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Arts & Politics: A Candid Conversation with Pierce Freelon

Arts & Politics: A Candid Conversation with Pierce Freelon

Image Provided By: Pierce Freelon

Durham City Council Member & Emmy Award-winning Filmmaker Pierce Freelon is known for his acts of philanthropy, scholarship as a professor, and creative contributions to the arts community. He’s a devoted husband, father of two, and is known for his works with youth in Durham, North Carolina. He is the son of the late renowned architect Phil Freelon and Grammy Award-winning Jazz Artist Nnenna Freelon. Still, I wanted to learn more about what the journey of Pierce Freelon was like to become the creative artist and political figure he is today? I had a chance to chat with him to find out just that.

KK: How did you know you wanted to start? Specifically, when it comes to digital content and poetry for black space?

PF: I grew up in a very creative household. My dad was an avid photographer and he loved to draw. His profession was architecture, but his creative passions were varied. Same for my mom. My mother is a jazz vocalist. She loves theater and performance. So, I just grew up in a community, in Durham, North Carolina, and in an environment in my home, just surrounded by the arts. That was a real privilege. I didn’t realize that until later in life because it was just how I came up. I realized, as I grew, that not everyone has that special access to tap into their creative voice. To have a space that they can go to help them grieve, to process information, or to express themselves. That was really, really powerful and important to me personally. I got to college and became exposed to a broader curriculum, in terms of I was an African American Studies major. I had never taken a black studies class before. So that was really illuminating to me and to look back at my high school experience. I said, “Wow, you know, my History class was limiting, my Science even was limiting, and, Social Studies, and English”. It just centered around the history of Europe and colonization. I didn’t see many people who looked like me in any of the books that I read, the poets that we studied, or the plays that we performed. It was mostly men and mostly White men. So that really opened my eyes when I got to college. I said, “Look at all of this beauty, abundance, and history that was not a part of my school curriculum. I may learn that at Kwanzaa Fest, or at my grandma’s house. I wasn’t learning this for seven or eight hours a day in school. I never learned that. Then the other thing that I was kind of exposed to was the extent to which the background that I had really been saturated in the arts was not the reality for most people That being in my community and in the Black community. I felt this real dual responsibility to not just teach kids about their history, legacy, heritage, but to tell that story. Also, to give kids the same outlets that I had. To be able to pick up a journal and jot down a poem, or to draw a painting, or make a beat, or sing a song. While that was happening a lot, I think, organically, we didn’t always have the resources or the tools to have access to a studio. To have access to a formal kind of training of how to write poetry, how to do coding, or how to make beats. There was a passion, interest, and a skill set, but not the tools. The access to equipment and training to be able to turn that idea into a song, to turn that song into an album, to turn that album into a career was not there. Those skill sets were largely missing. So that’s why I created Black Space, to meet those two needs and to meet the creative needs of the Black community. Also, the ancestral historical need for us to know who we are and where we came from.

KK: What was it like to transition into knowing that you would like this to become a business or nonprofit? When did that opportunity happen for you?

PF: That’s a really good question, Kimberly. I talked to kids about this a lot. I think it’s kind of like dating when you’re young. You become kind of curious about passion in a romantic sense. When you date you think somebody’s cute, you holler at them, maybe you get turned down, or maybe we’ll go out for ice cream. It’s an experiment. That person that you thought looks great, may not be a good fit for you energetically or maybe they have different values than you do. So it just wasn’t the right fit. I think similarly, we have relationships with our passions and the things that we do on a daily basis. When I was a kid, I was really interested in Marine Biology. Why? I thought it would be cool to swim around in a scuba suit and look under rocks. Now, I don’t and I tried dealing with water. It wasn’t for me. So the whole majesty of that idea in my head just didn’t pan out. I went to a school in Durham, North Carolina called Durham School of the Arts (DSA). They made you pick a track like painting or music, or a discipline in the Arts. I reluctantly chose theater. I didn’t think that theater would be my bag. I jumped into the theater and found out, Wow, like, I really like this. This is so dope and I’m good at it. It’s fun to be in front of an audience and to improvise. We had this improv comedy troupe and it was just so cool. I took note of the feeling in my stomach. I would describe it as butterflies, like I walked out of my first couple of theater classes with butterflies in my stomach. The same way that you have butterflies about a crush. You know what I mean? It’s like being mindful and cognizant of the things that bring you joy. That’s really important. You know, what is it for you? My mom got butterflies about music. My dad had butterflies about architecture. For me, the first time I stepped into a theatre space, the first time I performed on a stage, I got butterflies. Now on the education space, this leads to your question about how you decide to turn this entrepreneurial endeavor or nonprofit thing into what you do for a living? When I was in college, again, I was an African American Studies major. I realized, as I told you, that my high school was not providing the curriculum that was meaningful to me, culturally and ancestrally. My ancestors were like, “why are you reading about Shakespeare, but you’ll know nothing about Diop, you know? So, I decided to do something about that. I went back to my old high school and I developed the program where I would teach kids about Black history through Hip Hop. We looked at the lyrics of Queen Latifah, Public Enemy, NAS, and KRS-One. We analyzed the lyrics and talked about the history behind the lyrics. Then we have them do their own poetry. When I told you this was like an experiment, nobody gave me permission to do this. I saw a need. I wasn’t doing it at the time, because I thought it would be something I would turn into a career. It was just like, oh, here’s a way for me to take my education in African American Studies and provide something positive for my community. So I went into the school, I did a week-long workshop, with old English teacher, Mr. Freeman. He let me take over his class for a week and I was the teacher for that week. He kicked up his feet on the desk and watched me work. I had so much fun. I was in there rapping with the kids freestyle and we were listening to Hip Hop. They’re writing these crazy intimate stories about their personal lives. We did an event on that Friday where the whole school came together in the auditorium. They got to spit their poems to their classmates. You would have thought it was like LL Cool J came to perform for the school. They were so turned on that they walked out of that experience feeling full and feeling like why isn’t the rest of school like this? How could I make this my daily practice? Not just something like you said, “a hobby”, not just something that’s like, I’m volunteering here. It took 10 years for Black Space to come into fruition from that epiphany. That was probably where it started. I was doing that after school program as an independent project.

Image Provided By: Pierce Freelon

KK: Wow, that is awesome. That’s an amazing story. 

PF: Let me offer you one piece of the story that I didn’t  say but I think is probably worth sharing about this residency that I did. Probably, I would say it’s one of the most powerful experiences in my life. It’s not just because that was how I kind of, quote, stumbled upon this lane for myself as an artist educator. I came into DSA on a Monday, the Sunday before I arrived, a young man who was a student, he was a junior at DSA at that time, passed away very unexpectedly. He was playing basketball and had a heart attack or some form of a heart condition. This kid was an athlete, it was very surprising, very random. It was unexpected, because this was a healthy kid. So this happened Sunday night or Sunday afternoon but we didn’t hear about it until Monday morning. So when we came in, pumped up, ready to do this curriculum. I sat down with the principal and they said, “Hey, you know, we regret to inform you that there was a tragedy that happened yesterday, this kid passed away, he was a popular kid, you know, this is going to be something that the kids are dealing with”. I’m thinking, “Oh, my God”, this is the worst possible time to be introducing this new Hip Hop curriculum thing, should we postpone? They said, “Actually, to the contrary, I think that you would be a welcome distraction from the norm for the kids that you’ll be working with”. So I said, “Okay, I trust your judgment on this one”. We came in at the end of the school day and did our first thing. Now, they had just announced over the PA, that this kid had died. Kids were crying, grieving, and I’m getting shivers just retelling the story. It was such a moving time and a vulnerable one for high school kids to be hearing this information. Processing it in real time, being offered therapy with the guidance counselor. Then I’m like, “Hey, kids, my name is Pierce Freelon. I used to be a student here. Now I’m back to teach you Hip Hop”. So you know, the first day was really tough, because a lot of it was literally just grieving, the passing of  this young man. Then the next day, you know, we got into the curriculum ,we’re writing, you know, we’re getting creative. What happened was the process of the curriculum, particularly the aspect where they got to write themselves, became an important grieving tool and mechanism for the students in our class. So here we were in this very intimate space with one another. I gave them an empty notebook in which to put whatever they wanted. I would say 90% of the kids wrote about their friend, or wrote about the death of a grandparent or another loved one. 

KK:  I remember interviewing you for The Lux blog NC, when you were running for mayor. How has that been for you now since joining the city council for Durham County?

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PF: Yeah. It’s been one of the blessings of my life. I ran for mayor in 2017. I saw a need. There were no millennials running for office or young black men with my voice that were stepping up to serve in this capacity. I don’t know if you remember from when we talked back then. The median age of our city council at that time was like 65, with a couple of the city council members in their 70s or 80s. There was just this generational chasm. So this was also shortly after Trump was elected. I was looking for somebody I could be excited about in politics and I didn’t see them. I decided to throw my hat in and run. So the first lesson from that is I thought I lost that race. I did not lose the race. I didn’t win the election, but I won in life. It was such a beautiful learning experience and look at where I am now. The mayor, I was running against Steve Schewel, who became the mayor, he was my opponent. We developed a relationship during that campaign, a relationship of mutual respect, a relationship of shared ideas, and of constructive dialogue. Constructively thinking about how to make Durham a better place. I earned his respect through that race. So much so that when an opening occurred on city council, he was the main one, “Pierce is the guy”. He’s smart, he’s hard working and he’s from Durham. I earned a seat at the table, by the way that I ran the race for mayor, even though I didn’t quite win. So you know, two and a half years later, I was appointed to Durham City Council and I’ve been serving for the past year and a half. It’s been so profoundly impactful for me, as a Durham, native, the only person on our council who was actually born and raised here in this community. It’s so important for me to be in the room.

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