This year has taught Pierce Freelon to not put his faith n mere things, but in things eternal.
It also made the acclaimed musician, professor, community organizer, and now, budding politician his storied family’s public face after his father, the legendary architect Phil Freelon, passed away in July.
Phil Freelon designed many of the nation’s high-profile museums honoring the black tradition, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte. Pierce’s mother, meanwhile, is the renowned, Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon.
Those are big shoes to fill—and, as Pierce Freelon acknowledges, it’s a big charge to keep.
“The charge that I have inherited is really an instructional manual,” Freelon says. “And there’s a lot of things in there. ‘Lift as you climb’—that’s one instruction. ‘Never forget where you came from.’ ‘Keep an attitude of gratitude.’ I’m always aware of my blessings. ‘Bloom where you are planted.’ Some of the things in the manual came from my parents, and some from my grandparents. ‘If you plant a seed in the community, don’t just leave it. Nurture the soil. Leave something for future generations. Fruit. Lay the foundation so your people can eat.’”
Earlier this year, Freelon told the INDY that caring for his father before his death at age sixty-six after a three-year battle with ALS inspired him to run for the state Senate. He says he promised Phil that he would fight to ensure that all residents have access to health care.
His bid for the seat left vacant by longtime senator Floyd McKissick marks Freelon’s second foray into politics, following a respectable but unsuccessful bid for Durham mayor in 2017. (He now has the endorsement of the mayor who defeated him, Steve Schewel.) A central plank in his campaign is the expansion of Medicaid, which the General Assembly has refused to do. He also wants to decriminalize marijuana and build the state’s investments in renewable energy.
To date, the tall, lithe, dreadlocked, and eminently likable Freelon has put his energy into building Durham’s community. After making his name as the emcee for the hip-hop-and-jazz ensemble The Beast, Freelon started a number of organizations that aim to address social-justice issues through arts activism: Blackspace in downtown Durham, which supports youth arts; a hip-hop and spoken-word after-school program that has partnered with the city’s schools and crime prevention council; and Beat Making Lab, a program that has traveled the globe.
He’s also the artistic director at the red-brick Gothic church that his parents transformed into an arts-and-culture space in February.
At the corner of North and West Geer Streets, NorthStar Church of the Arts is the elder Freelons’ legacy project, a building they bought in 2017 and designed as a place where the arts could be elevated as a sacred practice, where creativity could deepen relationships. It’s a safe space for those who have been marginalized because of race, economic status, or gender identity, and it venerates the city’s “patron saints” who are now with the ancestors: the dance titan Baba Chuck Davis; the brilliant writer and attorney Pauli Murray, who was the first black woman ordained as an Episcopalian priest; and the public-schools-integration pioneer Ann Atwater.
NorthStar’s website poses a compelling question in a community where artists often don’t make a living wage, despite their considerable contributions to the city’s life: “What if church was a place where artists were praised and poets were prophets?”
Since it opened, NorthStar has hosted more than one hundred events that highlight the arts but also serve as a sanctuary for local activism.
“It’s been quite a lot,” Freelon says. “The highlights for me have been an emergent-strategy training for the city’s activists. Even before NorthStar opened, it was a sanctuary for the Durham activists who tore down the city’s Confederate monument [in 2017].”
Another highlight for Freelon was the “Gospel According to Baba Chuck” service, which was held on July 21 to honor a man he calls his mentor. Triangle puppeteer-extraordinaire Jeghetto built a giant puppet bearing Davis’s likeness. Days before the event, Freelon saw Jeghetto’s finished work and exclaimed, “Yo, man, this is going to be incredible. A puppet of Baba Chuck! Jeghetto was like, ‘Naw, man, this is an avatar for Baba Chuck’s spirit to join us.’”
On the day of the service, Freelon listened intently as the NorthStar celebrants read quotes from Davis.
“Then the drums started, the dancers started praises, and the puppet came alive,” Freelon recalls. “There were children underneath manipulating his hands, body, and shoulders, and I broke down in tears. It was one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had. I felt his presence, and it was a really deep experience for me. It was in the weeks after my dad had passed, and I understood that the veil between this world and the next is thin.
“I have the most beautiful, wonderful, and detailed script, and I’m lifting while I’m climbing,” Freelon continues. “I’m leading with love, especially for those who are not as fortunate as I have been. I am a child of the city of Durham.”
Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at email@example.com.
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