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This week on Making Contact we speak with composer, pianist, and vocalist Samora Abayomi Pinderhughes about The Healing Project at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The Healing Project, fundamentally an abolitionist project, explores the structures of systemic racism — particularly the prison industrial complex — in the United States.
Pinderhughes uses music, visual arts, film, and language as abolitionist action. The Healing Project takes multiple forms: as musical songs, films, an exhibition, community gatherings, live performances, and a digital library of audio interviews. At the center of the project are the intergenerational voices of individuals across the country, including folks incarcerated in prisons and detention centers. Their stories, experiences, and ideas serve as the foundation for The Healing Project’s vision for societal transformation.
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Music Credits: The Making Contact Team
The Making Contact Team
Today on Making Contact, we bring you to “the Healing Project”, a multimedia installation that features personal stories from those who are incarcerated and highlights the deep trauma that imprisonment has had on their lives and their loved ones.
When you walk into the “The Healing Project” at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, you see a piano centered in the middle of a huge space, connected to three smaller rooms. There is sound coming from every direction. People’s voices talking about their life experiences with prisons. There is an altar against one wall, draped with prayer beads, white candles, dried flowers, and bottles of alcohol. Above it is a mural of a person crowned with flowers. Their face is in silhouette but somehow it still feels like you can look into their eyes.
SAMORA 1+: Samora walking me through the art exhibition at YBCA….
So. Yeah. Welcome to the Healing Project. The heart of the project is in the interviews, some of which you’ll hear that we did across the country with folks who have experienced structural violence from a series of different contexts and talking to them about what they went through, but also about the healing practices. And it’s like a combination, like sound, visuality, language. We are trying to kind of basically cover all the bases. So these right here at the beginning, this is these are tapes that have short interviews on them from different folks that are incarcerated. [00:01:11]
ANITA 2: That’s Samora Pinderhughes, the Bay Area-raised composer, pianist, singer, and activist. He has spent the past eight years exploring structures of systemic racism — specifically how many families navigate the daily realities of state violence, and the system of detention and incarceration in the United States.
He comes from a family with a long history of social and racial justice activism. His father, Howard Pinderhughes, was an organizer in the anti-apartheid movement as a student at UCBerkeley. He later went on to work with violence prevention organizations and is an active member of the Brotherhood of Elders Network. His mother (Raquel Pinderhughes) is also an activist; fighting for environmental and racial justice, supporting solidarity movements in Latin America, and creating programs to support incarcerated youth and adults while also fighting to abolish the prison industrial complex.
Pinderhughes follows in his parent’s footsteps. He wants “The Healing Project” to lift up the voices of those who have been locked up and silenced, to not only show the world that this flawed system should be abolished, but to also show support for people who’ve experienced structural violence.
Telling the truth about the violences of the current system and the true need to basically eradicate it, not to reform it and being like super honest about how it affects people. And then on the other side, actually showing what a type of other world is possible and what people actually need in their day to day if they’re going to actually be the healthiest versions of themselves. [00:00:55]
Music up to assist with the transition
SAMORA 3:+ The piece that I always talk about first or think about first is a piece that is narrated and spoken by my brother Keith Lamar, who’s, you know, incarcerated in Ohio on death row and it’s called Sweet. And it’s basically like a piece where he discusses, you know, his experience, not just being incarcerated, but even growing up previous to that as a very young person because he was incarcerated very young. But basically, the thesis of it is he’s talking about the thing that he’s the most proud of throughout his whole time of his life is that he’s maintained and held on to his sweetness because every level from his childhood and, you know, growing up in this country to, you know, obviously being incarcerated, everything is designed to rob him of that sweetness and to kind of make him unfeeling and make him like hard and all this stuff. And he’s just like, I always hold on to that sweet part of myself. And then he talks about also the people around him that help him maintain that and support that part of him. And I love that because, you know, obviously, number one, I really believe in that so much and that we all need to hold on to that and be able to hold on to that. But also because I think it directly contradicts the image that one wants to paint of somebody on death row [00:01:17]
ANITA: Pinderhughes walks me to a room with words on the wall that read, “They chew you up, swallow you.” Audio is playing of a man named Keith Lamar describing how holds onto his humanity despite being incarcerated.
Cross-fade bring in interview music of Keith Lamar discussing the maintaining his humanity
Keith Lamar: 2:29+
One of the things that I’m surprised about. And my friends tell me, do. You know people who get to really know me? Are. It’s kind of still kind of surprising to me. I’m sweet, man, you know? I mean, I love being sweet.
To my friends, you know? You know, when I was younger, when I was growing up. It wasn’t cool to be sweet, sweet little boy. I was, you know. No, my sweet. I mean, I just. I just like to make connection with people, you know, that that. Tenderness, you know, that human thing, you know, to connect with people, you know. But the situation, you know, we talk about the criminal justice system, but. What it is in the digestive system that just, you know, like you you have to because education. This guy’s graduating from an Ohio correctional facility and making recorded and monitored. Do you ever get for cancer case and swallow you and you know you call.Me class on injustice and then you come out with a piece of shit. So when I was up there, kind of most amazed about my something that didn’t even go on to Auschwitz. You know what? This. You know, that’s one of the things.I’m most like about myself. If only people that were close to me got telephone. You know, because you never had an opportunity. Do you know what I’m saying to. Myself as well? To myself. You know. Even though I’ve been through. And, you know, that’s one of the things that when people are older, even. They’re like, oh. Your worst fears come true. You know. Nothing, you know, but nothing but death itself can rob me of who you are.. I think one of my girlfriends told me a long time. Ago, you know, for lack of a better word, you want. He was the last person you could feel brand person you could feel, you know, being who you are, where you are. You know, it’s important to have that and, you know. Have that understanding, actually, because, you know, people watch a lot. You know, you’re really into it. It’s just getting into the process of being just, you know, like yourself because you go right now, you know. You are having a smile. It’s just it’s, you know, in a correct way.
Keith LaMar was sentenced to prison at the age of 19 for murder. He has spent over 30 years in prison, most of it…in solitary confinement.
The Healing Project forces us to acknowledge the deep problems in America’s so called “system of corrections and rehabilitation”. Pinderhughes exposes the system’s focus on forced servitude, imprisonment and punishment, and its failure to consider the futures of those reentering society and the impacts on their families and communities.
Healing Project Prison Collage: 1:11 +
[Sam] The prison prisoners like. I mean, it’s like an embassy. That’s the only way I can think of it. They don’t have to follow the rules of the government. They just have their own policies. And there’s no one there to say it’s not okay. [Cyril] I think that’s know so much of what happens in prison is conditioning right? Conditioning to see oneself as inferior. Conditioning to BREAK people or conditioning to try to have people to be less of themselves. Right. And I’m very intentional and very habitual about this for myself, that I refuse to walk with my head down, I refuse to not look somebody in their eye. And, and, and when I see somebody do that, you know I definitely point it out to them. Nah, heads up. [Pitt] You know it’s kind of like there’s nothing good that’s going to come out of this situation except for me LEAVING this place. [Bliss] Titles like inmate..convict…ex-felon they’re demeaning titles. They’re put in place to diminish self-respect and dignity; and to demean you and your character and to break your spirit. And I believe it’s all connected with the billion dollar industrial prison complex. [Michelle] How do we capture? They have conferences when they get together to think really hard about how to make a better cage. And they sell their products to them, and they implement it on us. CAGING. [GTL voice-recording] Thank you for using GTL [then the music fades out.]
The Healing Project is a haunting tapestry of instrumentation and stories about the cruel nature of prison. Each interviewee offers truth and vulnerability about their experiences… in hopes of expressing their pain…and bringing attention to the inhumane realities of incarceration. The Healing Project shows the deep trauma that the prison system causes for families. And the long journey of healing that must take place.
Walking through the exhibition, I enter a dark grayish room with images of men and women being projected off the wall. Recorded voices of people talking about the challenges that come after incarceration.
Speaker 1 man: +This is why I needed to get my record expunged, man, because I’m always face these barriers, you know, especially if I’m trying to get some property. I’m trying to do something, I do my best. But, you know, so, you know, I still feel that pain, you know, being disenfranchised, being civilly dead. [00:00:27]
Speaker 2 woman:+ No one wants to give you a home. No one wants to. Give you a place to stay because they think. To be a problem just because you’ve been to jail in prison.
You won’t have the wrong people. You will have too much come in and Rob. You know, these are the assumptions that they make up. Yeah. Of all people that’s been in prison, look, really, all we want to do is get a place to stay, get some stability, and get on with our lives. But it’s hard to not know what that mentality of mind that is, is hard to. Talk to somebody. About these resources that you have. What is basically you said in my dreams, what I want is a place to stay. If a place to stay here right now is hard for anybody six months to a year to find permanent housing. So what are they supposed to do in between that time? Do you think that they care about doing the right things when they just trying to live to survive. So take those penitentiary chances at the end of the day. [00:01:04]
Anita: Some of the biggest obstacles that come with a felony conviction are the lack of employment and housing opportunities. Many employers don’t hire people with records and many landlords refuse to rent to formerly incarcerated people. This reality of limited opportunities can increase pressure and lead people to do “whatever it takes” to get by.
Now I’m in a blue-lit room….I can hear interviewees talking about the psychological warfare of prison and the trauma they experienced.
Samora 4: +So it’s based like a mixtape. So like I took all the interviews, cut them up, brought them to different producers, and then I basically like made a few different pieces with each of the producers. So there’s, it’s like. Each of the pieces are about 5 minutes, 3 to 5 minutes, and they’re on loop. So it’s basically like if you stay for however long, stay, you’re getting that amount. But if you were to come in at a different time, you might hear something totally different, you know?
Blue Room Audio – Civilized people don’t live like this. A prison is like an embassy. That’s the only way I can think of it. This is the only way I can think of because like they don’t have to follow the rules of governing land. They just have their own policies. And there’s no one there. To say it’s not okay. So you can you can buck against the system they’ve got in place. And it’s literally just like slavery. You can run but if we catch you ass this is what gon happen. So they let you see the folks that kick up against the system. They parade them around handcuff, Dummy box, a spit mask on. Psychological warfare in this bottom line is what it is. It’s psychological warfare and it has broken many people. [00:01:40]
Sitting in the blue room…feeling the vibration from the woofers strategically planted underneath the bench, you cannot escape the raw and painful stories of people who could be your brother, your student, your neighbor, your friend, or even you.
The Back and Forth Between Samora and Me:
[We hear a bit of the music from the blue room…]
Because I want, if a person is coming in here that’s 15, they have to hear shit that they, that’s a resident fuck with. Yeah. Yeah. . But then also we have strings and we have like, if a person comes in that’s 60, it’s gonna be something for them too, you know?
Is original. It’s all original. Yeah. All original production music from like me and like 20 other cats, like all around New York. Um, and then we mixed it specifically verse around sound for the space. So there’s different parts of it coming outta every speaker. So if you sit in the middle with the side Yeah.
Yeah. Sit on . Right, right. I saw this in the, I said, okay, I know. Maximum impact. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Maximum impact.”
Many people who enter the carceral system bring a series of traumatic experiences with them, including a lifetime of dealing with micro and macro level racism and oppression. Incarceration only adds to the trauma which is oftentimes generational.
Speaker talking about the impact prison has on family members:+ Every prison in California and out behind my father’s side that kind of grew up in the prison, like where the prison guards kind of knew me and my mom. He always my dad wrote me letters since I was born, and he would always open the letter with the same, I think, writing. You know, and I just I never wrote back because I was a kid. So I just expected my dad to write these letters. And he always did. He always remembered my birthday. He always remember any dates that were important. He was good with dates. So he would arrive and say, Oh, yeah, you did this today. That’s the relationship I have with him. And just all in my head, I have this fantasy about what I wanted him to be to me. And he just never could. You know, I seen my dad ten months clean before he died, and I carving up the when he took photographs, you know, he wasn’t there for me or my sister when we were born, but he got to see Eric born. The me, you know, he got to see my son. [00:01:32]
Anita: These transparent conversations have similar heartbreaking themes – families torn apart and lost time. One part of the project is made up of over 100 powerful testimonials, and a LP titled “Grief”, created by those who’ve been locked up. Pinderhughes has put these interviews together with songs. I sat with him to talk more about the messages in the music.
He told me about the one of the songs that best encapsulates the project…titled Process.
Samora 7: + I would say probably, “Process.” You know, I would say that that song definitely builds it because I think that that song represents this idea that, you know, the the key. Tim, moving through all of this in real time is understanding that we’re not going to get through it tomorrow, is not going to get better tomorrow. That’s just the reality. So in that context, we do the best we can and also we recalibrate our expectations of what healing looks like. That it is not. It is not like I. Competitive triumph over one’s demons or whatever one’s going through. It’s trying every day to make it a little bit better. And it’s trying every day to extend your. Extend grace to yourself in this, in the way that you would see the person that you are, a person that you love, you know. And I think that that is a very important part for those that are going through those things. And that is, at the end of the day, what the project is made for. I want everyone to experience it, but the project is made for those that’s going through the things. [00:01:23]
Process Song: play the music…+
Anita: Pinderhughes highlights the harsh realities of the prison system, the traumatic experiences it causes for entire families, and the difficult, long road to healing. He knows that the songs in The Healing Project are intense – he’s pushing his audience to connect with those who are unseen, and feel their undeniable pain and sorrow.
More of the Process Song…then fades out to my narration
ANITA : The Healing Project is asking -“how do we survive …America?” What does it mean to maintain one’s humanity while dealing with the trauma of relentless systemic racism?
I don’t really believe that true healing can exist in this type of capitalist society, because the whole society is built on exploitation. So it does not exist without exploitation. There’s no way for it to exist. And that’s another function of the prison is that the prison is where we put all the people that would show us how much society has failed. You know, it’s like you don’t want to look at how this capitalist system has created a problem with so many people being unhoused or has created the problem with so many people losing their mortgage or so many people, you know, not being able to have a job. It’s like you did this, but you don’t want to look at it so you’re going to take everybody and put them and lock them up. [00:00:44]
Pinderhughes believes that it’s possible to support alternatives to our draconian prison system. while also recognizing that people are complicated.
I definitely try to be very conscious of saying this project is not a project about innocence. Like a lot of the people that are a part of the project have done different things, you know? But they’re also some of the kindest, most brilliant, most loving individuals I’ve ever met. And when you get deep into them dealing with and talking about why those things happened and where they are now, number one, they’re actually evidence of a real like what a real process of accountability can look like because they’ve actually moved through these processes in a way that few of us have and definitely not because the prison did that for them, but because they did it themselves in spite of their conditions. [00:00:43]
ANITA: In The Healing Project, Pinderhughes shines a light on the fact that true rehabilitation and healing cannot happen within systems built to enforce oppression and structural racism. He puts faces, voices, and humanity to people behind bars. He wants to see systemic change, and stop the cycle of increased trauma and harm. His vision for the future is filled with hope for stronger organizing efforts to dismantle the prison industrial complex. And he put this energy into his music.
Samora 8:+ Yeah. So Hope I wrote. I think that was the last song I wrote for the record. And it was something I wanted to represent of like. I often get a. You know, I often get response from people like, Oh man, your work is like so dark, it’s so like heavy and whatever. And I’m like, Yeah, well, that’s what I’m thinking about. But, um, so I kind of, I kind of titled it that like as a kind of a cheeky being like, Hey, well, here you go. But, you know, obviously it’s not like a, a purely, uh, happy go lucky song, but to me it does represent what hope means to me, which as I said, hope is a discipline. And I think for me, it it represents this this era of. Um. You know, for some people. The things that are going on is not a reality we can check in and out of. But I think for a lot of other folks, you know, a lot of white folks, a lot of rich folks, a lot of different people. You know, you can check in and out of the fight depending on when it’s comfortable for you to be there and how you feel about, you know, how guilty are you today that’s going to determine whether you would participate or not. And so I wanted to do a song that challenged that and said, like, you know, you can’t just if you really want to represent hope, you can’t just say, Oh, hope means I just going to hope it gets better. You have to participate and you have to realize that it’s not going to just go away because you wish it away. It’s only going to go away if we organize. [00:01:35]
Hope Song: play the music…+
Samora 9: +One of the most powerful things about the healing project is. The community of creators that have created it with me is almost 100 different people between folks who are narrators, who have lent their stories, share their stories, visual creators, artwork, music. And this is very much of a collective project. And the best part of it, I think, is that hopefully when people step into the space, whether it’s digitally or whether it’s physically, they will feel that collective notion. They’ll feel that thing of this is a group of folks that have come together to try to really almost create an artistic rendition of. Then being around the dinner table, talking to each other about these things, but from all around the country. And my hope is that when people will step into it, they will feel like they need to give themselves into that. You know, I don’t want them to to think, oh, I’m going to take something away. I want them to give themselves to it. You know, so that’s my hope for. How people will approach it. [Maybe stop here?] And I would say the other secondary one would just be. Um, I think the other powerful thing about it is the practical tools that people can get away from it if they’re really listening, particularly to the pieces in the sound room inside. That kind of security. If they’re really listening to the pieces in the sound room, I really believe that people will be able to have physical, practical tools that they can take away for when they go through a grieving process, when they’re dealing with something that’s really hard, when they’ve experienced, you know, some type of trauma or they’re trying to heal from it. [00:01:37]
Anita: This project functions as an abolitionist narrative. It calls for an end to the current prison system. It urges us to create new ways of addressing conflict and processes that are more humane.
Music fades…end of the show.
In October 2022
February 2023, Samora Pinderhughes was awarded a one million dollar grant from The Mellon Foundation in further support of The Healing Project
Funding will go towards the expansion of art works in The Healing Project exhibition, the creation of a book, free community programs, and the creation of new content.. The grant also provides the initial funding for The Healing Project Transformative Impact Fund, which will offer seed money and mentorship for selected interviewees who are currently or formerly incarcerated to work on their own special projects. All work is based on the premise that the deepest healing strategies come directly from those who have been traumatized and oppressed.
To learn more about The Healing Project and listen to audio stories visit us at radioproject.org. Thank you for listening. I’ve been your host Anita Johnson and you’ve been listening to Making Contact.