaboration otherwise.

When he asked participants what they would need to create a space for their healing, spiritually or materially, some interviewees said that they needed things as basic as access to healthy food and jobs — which, for those formerly incarcerated, can be very hard to secure.

"We're also starting an initiative called The Healing Project Transformative Impact Fund," Pinderhughes notes, "where we're going to be using the project as a container to actually start to support the dreams and hopes and projects of the actual people who participated in the project — folks particularly who are formerly and currently incarcerated."

At the same time, he says, "We're going to continue to do that art, that narrative work, we're going to make the book, we're going to make more albums, we're going to make more exhibitions, we're going to make more films."

In the meantime, he hopes that the music of The Healing Project, and the power of its art, helps both creators and audiences chart their own paths to healing. He recalls a man coming up to him after a recent performance.

"He was like, I feel like you should make a shirt that says, 'I make grown men cry,' " Pinderhughes recounts. "And I was like, 'That's not a bad idea.' So now, just kind of jokingly, that's the tagline of what the energy is."

Friday evening, Pinderhughes and some of his musical collaborators will be performing a concert version of The Healing Project at New York's Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall. Almost inevitably, people will cry. And that's a big part of healing.

Edited by: Neda Ulaby

Produced by: Anastasia Tsioulcas

Audio story produced by: Isabella Gomez Sarmiento

Audio story edited by: Neda Ulaby

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.