By Grant Golden
July 31, 2020
Photo: Chris Charles
So much of how we live our lives is shaped by the media that we consume, to the point that our positioning in society is largely informed by our relationship with technology. But what if that content wasn’t so split between education and entertainment; between the dense and the digestible? This is the lane that Durham musician, activist, professor, and most importantly, father, Pierce Freelon operates in.
Freelon’s career has been built upon blending tradition and transformation. As the son of iconic architect Phil Freelon, designer of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture, and Nnenna Freelon, a five-time Grammy nominee, Pierce has worked to define his own narrative in blackness, art, and parenting.
July marks the premier of two new projects for Freelon: D.a.D. and The History of White People in America. His debut family album D.a.D. (released July 31), is an eclectic exploration of topics ranging from consent culture to cleaning your room and brushing your teeth. The History of White People in America (released on July 6 on PBS) is an animated musical journey into the history of how race relations and the ever-changing concept of “whiteness” have shaped our culture.
While on the surface, the two projects operate in entirely different lanes, they tackle two timeless issues that creators encounter: How do I capture your attention and how can I make a lasting impression?
“For me, I harken back to the days of Schoolhouse Rock. Those jingles are still stuck in my head to this day, but what was happening there was education,” Freelon said. “On one hand, there’s an effort in children’s music to kind of pander to kids, but there’s also studies showing all of these cognitive effects of classical music on kids, so I didn’t just want to write lyrics like ‘I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family’…they can take a complex rhythm and learn it. I know they can!”
That stance is precisely why D.a.D. isn’t your traditional family album. Spurred by the death of his father in 2019, Freelon began splicing together samples from a decade’s worth of voice memos from everyday life that were saved on his smartphone.
Freelon serves up Afro-Caribbean rhythms through the guise of bedtime chats on “Tuck Me In,” and spits instructions for cleaning up after yourself over a catchy trap beat on “Gather Your Clothes,” featuring Durham-based Venezuelan emcee KronoZ Time. But the rhythms aren’t the only complexities that Freelon traverses. Tracks like “My Body” (featuring local country/soul artist Rissi Palmer) and “Bubbles,” cover hard-hitting topics like bodily autonomy and consent culture in a manner that’s easy for children to understand: “It’s my body and my rules / You want a hug? / Just ask and see if it’s cool.”
But why is it so rare for us to see this kind of intersectionality in family-friendly content? That’s where we find D.a.D. and The History of White People… meeting in the middle, exploring how whiteness became the norm and minority voices became Otherized.
“As a consumer of music, and producer of it, I noticed that children’s music feels a little vanilla. I mean that literally and figuratively, it’s very very white,” Freelon said. “I didn’t see myself reflected in any of that. A lot of the blues and folk music in this country is derived of African descent, but it’s been appropriated and transformed to be this grassroots bluegrass or country. Black folks are erased from those genres. So thank goodness for Rissi Palmer and others, they’re clawing for that space. Kindi [Children’s] music is very much in that same arena.”
While his father Phil Freelon gained his acclaim by building physical spaces that celebrate blackness, Pierce Freelon has crafted spaces of his own– still celebrating blackness– but with his own stamp of permanence. Using his father’s work as a blueprint, Freelon commands attention through his groundbreaking work while addressing the power structures that make success in these areas so difficult for minority voices. He may not be erecting buildings, but he is constructing a path for a new generation of black creators.
“Losing my dad was illuminating,” Pierce said. “I paid attention to how he loved and how he fathered me, and how I then internalized those practices as a father myself…after he died last July, I dove into music as a healing and therapeutic process.”
And, as we peel back the layers of D.a.D.’s creation, we see how that healing and therapy morph into collaboration with his own children, whose voices and influence are just as present on this album as that of J. Gunn, Rissi Palmer, Carlitta Durand, and the other Durham artists he collaborated with.
We hear his son, Justice, rapping about oatmeal and his daughter, Stella, beginning to explore her own emotions through songwriting. It’s a concrete indication of how D.a.D and the rest of Freelon’s work serves as a platform for change and inclusion, a passing of the generational guard in terms of creativity, activism, and academia.
By investing his time and energy into this record of healing, this statement of community and of family, Freelon not only fosters a creative outlet for a new generation of thinkers, but also of Freelons. What better stamp of fatherhood can one hope for?