On a night in late November, when every breath returned as fog, Pierce Freelon’s frame—locs nested under a black beanie and face covered by a geometric-patterned mask—appears in my view at the top of the steps at Dashi. It’s his first time visiting the downtown ramen shop and izakaya since the COVID- 19 pandemic started.
We had only ever spoken before over Zoom and I recognize Freelon’s distinct voice, scratchy, with the cadence of a caring older brother who’s as smooth as Snoop Dogg but probably isn’t about to roll one up.
Sitting down at the bar, we order a tokkuri of cold sake.
“Here’s what I learned about sake—you’re not supposed to refill your own cup,” says Freelon after our first sip out of matching tan ochokos. “So, if you see this getting low, it’s your job to fill it up,” he says, holding his ochoko out.
The previous week, both Freelon, 37, and his mother, Nnenna Freelon, received Grammy nominations, he for his children’s album Black to the Future and his mother for her new album Time Traveler in the category of Best Jazz Vocal Album.
“When my mom got nominated, I started speaking in tongues,” says Freelon, acting out the scene, “like I was literally possessed by a genie or spirit.”
“I knew it was my dad,” Freelon continues confidently and contemplatively, “because it was a mixture of tears of joy and gratitude.” Freelon says he couldn’t form words for 20 minutes after the announcement. His mom’s nominated album was a love letter to her late husband and Freelon’s dad, Phil Freelon, who died of ALS in 2019.
“I would be able to walk her down that red carpet and she wouldn’t be alone in celebrating this victory,” Freelon says.
Freelon was born and raised in Durham and nurtured in a star-studded family. Nnenna Freelon is a six-time Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist and his father, Philip Freelon, was monumental in the world of architecture, where he’s best known for leading the design of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Freelon has been writing music since high school, when his lyrics reflected concerns of the time like relationships and breakups. As a kid, he says, he had imaginary friends and created plays for his family. Though naturally inclined toward the life of an artist, which isn’t always easy, Freelon has had a pretty good life, from all accounts. I ask him if there were any tough life events that spurred paradigm shifts. He counters that trauma is an interesting way of framing shifts.
“I can’t think of anything traumatic that was life-shifting for me, but I can think of several things that were life-shifting,” Freelon says. “The pivot wasn’t around a bad thing.”
One of these shifts was his first comedy improv show at the Durham School of the Arts, where he went to school.
“I was like, wait a minute, you mean we sit on stage and people give us ideas and we make up a show on the spot?” he says. “Like, that’s crazy. Yeah. That was life-shifting.”
But it’s the lessons he learned during his upbringing that led him to choose to apply his natural abilities toward his community instead of pursuing a more lucrative career. “My mom and dad were easily the biggest influences and most direct moral guides in life,” says Freelon.
His father imparted two major principles on him.
First, he made him question who deserves to have access to beauty.
“His answer to that question is everybody,” Freelon says.
Second, the senior Freelon encouraged his son to find his passion and natural ability and give it back to the world.
“You may not have seen my dad on the front line marching,” says Freelon. “But he was intentional about leveraging his gifts and his talents in the direction of projects that helped shape the type of world he wanted to see.”
Phil Freelon would routinely turn down contracts for projects that went against his moral values, including casinos or prisons, Freelon says. Instead, he used his abilities to give aesthetic value to regular folks, in schools, libraries, and community centers.
“He made those buildings as beautiful as he made museums,” Freelon says.
No stranger to acclaim, Freelon graduated with distinction and highest honors from UNC-Chapel Hill with a bachelor’s degree in African American studies. Since 2007, he’s been a visiting lecturer of political science and music at Syracuse University, North Carolina Central University, and UNC-Chapel Hill.
In 2010, Freelon became the youngest person appointed by the governor, then Governor Bev Perdue, to serve on the North Carolina Arts Council. Five years later, Freelon won a Daytime Emmy for the PBS web series that he cofounded, Beat Making Lab. The animated musical series The History of White People in America which Freelon helped write, compose, and codirect was an Official Selection of the 2018 and 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.
And all throughout this time, Freelon composed and released music inspired by his children, ancestors, and heritage, including his 2020 debut album D.a.D., inspired by his journey through fatherhood.
In 2014, after teaching song writing and beat making for several years in Africa and the Caribbean, Freelon says his ancestors spoke to him. Moved by a mantra from his grandmother Queen Mother Frances Pierce to bloom where you are planted, Freelon came back to North Carolina. He opened Blackspace, a center offering “Black and Brown youth a breathing space to manifest their dreams,” according to its website, in its first location on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. At Blackspace, teens can learn poetry, coding, 3-D printing, animation, beat making, rap, photography, and DJing—all for free.
Soon after, Blackspace, a “safe cosmic space for Black youth,” as Freelon likes to call it, opened a second location in downtown Durham at American Underground.
Blackspace’s second opening created another opportunity for Black youth to “explore the digital arts and the Black beyond, like Afrofuturism and the Black cosmic consciousness,” Freelon says.
In 2016, Joshua Rowsey, who goes by the artist name (J) Rowdy, knew Freelon as “the cool professor at UNC.” They were both in the world of music and eventually ran into each other. Freelon asked Rowsey if he could volunteer at Blackspace and run a workshop for kids once a week. Rowsey accepted.
In the beginning, Rowsey says he would work in Blackspace just about every day. He says he noticed that his skills were developing in a similar fashion as Freelon’s.
“I saw the love for the work that we were doing,” says Rowsey, “so I think it just became natural to get guidance and understanding on how I could develop as an artist and person.”
Rowsey now teaches a course at UNC-Chapel Hill, directs the hip-hop program at Blackspace, and hosts the PBS show Classroom Connection.
“Pierce has turned himself into my big brother and my mentor,” Rowsey says. “I don’t think it was by accident.”
He marvels at how Freelon is able to juggle so many different projects simultaneously.
“He’s an emcee—that’s someone that leads,” says Rowsey. “That’s someone that utilizes their voice for their community. I do think he’s a time traveler—but I can’t prove it right now.”
“His music gives voices to kids who do not have a voice,” says Katie Stone.
Stone is executive director and host of The Children’s Hour, a public radio show for kids that runs on 120 stations in five countries.
Stone invited Freelon to be guest DJ and host for an episode this year called “Being a Leader.”
Stone says she envisioned the episode to be about people who have dedicated their lives to being leaders in the community. At the time, Freelon was serving on Durham’s city council. In the episode, he teaches the children what he does in that role.
Stone says she firmly believes that Freelon is building bridges across the children’s music world and redefining a genre that used to be dominated by white people. She says she was especially frustrated that D.a.D did not receive a Grammy nomination in 2020 but says this year, the Grammys reflect an emerging genre in children’s music that she calls “refreshing.”
“[Freelon] has been raised to be a leader and to elevate everyone around him in that process,” says Stone. “You can tell he’s deeply listening to you.”
Stone adds that she was impressed by the respect that Freelon showed her young guests on The Children’s Hour—“so much so that they brought it up to me after the episode,” she says.
“I haven’t gotten out for a picnic with him,” says Stone, “but I can’t wait for that day to happen.”
In September 2020, Freelon was appointed to serve as Durham’s councilman for Ward 3, the first public office he has held.
For his confirmation ceremony, as he was sworn in by his wife, Katye, Freelon dressed in a magnificent, two-toned silver agbada, or a wide-sleeved, flowing robe worn by men in West Africa. Freelon says he has been immersed in western culture for his whole life but is clear he has not allowed his upbringing to subsume his ancestors’ culture.
While Freelon is clearly driven to serve, I ask why he would take on the position on the council, as time-consuming, low-paying, and often thankless a job holding public office can be.
“I don’t do things for money,” Freelon says.
He says he chose to serve because it was the right thing to do.
“My work on the city council is fueled by love, frankly love of Black people, love of social justice and equity,” Freelon says. “Those are the reasons why I ran.”
As a kid, his parents taught him that money would not make him happy.
“I didn’t run because the salary was poppin’,” Freelon adds.
But one of the major policy proposals Freelon spearheaded on council did have to do with money. This fall, he led the charge to increase the salaries of council members by $10,000 annually.
While the proposal passed six to one, it was controversial in some circles.
“Our elected officials who want a $10,000 raise haven’t shown that our tax dollars deserve to get them that,” said Sheryl Smith, an activist who lives in Franklin Village, in an interview with a local media outlet. “My babies still sleep on the floor because of the gun violence that we hear.”
But Freelon, who had already planned to step down from the council before the raises went into effect, said that while he empathized with those in the community who didn’t agree with the move, the new salaries would provide greater access to public office for working-class citizens rather than favoring wealthy people who could afford to serve.
“If you’re a single mother and want to run for office, how can you possibly afford to do it?” he asks. Freelon says he understood the skepticism about the council’s decision.
“My reaction to the community response is empathy,” he says.
As we finish our last sips of sake at Dashi, Freelon talks about his decision not to run for his Ward 3 seat. Mainly, he says, it’s because he had moved out of the district and therefore couldn’t run for the position even if he wanted to, though he decided against running for another seat on the council instead. Freelon wrapped up his tenure on council earlier this month, with newly elected councilman Leonardo Williams stepping into his place.
“I don’t feel the same sense of urgency that I did in 2017 when the median age of city council was like 65,” Freelon explains, “and when there wasn’t a young Black member in sight.”
That same year, he ran in the Durham mayoral race against Steve Schewel, who ultimately won and served as mayor through this year, declining to run for reelection to a third term.
For now, Freelon says, he will enjoy his time in retirement. He’s going to “spend time with family, and make art, and get back into Blackspace,” Freelon says.
But he isn’t disappearing from politics, whether as an advocate or a future elected official.
“I’m not ruling anything out. I’m keeping an open mind,” he says. “If the call to serve comes, like it did in 2017, I’ll consider running again.”
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