The OneBeat Podcast

Pierce Freelon

Episode Summary

Episode 6 of the OneBeat Podcast features an insightful and moving conversation with artist, activist and Afrofuturist Pierce Freelon, who lives and works in Durham, NC. Pierce talks about the power and burden of speaking truth to power, about visioning futures, and about honoring ancestry and family.

Episode Notes

The sixth episode of the OneBeat Podcast brings us to Durham, North Carolina to meet artist, activist and Afrofuturist Pierce Freelon. Born and raised in Durham, Pierce grew up in an artistic home, surrounded by creative mentors (and parents) who were dedicated to building and strengthening community through their artistic practice. Pierce embraced that philosophy in his pursuit as a hip hop artist, educator and organizer, first traveling the globe with the Beat Making Lab, and then going on to found a digital maker space for youth in Durham called Blackspace. He eventually ran for Mayor of Durham and served on City Council, while continuing to pour his efforts into creating a positive social impact in his home community through music and creative expression. Pierce wears many hats, but as you’ll hear in this inspiring conversation, at the core of his work is a dedication to creating long-term social impact on a local level in and around his home community of Durham, North Carolina.

Produced and Edited by Elena Moon Park

Additional Story Editing: Nyokabi Kariũki, Jeremy Thal, Kyla-Rose Smith

Mixed by Zubin Hensler

Executive Producers: Jeremy Thal, Elena Moon Park, and Kyla-Rose Smith


Pierce Freelon

Nnenna Freelon

Baba Chuck

Brother Yusuf 

A full playlist of music featured on this episode can be found here

OneBeat is an initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, & produced by Bang on a Can’s Found Sound Nation.



Episode Transcription

Pierce Freelon (clip from 2015 MLK speech): Now, artists have always been at the vanguard of social movements. We are often burdened with the responsibility of stating the obvious. Whether it’s Billie Holiday’s indictment of Black bodies swinging from trees like Strange Fruit, Nina Simone’s very blunt -- and excuse my French in church -- Mississippi Goddamn, or Sweet Honey in the Rock, whose music provided a soundtrack to the civil rights movement...

Music Interlude: Freedom Pt. 2 by The Beast and Nnenna Freelon, feat. Suede (prod. Apple Juice Kid)

Elena: That’s artist, activist and Afrofuturist Pierce Freelon, giving a speech at an event commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his hometown of Durham, North Carolina in 2015. This is the OneBeat Podcast. 

Music Interlude: Yeah, Yeah from OneBeat 2017 Mixtape

Elena: Hey, welcome to the OneBeat Podcast, my name is Elena Moon Park.

Kyla: And I’m Kyla-Rose Smith. This is a show that asks the question: can music and music-making really make a difference in the world? In this sixth episode, we speak to hip hop artist, educator and organizer Pierce Freelon. 

Pierce: Mic check, one, two. Yeah, let’s do it!

Elena: We met Pierce back in 2013 when our OneBeat program visited Durham, North Carolina on a tour stop. At the time, Pierce was running Artivism Studios, an Afrofuturist digital maker space for youth, now called Blackspace. 

Kyla: We also knew of Pierce because of his own cultural exchange work with the group Beatmaking Lab, a program that traveled the globe leading music production workshops. It also became an Emmy-winning series on PBS. 

Elena: Pierce wears many, many hats, and has traveled the world collaborating with artists, but as you’ll hear in this conversation, at the core of his work is a dedication to his home city of Durham, North Carolina, and to visioning and creating a better future through long-term impact on a local level. 

Elena: Hey Pierce, It's so great to have you, thanks for joining us.

Pierce: Thanks for having me. 

Elena: So, you have a rich family history of artistry. Your great-grandfather was an impressionist painter in Harlem. Your father, Phil Freelon, was an architect, who, among other things, designed the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History in Washington, DC. And your mother, Nnenna Freelon, is a renowned jazz singer and a composer.

Pierce: Yep. That's correct.

Elena: Can you tell me a bit about your childhood and how growing up in this incredibly creative environment influenced you as an artist? 

Pierce: Yeah, uh, definitely grew up in a creative home and never thought anything about it. It just was what the home was. There were record players and artists around. My mom had a career prior to music in medicine and she was, um, studying to become a nurse. That's why she was in North Carolina where she connected with my dad, at the nursing school at UNC and, you know, they met and got married, had three kids.

But then, um, when I was born, I'm the youngest of the three. You know, she was off maternity leave and back on her feet again. It was time for her to decide, what am I gonna do now? She had a hard decision for her. Like, do I pursue music and do what I love, or do I go back into, you know, a safe, reliable -- you're always going to need nurses, so. But you know, there's this stigma around a life in the arts that you're going to be a struggling artist or a poor musician. And my dad encouraged her to pursue her passion.

Nnenna Freelon (clip): Yeah, I have a degree in, um, hospital administration. I was doing well in school. Like a lot of people who have an artistic dream, um, I wanted to do music but I was afraid, honestly. Um, I wanted to do something that I could really support myself with. But I was not happy. We sometimes follow a path outside of ourselves. And when I stopped making excuses and stopped, sort of, being angry and upset, and you know, just sort of tripping on why I wasn’t doing what I was really put on the planet to do, as soon as I accepted that this is what I was supposed to do, things got a lot easier.

Pierce: My mom was a working and touring musician. You know, started off local, but became, around the time when I was in middle school, signed to Columbia and just was touring the world. 

Music Interlude: ‘Round Midnight, performed by Nnenna Freelon

Pierce: I got to travel a lot with her when I was young and, you know, went to Japan and Finland, and even locally just hung out with her backstage with her bandmates in dressing rooms. And so I was surrounded by the arts. But like, I didn't know any other way of being. It wasn't until later in life, when I had friends who were like, Whoa, you did what? And I'm like, yeah, that was just my upbringing. 

Music Interlude (cont.): ‘Round Midnight, performed by Nnenna Freelon

Pierce: My biggest takeaway isn't even really about art. It's really more about finding your passion and doing whatever that is. And for me, whenever I've had tough decisions about, grad school, or move to New York and pursue my art. You know, my parents were in my ear like saying, look, you know, go on, get your degree. Great. And then pursue your music. Like they're not mutually exclusive. But I think that was my biggest takeaway from my great-grandfather to my dad, to, to my mom. It is: Do what you love. 

Music Interlude (cont.): ‘Round Midnight, performed by Nnenna Freelon

Elena: Ok, so let’s talk about your choice of grad school over moving to New York City. How did that decision work out for you?

Pierce: Well, so yeah, I can give you a little more background. So I went to Carolina for undergrad and I was in a band called Language Arts. It was a hip hop group. And I just thought we were the next Outkast, like, Southern hip hop, like, lyrically progressive. And I wanted to move to New York because that's where I thought musicians need to go in order to make music.

You know, meanwhile, I was also an African-American studies scholar and had a scholarship, a full ride, to Syracuse for grad school to study Pan-African studies. But I also had an internship with Nile Rogers, the guitar player for Chic. I was gonna work for him. I was going to be his everybody person. And so, I was like, okay, I'm going to come work for Nile Rogers, do some gigs, I have some friends in New York. Like I totally was ready to wing it. 

And meanwhile, I had this, like, full ride to Syracuse to get my Master's. And, uh, my parents were like, look: There's nothing stopping you from going to New York, getting an internship. Like, all those things can happen after you get your Masters. This is tens of thousands of dollars worth of free education, that's right there. And you're 22. So, and I was like, but you did what you, you know, throwing back in their faces, how they, you know, turned down some opportunities to pursue what they loved. But it was totally, it was the right choice. 

And the crazy thing about grad school is, um, basically all of my research at Syracuse was about hip hop. I had studied Swahili in college and so I was familiar with some Swahili hip hop, just kind of getting into the rap scene in the Congo and some other places.

And so I ended up studying kind of the roots of the Griot kind of storytelling tradition, which, you know, goes back to the blues and before that, to the Negro spirituals. And before that to, you know, the West African, Senegal, Ghana, these, these folks that told stories through poems.

And so when I got out of college, I had traveled the world with my music, studying and building with other musicians. But I was chilling. Like I was enjoying myself and also learning the roots of my ancestry as a Black American, who had never been back on the continent. And as a hip hop head, who thought it started all in the Bronx. You know, like, really getting to understand that was deep.

Music Interlude: Cho Cho Cho, from Beat Making Lab

Elena: So one of the things you did with this exploration of international hip hop was to co-lead projects with the Beat Making Lab, where you traveled the globe leading beat-making workshops…   

Beat Making Lab (Clip): What’s going on, this is Pierce Freelon, here along with the Apple Juice Kid. We’re in the dusty streets of Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

Elena: ...working with the illustrious music producer Apple Juice Kid...

Beat Making Lab (Clip): We’re in Panama, at a really cool town called Portobelo. Literally a string of islands in the Pacific. Nairobi, Kenya. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Elena: So, can you tell me a bit about this project, and what you took away from the experience?

Pierce: Yeah, Beat Making lab was a beautiful experiment. It was a, you know, we're taking a backpack full of equipment, donating it to a community center and working with kids for a couple of weeks to see what we can come up with.

Beat Making Lab (Clip): Recording in Fiji with Calvin, who makes music with a flip flop. And a collaboration with this 17-year old drummer in our North Carolina basement studio.

Pierce: The coolest thing about Beat Making Lab was that when we left, the recording equipment stays with the community that we train. So it's a training program, but it's also like planting a seed. And, uh, you know, one of my big takeaways was that, uh, sometimes that seed grew into a beautiful deciduous forest... 

Uh, sometimes, sometimes it didn't. Sometimes, like we bounced and things kind of fizzled. You know, It just depends on the soil, you know, metaphorically, the space that we went into -- is it a space that sustains community engagement? Sometimes, you know, it was sometimes it wasn't. But it was really dope. 

Music Interlude: Portobelo, feat. Yomira John, from Beat Making Lab

In fact, the departure from Beat Making Lab and the subsequent birth of Blackspace was really about that question about what happens after you plant the seed. Um, I don't speak, Amharic, I don't live in Addis Ababa. Like, I live in Durham. And that realization, like, these might be my people ancestrally, culturally, spiritually, but this isn't in my home. And so I realized that I have a larger capacity to do good in a place where, if something looks like it's wilting, I can water it, I can reinforce it and truly have a robust harvest out of the seeds that I plant in Durham. So, you know, either way, like, it was a great experience, it was really culturally rich and fulfilling. Um, but I saw a deeper purpose for me in terms of social impact.

Music Interlude (cont.): Cho Cho Cho, from Beat Making Lab

Elena: So you saw a deeper purpose for yourself in terms of social impact by deepening your roots in your hometown of Durham, North Carolina. And that included getting involved in local policy-making, both through a Mayoral run and serving on City Council. When and how did you decide to make a jump from socially engaged musician to musically engaged policy-maker?

Pierce: Well, the musical mentors in my life were all very grounded and rooted in community. And so one of the first musical mentors that I had was a guy named Brother Yusuf.

Brother Yusuf and Friends (Clip): This is Yusuf and Friends. I am Yusuf Salim.

And he was a New York-based jazz pianist who had relocated to Durham, North Carolina, to North Carolina Central. 

Brother Yusuf and Friends cont. (Clip): Tonight’s setting is the Blue Cross Blue Shield building in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

And there, he mentored a lot of artists, including my mother. And, um, he had like, on public access television, he had a jazz show called Brother Yusuf and Friends and would bring people onto the show.

Brother Yusuf and Friends cont. (Clip): You may have seen the program earlier in the Yusuf and Friends series featuring vocalist Lisha Penson, singing arrangements written by Rachiim Sahu.

He also had the Salaam Cultural Center. You know, Salaam means peace. And that was this, kind of like, Islamic jazz club in Durham. So he wasn't just gigging and performing. He was an important member of our community. He was an icon. You know, not just in the Black Muslim community, but also just across the city, across the state, and across the country. 

Musical Interlude: Brother Yusuf and Friends

And so there's another guy, Chuck Davis, Baba Chuck, who is the founder of the African-American dance ensemble. This is a dance troupe that is plucking kids out the hood to teach them African dance and then taking them to Senegal, taking them to Cuba back when that was illegal, you know what I mean? Taking them to Haiti. To expose these kids, not only to their Pan-African heritage, but to connect them with their roots.

Baba Chuck interview (Clip): From that point, it was my career.

Elena: This is Baba Chuck.

Baba Chuck interview cont. (Clip): Because up to that point, I was planning to be a nurse. I was studying nursing. And then, grease paint into the blood. More about my heritage and the traditions which belonged to me as an individual began to surface. And I began to realize that my history was long, rich, intense, and that people across the universe were using the cultures from Africa to move forward in all people except Black people. And I wanted to do my part to say, look, what we have is beyond the boundaries, and we cannot buttonhole ourselves. 

Pierce: So I always saw the artist as instrumental in holding space for community and as a public servant. And, um, it felt very natural for me when I started performing, not only to write lyrics that talk about social situations and the conditions, especially the situations Black people are in. So I was there lyrically, I was there creatively, but I was also there politically. 

Pierce Freelon (clip from 2015 MLK Speech): Now, artists have always been at the vanguard of social movements. We are often burdened with the responsibility of stating the obvious. 

Elena: So in this clip, which was taken from a keynote speech you gave honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., you say that “artists have always been burdened with the social responsibility of stating the obvious.” 

Pierce Freelon (clip from 2015 MLK Speech): Whether it’s Billie Holiday’s indictment of Black bodies swinging from trees like Strange Fruit, Nina Simone’s very blunt -- and excuse my French in church -- Mississippi Goddamn, or Sweet Honey in the Rock, whose music provided a soundtrack to the civil rights movement...

Elena: So I'm interested in the use of the word “burden” here. What are your feelings about the responsibilities often placed on artists or taken up by artists, in movements for social and political transformation, especially for artists of color? 

Pierce: Yeah. Well, the reason it's a burden is because we shouldn't need to say it. It's basic. You know what I mean? When an enslaved African penned the spiritual “Oh Freedom,” and they said “before I be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave.” You know, that's basic to us now. We know that people shouldn't be enslaved. But at the time, to say that could have gotten you killed, you know, because some people didn't quite get it. And so then it becomes a burden to have to articulate our own humanity as a labor for people that don't see that you're a human being. 

So Billie Holiday was burdened by Strange Fruit. Yes, it was important for her to sing that song. But the reason it's a burden is because Billie Holiday was known for singing love songs. And when she came out with Strange Fruit, Columbia said, hell, nah. And she had to go find another label to put it out through. Same thing happened to Marvin Gaye when he tried to release What's Going On through Motown. Like, Barry Gordy was like, hell nah. Keep making these ladies swoon. I am not paying you to, to make protest songs.

Like, that's why it's a burden. It's a burden because Billie Holiday's career was crippled after Strange Fruit. She took an L for us. Nina Simone took an L for us. Marvin Gaye, you know, even though it ended up being a hit, they make a sacrifice. Colin Kaepernick made a sacrifice. Lauryn Hill, you name it. 

It's a weight to carry, and it shouldn't be. Because we shouldn't be murdering people in Vietnam. We shouldn't be lynching folks in the South. We shouldn't be enslaving folks in the States. But some people don't recognize that we're human beings. And, um, it's important and it's, it's sacred work. Speaking truth to power is a sacred responsibility. But you know, It's a heavy weight.

Music Interlude: Freedom Pt. 2 by The Beast and Nnenna Freelon, feat. Suede (prod. Apple Juice Kid)

Elena: We’re listening to the track Freedom, Pt 2 by Pierce Freelon’s band The Beast, featuring his mother Nnenna Freelon and the hip hop artist Suede. So Pierce, as we talk about speaking truth to power, can you tell me about your relationship to Afrofuturism, how you define it, and how it guides your work and life?

Pierce: Yeah. Afrofuturism is the work of everyone I've just described. That enslaved African, who said “before I be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave,” when they wrote that lyric, you can imagine that being prophetic. It's a prophecy. That may not be our reality in this moment, but we're going to sing a future into existence. Or maybe it's a warning. Like, you know, you may have thought we were enslaved, but no, no, no, no. Before I be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave. I may be enslaved by another human being, but we're both people. 

It's wild -- when you create the world that you envision, the successive generations who don't remember how it used to be, just accept reality as it is. But, you know, King was an Afrofuturist. He saw a reality and sought to change it and succeeded. And so, you know, that's my definition of an Afrofuturist. It is a person of African descent who is shaping and molding and manifesting and speaking a new world into existence.

Music Interlude: Freedom Pt. 2 by The Beast and Nnenna Freelon, feat. Suede (prod. Apple Juice Kid)

Elena: So I brought up Afrofuturism because you define your organization Blackspace, based in Durham, North Carolina, as an Afrofuturist space for young people. What is Blackspace, and what is your vision for the organization?

Pierce: Yeah, so Blackspace is a digital makerspace for youth of African descent. And we're trying to bridge the digital divide and expose kids to the digital arts and, and business and kind of job opportunities to see themselves reflected in these largely white industries.

This fall, we started getting into creating virtual programming and content. We're doing this statewide project, creating content for a children's show, like an education show that is primarily math and science and history lessons by public school teachers for kids in the rural parts of the state where they may not have internet. 

But you know, we're adding music and puppetry and dance, all types of stuff, that will be broadcast throughout the state of North Carolina. We're partnering with our local PBS member station, not so different from Brother Yusuf and Friends back in the day.

Elena: And what strikes me again as you're talking about Blackspace is how dedicated you are to your home community of Durham, NC, and to that entire region, and to that State. As a fellow Southerner myself, I'm really curious about your relationship with the South and how it feels to be working and living there during this time?

Pierce: Yeah, the South is my home. The South is all I know. I think it's a really important place to do cultural organizing work and to be claiming space and political power and art. There was an exodus from the South because of systemic racism, and now there's like a repatriation back to the South, because of a different type of racism. Gentrification and displacement and redlining and a bunch of other reasons. 

I remember going up to New York for grad school and just, um, being shocked at the cultural differences. People just aren't as polite. They're not as communal, a lot less trusting. And yeah, it's just different. So I love the South and, uh, there's no place I'd rather be. 

Music Interlude: Where I’m From, created at Blackspace

Elena: That was a clip of a digital storytelling piece called Where I’m From, created at Blackspace. So Pierce, I’m remembering back to 2013, when we brought our OneBeat global music diplomacy program to the South, specifically to Durham, NC for a tour stop. And during that trip we worked with Blackspace, and you also helped to produce a couple of shows. It's been a while, but do you have any standout memories from that experience? 

Pierce: Yeah. One of the coolest shows I'd ever produced occurred when OneBeat was in town.

Do you remember when we did that show at the planetarium? (Yeah, definitely.) There were poets and hip hop artists and some international, some local, and one of my students was running the boards to make the universe spin around during the show. It was such a cool, immersive and interactive performance, I hadn't been any, to anything like that before or since.

Music Interlude: OneBeat 2013 Durham, NC live performance

But yeah, it was really special. That was also, I believe, a time where I was able to reconnect with Toussa. 

Music Interlude: Toussa MC Track from Beat Making Lab

I had met Toussa in Senegal through Beatmaking Lab and she became a OneBeat Fellow. I was able to check out her, her hometown and then, you know, she checked out mine. So that was a nice moment to reconnect with some dope artists, and meet some new dope artists, folks that I'm still in contact with. 

Elena: And from all your experience of traveling and working internationally, what are your thoughts about the impact of music and particularly hip hop as a form of global diplomacy?

Pierce: Yeah, I think there's a legacy of, uh, Black music being the cultural export of the United States period, outside of diplomacy. But you know, those folks, they're, they're not stupid in the State Department, they realize that it's a currency. So like back in the forties through the sixties, that was when decolonization happened. And people were through with, uh, with the colonizer mentality of the Western world, kind of coming into their country and, and running things and robbing them blind.

And so the United States, kind of recognizing that you may not like Nixon, but you do like Coltrane. You do like Miles. You do like Charlie, you do like Ella. It became an important tool for them to leverage culture, to get a foot into a door where a diplomat may not be welcome. Now, the major cultural export of the United States is hip hop. And so, um, I see it as a very useful tool of the state to try to leverage that, to build relationships around broader political division through the ties that bind us culturally, especially for young people.

Music Interlude: Daddy Daughter Day (feat. J Gunn) by Pierce Freelon

Elena: So, before we go, I'd love to ask you about your new foray into family music, also known as children’s music. Last summer, you released a debut family music album called D.a.D. And family music just happens to be a world of music that I find myself in. I love the intergenerational nature of your album, it features the voices of your daughter, and of your father. Can you talk a little bit about what inspired you to make a family music record? 

Pierce: Yeah, D.a.D., my first family music project, it won't be my last. It really came out of my dad’s transition. In 2019, you know, in the midst of a lot going on, my life came to a screeching halt because my dad was dying. And I had a lot of downtime just spending time with him. And a lot of that time was thoughtful conversations and chess and, you know, reminiscing. But a lot of it was just boring, you know, quiet. Ran outta things to talk about.

And in that time, you know, I started digging through the trenches of the archives on my phone and found all these precious, precious gems of songs and snippets and hooks and melodies. 

Music Interlude: Tuck Me In by Pierce Freelon

And, you know, there's also these voice notes and videos that I've taken, because I'll be quick to pull out my phone when I'm telling my kids: click your seatbelt, click your seatbelt. You know, I'll just whip out my phone, put it in there and then forget about it. 

Music Interlude: Voice Memo (Oatmeal) by Pierce Freelon

Pierce: A lot of the songs, a lot of the voice notes that became the building blocks for the songs that appear on the album, you know, were created over the course of a decade, but they were rediscovered when I was kind of flipping through my phone to show my dad videos of birthday parties and recitals and Halloween costumes. And having given myself the time to really dive into that catalog, I emerged with this children's music album, D.a.D. You know, a lot of it was kind of discovered conceptually while my dad was dying. But the, the songs, many of them were finished during COVID, between March and May of 2020. 

Music Interlude: Voice Memo (Phil Freelon) by Pierce Freelon

Pierce: My dad was a serial optimist and I think I've inherited that. But I've also, it's not even just a way of being, it's just true. Like, I think things happen for a reason and you don't always know why those reasons are. So I think being accepting and just centering gratitude has helped me really understand that nothing is in my control. 

Music Interlude: Voice Memo (Phil Freelon) cont.

Elena: That was Phil Freelon, the late father of Pierce Freelon, our guest today, as heard on the final track of Pierce’s first family music album D.a.D, released in summer 2020. Pierce, thank you so much for joining us. I look forward to speaking with you again.

Pierce: Thanks for having me.

Music Interlude: Freedom Pt. 2 by The Beast and Nnenna Freelon, feat. Suede (prod. Apple Juice Kid)

Elena: Thank you for tuning in to the OneBeat Podcast. This episode was produced and edited by me, Elena, with essential help from Nyokabi Kariũki, Jeremy Thal and Kyla-Rose Smith. It was mixed by Zubin Hensler.

In this episode we heard tunes by Pierce Freelon and his band The Beast, plus some tunes created in the Beat Making Lab and Blackspace, and ‘Round Midnight sung by Nnenna Freelon.  We also heard clips of Nnenna Freelon, Brother Yusuf and Friends, and Baba Chuck.  You can find a full playlist on our website at That’s the number 1 b-e-a-t dot org. Listen to us anywhere you get your podcasts -- and please rate, review, subscribe and share if you like what you hear! Follow us at 1beatmusic, that’s the number 1 b-e-a-t music. 

For our seventh episode of the season, we will visit the electronic musician and educator Anton Maskelide, in Moscow, Russia -- an alumnus of our very first OneBeat program in 2012 who was so inspired by it that he decided to start his own music school in Moscow. 

The views + opinions expressed by our guests on this podcast are their own and not those of the ECA, Bang On A Can, Found Sound Nation, or any of its employees.

OneBeat is an initiative of the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in collaboration with Bang On A Can’s Found Sound Nation