Academic and Cultural Analysis of Samora Pinderhughes' The Transformations Suite

Opening music of the second song on the album. The upright bass plays an ostinato that emulates a rocking boat as we listen to Jeremie Harris, a black poet, speak in anger about the history that is embedded in him, the bass line a metaphor for the burden of history that follows his every footsteps into today:

We built you, Sam

In tears and sweat and blood


leaving holes in our todays, murdering any hope for tomorrow


What happened to that God you spoke of?

Punched down my throat, kicked in my face

I ain't seen him in your eyes lately

I ain't heard him in your words

You even walking like the devil these days [...]

The culture you called stool,

stepped on and then stole [...]

scratching for breath in the land that calls them pariah

for trying to breathe

second hand murders you had a first hand in creating

the love you sold, smashed and shoved into the holes of ships

The reconciliation of slavery and segregation eras, indicated by phrases like “love you sold, smashed and shoved into the holes of ships”, with contemporary issues like Black Lives Matter and the prison industrial complex, hinted by “scratching for breath in the land that calls them pariah for trying to breathe”, calls us to reassess the past in the hopes of gaining a deeper understanding of the present, consequently calling on change and a resurgence of power for the future. This is the goal of composer and artist Samora Pinderhughes' The Transformations Suite (2016).

Samora Pinderhughes makes his album very much about tradition, as the album website summarizes: Transformations Suite (2016) continues “in the tradition of artists such as Bob Marley, Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday and Tupac Shakur” by painting “a musical picture of the current state of social inequality and injustice in the United States and beyond”. The way it is conveyed mobilizes motifs of tradition, perhaps to make the spoken word and sound more translatable to the every day listener – storytelling by way of spoken word, biblical allusions, and referencing great black writers and musicians who came before, literally and not so literally. For example, the poem in “History” bears diction similarities to Langston Hughes' “Harlem (A Dream Deferred)”, as “History” uses Uncle Sam as a synechdoche for white people and explains how they left them to “rot and fester, to ooze, bubble, and pus”, and “Harlem (A Dream Deferred)”, also a one-word titled H poem, questions if a dream deferred will “fester like a sore” or “stink like rotten meat”.

Now, the musicianship of Pinderhughes and literary caliber of Harris's words are undoubtedly extraordinary. But the way Pinderhughes is conveying his message, flipping the script on a macro level, is what is the most revolutionary. He builds his message by not just utilizing tradition, but by ultimately reworking, representing, and digesting it. Pinderhughes calls for a reappraisal of history by using the jazz genre as the basis for his musical approach and sound, a genre that initially gained popularity from its ragtime origins playing behind minstrel shows, followed by its presence in Broadway shows in New York or other talent productions, whether it be dance or just watching the band on it's own, where black people largely served as entertainers for white people. It is not a coincidence that he is using that genre again to ask for white people's attention again, but this time, to make them engage with and confront their history via the medium that merely entertained them in the past.

Another way Pinderhughes arguably reworks tradition is by his imposition of classical harmony and instrumentation in addition to a largely jazz inspired and black artist oriented genres that demanded its presence (much like Harris' and the Black Lives Matter movement's voice). In the song “Cycles”, Pinderhughes offers this as periods of juxtaposition between powerful and emotional solos that are backed by characteristically jazz harmony. Classical music is one of the only genres of music can be traced back to Europe and essentially to white people. By using it to not only provide contrast to the soloists, but to enhance the emotional experience of Harris' words and the soloists who do participate in the parts of classical harmony, it can be argued that Pinderhughes is making a statement by blending the two kinds of music. Genre fusion and multi-inspirational music is extremely characteristic of contemporary music, so Pinderhughes uses this as a way to convey a message to white folk about the future: that they are an inseparable part of their history and plight whether they like to admit it or not, and that they need to be brought attention to how that has yielded movements like Black Lives Matter, that there is still suffering being had, and that it is a cue for white people to actively fight for equity. It also arguably calls for the reconciliation of two worlds that, in contrast to current media and the academic structure of our institutions, are often made up to be divided. It establishes that much of Black Lives Matter's success depends on white folk to recognize their privilege and conditioned defensiveness of the white race and to support black power and cultural celebration. In that way, it states that it depends on the cooperation of these two worlds - asking for a recognition of differences and how that ultimately influences our goal of equality and unity. It can also be added that Pinderhughes' band, unlike many Black Lives Matter tribute albums, is not composed of all black people. In fact, Pinderhughes and his sister Elena, who sings and plays flute on the album, are mixed race with black and latino roots. The bass player and the drummer are white. This makes the same kind of statement, asking for the cooperation and awareness of all backgrounds in order to help Black Lives Matter achieve equality and end suffering. If they can come together and create beautiful music, then that is a sign that they can come together and foster a safer environment and a stronger outcome for the future of black people in America.

The Transformations Suite (2016) employs special manipulations of traditions and the sound created by this particular group of musicians to make it the piece that it is. Many other musical artists and groups have also dedicated an album to Black Lives Matter, each with their own individualistic messages. Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly (2015) took advantage of Lamar's already established presence in popular music and used that as a platform to bring widespread attention to the serious issue that is modern day racism and mass incarceration. He forced people to rethink the role of popular music, which usually serves a nonchalant role as background music in malls or school dances in which no serious issues beyond heartbreak are conveyed in the lyrics. This forced people to acknowledge the lyrical content and stop the dismissive culture around popular music, and similarly, the dismissive culture around black lives. It also forces popular culture to acknowledge that hip hop is a black originating art form, as it is combined in the album with multiple other black art forms like jazz, R&B, funk, and more that are not heard as much in popular music. Solange's A Seat at the Table (2016) asks for empowerment and recognition of suffering of black people, calling for a conversation about modern black oppression in popular culture that is shunned or too uncomfortable to want to have. She, too, plays on tradition and history, notably by having her dad speak about his experiences growing up with racism and the cycle of incarceration and drug abuse that black people might find themselves entering. These works have initiated nationwide conversation about the injustice black people endure and how we can actively fight to end it. Let's hope that this art keeps being created, empowering black lives and their allies in a time when a significant part of our country has resorted to historical regression.

Sasha BerlinerComment