Samora Pinderhughes' 'Healing Project' awarded $1 million grant Multidisciplinary artist Samora Pinderhughes has explored mass incarceration for the last eight years. With this sizeable grant, he hopes to sustain "The Healing Project" for decades to come.

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

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The multidisciplinary musician Samora Pinderhughes has just been awarded a rare million-dollar grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The money will fund his project that will explore policing, incarceration and structural violence. NPR culture correspondent Anastasia Tsioulcas recently sat down with him.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Samora 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. It's about healing and leaving yourself emotionally open to your own feelings, to the experiences of others, to generosity.


SAMORA PINDERHUGHES: (Singing) Cry like you cry sometimes. I bleed.

TSIOULCAS: The Healing Project is 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 there's one central question at its core.

PINDERHUGHES: And that ended up being the question of healing from structural violence. And 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. And so 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.

TSIOULCAS: Those hundreds of conversations included people who are currently incarcerated. Many of them contributed their own art to the project. And Pinderhughes worked with a constellation of professional artists and musicians to make meditations on those conversations.

PINDERHUGHES: I didn't really want to limit it. And so I basically did everything that each person asked me to do. So 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 will 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.

TSIOULCAS: A composition like this one from the album "Grief," which is one of the components of the Healing Project.


PINDERHUGHES: (Singing) Death is much worse for the ones left behind. Don't leave me alone with my dreams. I might go crazy this time.

TSIOULCAS: 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. 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.

EMIL KANG: 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 justice, for abolition work over there and how he longed for the day, a time when he could actually bring all of this together.


TSIOULCAS: It's extremely rare for a single performer to get $1 million from a grant. That's about the same as a Nobel Prize winner. And that sum is going to allow the Healing Project to be manifested into even more forms. For example, Pinderhughes plans to make a book version of the Healing Project because so many participants are incarcerated. They're not able to access the collaboration otherwise.

PINDERHUGHES: We're going to continue to do that art and 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.

TSIOULCAS: Eventually, he wants to fulfill more basic needs, too, as basic as helping people get food and jobs.


PINDERHUGHES: (Singing) Young man, come down from that tower. It isn't yet your time. I'll tell you five years later you made it out alive.

TSIOULCAS: That's Pinderhughes singing. In the meantime, he hopes that the music of the Healing Project and the power of the art helps both creators and audiences chart their own paths to healing. He recalls a man coming up to him after a recent performance.

PINDERHUGHES: And he was like, I feel like you should make a shirt that says, I make grown men cry.


PINDERHUGHES: And I was like, that's not a bad idea. So now I just kind of joke - I'm like, OK, that's the tagline of what the energy is.

TSIOULCAS: Tonight, Samora Pinderhughes and some of his musical collaborators will be performing a concert version of the Healing Project at New York's Zankel Hall. Almost inevitably, people will cry. And that's a big part of healing.

Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.

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