I was not able to write a single word since we started quarantining at the end of March. I thought I was having some sort of a writer’s block. I did not feel like producing, writing, doing anything and I was worried that the only thing that made me feel like my best self was taken away from me. I lost my voice. Apparently, grief is a normal process in times like this, especially when we have already been feeling ecological distress in our bodies. So, we grieve for what we lose on individual, societal and global scales during a crisis without even noticing. It turns the whole concept of ‘normal’ upside down and we are left with uncertainty, fear and restraints.
We define ourselves through our opposites. It is thanks to ‘others’ that we are, what we think and define we are. And it seemed like we have lost this ability for quite a while now. We were not able to see people; we could not have physical contact or any kind of close interaction. Some are stuck in their homes with their parents, friends, partners; some are self-quarantining alone. I use “are” here, because we could not manage going back to the old normal, could we? Though there are mild relaxations we are still being extremely careful and we prefer staying in. Our conceptions of maintaining relationships have changed, the way we communicate is different now. We have recognized technology as our savior while avoiding seeing other people. I felt that we were removing the most ‘human’ and necessary part of socializing from the picture: physical contact.
I have realized that I was grieving for things we started losing in our lives while our conceptions of reality were changing and evolving in incredible ways. I saw a change in what we thought and felt as ‘normal’ and realized the things that felt human in my previous life were fading away.
But then, there was a moment when all those things I had started forgetting came back to me. It happened when I was watching an Instagram livestream – as usual. It felt human again. It reminded me of all the things we lived and strived for, why we did the things we did and what we were fighting for before this global crisis. I was feeling numb and questioning my purpose in life throughout the quarantine, getting more and more stuck with my work, feeling creatively stuck after my last article was not published due to the lockdown and my interviews with international musicians for their upcoming gigs here were cancelled, trying to remember what I was supposed to be doing if everything was ‘normal’. And there was my answer.
Samora Pinderhughes was live on Instagram on April 24th to have a listening party, the same day his new EP BLACK SPRING was released. He was playing the songs, telling their stories, accompanying some on the piano or playing and singing some other tunes and stopping from time to time to talk about how those musical phrases came out, what they as musicians felt and wanted the listener to feel at that certain moment. There was a struggle painted on that EP; which was still very much existing, and that continued every single day. I recall it was when he played and sang Kill War, the second song of the EP, that I was shook. It was an amazing piece of work, a devastating one if I may say so. It destroyed me and I started sobbing when I heard the lyrics. I felt all the emotions there; the hate, the anger, the tiredness, the grief, the holler. It was so immersive I felt it in my bones.
I admire musicians who use their music to react, reflect, talk about and protest the social political conditions of the times they live in, to convey a message through their art and create a space for people to give ear, learn, think, gather and act. I loved how intimate and inspiring that livestream was and that was exactly what I needed. Pinderhughes then played a tune from African Symphony by Abdullah Ibrahim, one of South Africa’s most important pianists who has been through apartheid, to finish the livestream which touched me even more. Hearing that call from the music, those songs and their stories helped me get back on track. I had to write about it, I had found ‘the’ music to motivate me to write about something again. And that was going to be my way of showing support, holding that weight.
Composer, vocalist, pianist and activist Samora Pinderhughes is one of the most important names in the contemporary scene. He carries the flag which was once carried by countless of musicians we have so much respect for; like Nina Simone, who believed that an artist’s duty was to reflect the times. He uses his music as a platform and an agent for change.
Born and raised in the Bay Area, Pinderhughes started playing music when he was 2 years old and he was introduced to great revolutionary musicians like Bob Marley to Nina Simone to Tupac by his parents. He studied spiritual musical traditions in Cuba, and later went to The Julliard School to study under Kenny Barron and Kendal Briggs. He has toured internationally with Branford Marsalis, Christian Scott, Gretchen Parlato, Common, and Emily King. He is now well known with his multidisciplinary projects as well as his works for social change and justice. His character, what he has been doing for his community and his activist persona is as influential as his music. And please do have a listen to his previous works too. The Transformation Suite, for example.
You do not have to be in someone else’s shoes to feel their pain. You do not have to experience the same struggles to be able to support a movement. And you do not have to know someone personally to grieve for their passing. Empathy is one of the most humane characteristics one can have. You do not have to be one of them to understand people who have been suppressed, harmed, killed for ages because of racism, discrimination and injustices just like you do not have to be a woman to support women’s rights or starve to feel for people who live in poverty and hunger. It is empathy, sympathy, human; it is all about being a human. It is that simple. And free. It is fighting and rising, being a voice for those whose voices have been silenced or fallen on deaf ears by finally getting out of our cocoons in which only our lives matter. That is privilege. Choosing to react and speaking up is privilege. Use that privilege for something good.
Black people are dying every day in America. And this is not a news to anyone. It has not just begun. The history of systemic racism that is embedded in state institutions and society is as old as the discovery of the continent. The struggle that started with the first person brought from Africa has continued throughout the Civil War, slave revolts, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, massacres during acquisition of new territories, lynching, Civil Rights Movement, countless of riots, 1965 Watts, 1992 Rodney King, 2014 Ferguson (and so many more) has gained a new spark (and hopefully a strong and long lasting one that will bring radical change) with the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police. The words of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was murdered by the police on chokehold, was repeated in that video: “I can’t breathe”. A pain that never ends and keeps echoing in different bodies.
It is a deeply rooted systemic oppression which makes people of color paranoid and terrified even when they are walking on the streets because of police brutality, disproportionate use of force by law enforcement, the right to bear arms, corruption and injustices in the criminal justice system, white privilege, the perception of black people – or it might be more appropriate to say people of color here – as threat, the discriminative attitude people of color have to face every day starting from the very basic functions of the society. And sadly, we might never be able to understand it completely. We might know what it feels like to be a target because of our gender identities, because of what we think, what we believe in, who and what we do not support. But I, personally, can never understand what it is like to be hated for who and what I am, for the color of my skin. I have never experienced such a threat where I am no longer able to go outside without thinking if I can come back home safe. And for that I feel sorry and responsible. People all around the world are suffering and fighting for their lives because of racial, religious, lingual, ideological, cultural differences. For whom are we speaking up today?
This was exactly what Pinderhughes was talking about in BLACK SPRING. The EP’s name was telling us that now was the time to act. Reaction, anger and grief were coming out of it. In his own words, “with the revolutionary energy and artistry of the 1960s”. You could hear it crying out loud for action, progress, moving forward and reform. The four songs inside the EP talks about the current problems we are dealing with in the World and America especially: social reintegration of ex-offenders who are refused basic citizenship rights after their release, supporting each other within the society; pro-war governments and states, warmongering language, violence caused by polarization and discrimination, silence and ignorance towards injustices and lastly, those who were murdered by the police, the state and the prison system.
Hold That Weight was the first single that was released from the EP (April 3rd), because it addressed the current Covid-19 crisis the best. In Samora’s own words: “It was written before this, but really applies to the senses we are all feeling at this moment – How we’re trying to cope; how this crisis has exposed some of the real inequalities in the American system; and how we’re all trying to figure out what it looks like to help and support one another during this crisis. But especially, how we can support those most vulnerable to this crisis (the homeless, those in prison/detention centers, those without work, those without health insurance or access to health services).” Therefore, he dedicated the song to the health care workers, the grocery store workers, the delivery people, the artists – “everyone providing us with what we need during these crazy times”. Kill War is an anti-war song that was written from a soldier’s perspective. Pinderhughes examines the system of violence that is built around imperialist and nationalist ideas and where individuals fit into that doctrine. He tries to stress that people of color are the ones who have to pay for it. “Who is fighting, who is dying for the cause?” And Blood is about holding the ones with power accountable for furthering violence between and towards people, and holding ourselves accountable for not doing enough, staying silent, ignorant or for only superficially doing the required work. The beats are heavy and powerful, giving the message perfectly. But It was probably the last song that touched me the most. For Those Lost, For Those Taken is dedicated to Sandra Bland, who was murdered 5 years ago in a jailhouse in Texas. The song is for the ones whose life were taken away by the police, the state, the prison system and the lyrics of the song sums it all up: “Promise me I’ll be alive when I leave my home”.
The artwork belongs to the amazing artist Titus Kaphar’s Shred Presidents series where he depicts the United States presidents who owned slaves and their contribution to slavery. Kaphar brings forth what is hidden behind the history that only reveals parts which those who have written it wanted us to know. You can see the names of the slaves or news about them pinned to the re-imagined portraits of the American presidents with rusty nails. The one that was used in BLACK SPRING is called To Be Sold and it was made in 2018.
At first, I gave up on writing about this topic because of political correctness. I was so scared of saying anything that might be considered offensive or wrong. I have been talking about the Black Lives Matter movement since the day I have started my radio show and I have been writing and talking about musicians who use music as a platform to talk about social political issues for years. This time I was worried, so I refrained. But now, it came to a point where silence is considered consent. The truth is, it has always been like this. But never have we seen the movement growing this strong and getting enough attention from our circles here.
So instead of being scared of making a mistake I decided to show that I am in full solidarity with the people out there by doing what I hope I can do best: write. I thought BLACK SPRING was just the perfect fit. It was as if Pinderhughes signaled what was coming. It was released a month before George Floyd was murdered and the protests took all around America and even some areas internationally. Everyone knew this had to happen eventually. And this EP was a call for change, togetherness and help, released just before it all went down. It was a very powerful and strong aural painting of resentment, exhaustion, anger, but still full of hope for people it calls to action, regardless of the hardships and the long way ahead. Samora Pinderhughes is among the few musicians that come to my mind when these issues are on the agenda. He has a very unique and striking way of presenting his music. His lyrics talking about the harshest realities are radical, brutally honest but meticulously written and I love how he combines it all with beautiful visual storytelling. He pulls you into a world where you feel the weight of the story that is being told and you have no choice but to act upon them afterwards.
There is a resource guide Pinderhughes now shares online and it is constantly being updated. If you go check Resource Document For This Moment you will find very helpful information about the current events and history. There are important educational materials, clips, articles, books, movies and music to understand and learn about the context and background of systemic racism and how to fight it. There are also petitions to sign and local organizations that have been doing this work for years on the ground to donate and support.
We must support black artists, listen to their music, introduce them to people who have not met them yet and talk about them as much as we can. Tell their stories, tell people what is going on in the world right now. Our favorite music exists thanks to black people, I really do not know what we would do without their culture. And I am not even talking about jazz…
Please listen to these musicians, go buy their music. Check out Anderson .Paak, Ambrose Akinmusire, Ben Williams, Black Thought, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Common,Cory Henry,Esperanza Spalding, , H.E.R., J. Cole, Kamasi Washington, Kendrick Scott, Kendrick Lamar, Keyon Harrold, Marcus Strickland, Mumu Fresh, Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin… All black musicians will tell you about the same story.
I wanted to quote something I have seen on Steve Coleman’s page: “When you benefit from an art form like jazz which was born out of the legacy of Black resistance and choose to opt out of the conversation of racism, you are part of the problem. Coming empty handed to a table that feeds you consistently is an example of what privilege is.”
And one more from Toni Morrison: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” This says it all.
The power of music slaps you in the face in times like this. Just as music is affected and shaped by socio-political events, it also affects and shapes those events. It helps increase their voice, it gives power and motivation to people, it helps others (us, in this case) to learn and understand what is going on and it is one of the best tools for furthering conversation. This EP was one of those wake up calls for me. It made me feel human again, helped me to wake up during a time I was starting to feel numb because all that was happening and I hope, if you still have not listened to it, it gives you the same energy, state of mind and hope it gave to me.
Let us keep raising our voices with what we can do best. Let us show our appreciation, solidarity; say their names, demand justice for everyone regardless of where we are. Let us listen, read, ask and learn. But first, please go have a listen to BLACK SPRING by Samora Pinderhughes.