Samora Pinderhughes on GRIEF, Community, and 6 Tips for Growing Your Artistic Explorations
The most impactful, unsettling, resonant work comes from the questions that take courage to ask. Based on dozens of interviews conducted with intergenerational individuals, many of whom have been incarcerated, The Healing Project explores violence, prison institutions, and the systems that perpetuate them, along with the care strategies born from the communities most affected.
As the pandemic hit, Samora Pinderhughes had been creating his cumulative work, The Healing Project, for the better part of six years. Pulling on the threads of those interviews while echoing the experiences of the past two years, Pinderhughes’ debut album GRIEF poignantly moves through the ethos of loss, from the process of grieving to its reverberating effects.
Met with countless accolades, an extended exhibition at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and a Tiny Desk performance on NPR, GRIEF may feel like the culmination of a years’-long collaboration. To Pinderhughes, it catalyzes the beginning of critical conversations among those who interact with it.
“The album came out naturally because my source is writing music and lyrics. That's the part of all of this that I've always done and it's kind of the cathartic part for me,” he says. “I hope there are different songs on the album that different people can tap into. It can either resonate with their experience or challenge them in some way. I hope that it's one of those two experiences.”
6 Tips for Growing Your Artistic Explorations
We sat down with Samora to delve deeper into his processes and discover what other artists can learn from his persistence, authenticity, and generosity as a creator. Check out these takeaways from our conversation to inspire your artistic perspective and process.
1. Play with the Unexpected to Take Your Audience Further
Rather than thinking about GRIEF in terms of format, Pinderhughes focused on how to best communicate stories and themes, which pushed him to marry the music with captivating scenes.
“I've always been a little bit obsessed with visuality. When I would write songs, I would see scenes in my head, so I always particularly love film as a medium. I got into the rest of the visual arts mediums a little later because I had more entrance points into film as a musician,” he says.
“Sound can say so much just from one chord. One image can say much more than a bunch of words. I think about the visual because there's a lot of audience familiarity with a certain type of visual language or visual history.”
Knowing people have assumptions about what they see when it's connected to certain subjects, Pinderhughes played with ways to challenge them. For instance, many people would think that a project based on interviews with visuals to accompany them would be a documentary that lets you see the people in the interviews. With GRIEF, Pinderhughes decided not to show the people in the interviews because he wanted to prevent those assumptions and give people the opportunity to truly listen.
Artist Tip: For your next project, ask yourself what assumptions could arise among your audience, and experiment with different ways to challenge them
2. Choose Collaborations with Intention
The Healing Project and its corresponding album GRIEF result from carefully crafted collaborations. Here are some considerations Pinderhughes made when choosing people to contribute to his works.
The Subjects Behind the Work
While some artists wouldn’t consider interview subjects as collaborators, Pinderhughes calls them “the guiding lights throughout the whole project as far as what the core subjects were, what needed to be talked about, how things should be structured, and even what should be present like a lot of the visual pieces.”
Personal Bonds Within the Arts Community
The people you already know and trust served as go-tos for The Healing Project. “A lot of the collaborations were just kind of natural,” Pinderhuges says. “I've
been lucky enough to build up some real deep bonds with other creators over time.”
The Flexibility of a Collaborator
By seeking out artists who can truly work communally without the limitations of contracts, Pinderhughes and his collaborators could move very nimbly. The arts industry doesn’t always respect this, so he felt fortunate to work in a collective of artists building everything together from scratch.
Their Willingness to Contribute to a Larger Conversation
Pinderhughes wanted to make room for a part of the collaborative process that didn’t involve creating the project together. Instead, he sought out individuals who were passionate about exploring the same questions. He explains,“Some of the things in the exhibition are things that people create, and I have really nothing to do with it except the curation part of bringing them into space and putting them into conversation with everything else.”
Artist Tip: From your subjects to the conversation you’re exploring, think about factors beyond who you know when it comes to choosing collaborators
3. Explore Questions As a Community
Pinderhughes didn't want to limit The Healing Project to include only things he worked on. In conceptualizing the work, he asked himself: What are the most important things for people to see connected to these ideas and feelings?
“I'm very interested in community, not just in terms of the things we can work on together, but how are we, as an artistic community seeking and dealing with the same questions and moving along the same lines?”
Pinderhughes believes that exploring these questions can create pathways. “People are too quick to try to find simple answers. Complex questions require complex solutions. I think we're just offering up a lot of possibilities, and our hope is that people will take those things and run with them.”
The Healing Project’s questions range from the structural to the personal:
What would a society look like if it was built around care instead of punishment? If we had more physical and ephemeral institutions
that were specifically structured around people's healing and not run by organizations that weren't based in the community?
How are these very cruel institutions that we have right now affecting people's day-to-day emotions, and what are the consequences of that? How do we help them get what they need when they've been damaged by those institutions?
What does it really mean to wade through the grieving process? What are the things that people require versus what we actually do for them?
Artist Tip: Even when you’re creating separately, your work can still converse with the works of other artists based on the questions you collectively pursue. This can result in larger works that move audiences through questions that take them to new places, introduce them to new people, and elicit empathy they haven’t experienced before
“I would say my number one power as an artist is honesty. I would say my other power as an artist is the ability to tap into emotion, which I think is hopefully a common power for lots of artists. For me art is the medium because you can access the emotions.”
4. Honor the Communal Experience of Making
“Not just because it's a beautiful thing, but also because it is antithetical to the industry of making the thing itself,” Pinderhughes says. “If you don't work really hard at it, It won't happen because no one is gonna make you honor the contributions of everybody around you.”
While he understands that the art industry is very content to promote individual artists, he encourages people to think about all the different ways they can honor the artist community and the community process.
Artist Tip: Ensure that your collaborators are allowed to shine, too. This acknowledgment makes them feel good, and it also empowers them to continue working and growing through new opportunities that may come about from that exposure.
5. Question Traditional American Processes
The Healing Project interviews revealed a fundamental question Pinderhughes explored through GRIEF: What are the best processes for you?
He explains, "Funerals are very painful, and it's not just because of the passing of a person. It's because that process is not necessarily one that really makes the grieving process easier for people. I think there are a lot of contexts and ways of grieving and helping other people that we've been robbed of…not just doing Indigenous practices but also imagining new ways. We have to be open to that… It's sometimes very simple, practical things."
Artist Tip: When exploring questions in our art, we naturally gravitate toward the process we’re most familiar with first, which are typically those rooted in structures and societal norms that don’t always serve us. Instead, question these processes just as Samora learned to do and see where that takes you.
6. Embrace the Evolution of Your Power
Following his 2016 EP, The Transformations Suite, Pinderhughes released GRIEF, his first album that marked the first time he had ever sung on his own songs. To Pinderhughes, GRIEF feels like a first album.
“I've only put out two records and I think of this as my first record because I put out The Transformation Suite in 2016. I was a baby, just got out of college, and I feel like it's another life, musically,” he explains. “I don't really recognize myself in that anymore, but for now, GRIEF just feels honest to where I'm at.”
When asked if he feels particularly close to GRIEF as his voice takes center stage, he pauses. “I think it's just more like this is where I'm at now. So who knows what I'll feel like in the future. I might feel like this is the same or feel like this was another life. Either way, I don’t know, and I’m okay with it.”
Artist Tip: Welcome the growth that will happen as you move to new projects and expand your reach as an artist. While those earlier projects may feel less familiar than they did when you released them, they’re valuable stepping stones that have brought you to the bold, authentic place you stand in today.
Learn More About Samora Pinderhughes