Black to the Future With Pierce Freelon

Photo by Chris Charles

I first met Pierce Freelon virtually with the formation of Family Music Forward, a diverse group of family music artists who came together with the goal of supporting Black artists, children, and communities. After we met, I listened to and immensely enjoyed Pierce’s debut family music album, D.a.D. As time went on, I learned about his many other incredible accomplishments. I began to wonder if Pierce was some sort of superhuman! Besides creating hip-hop, electronic, jazz, and soul music, he is also an Emmy Award–winning writer, composer and codirector for The History of White People in America, a professor, a dad of two, a Durham City Council member, and a soon-to-be author of Daddy Daughter Day.

What inspires me the most about Pierce, however, is that in every aspect of his work, he looks toward the future and works toward building positive spaces for all kids, especially creative Black youth. Yet he is also so clearly inspired by his own roots: his ancestors, his history, and his community, all of which come up a lot in his second family music album, Black to the Future.

Somehow Pierce’s many accomplishments found a way to converge, and we in family music are so much richer for his contributions. Pierce’s uplifting, creative spirit and his insightful answers inspire me, as I am sure they will you.

Ann: There are so many words to describe you, but what I’d like to do is start off by discussing your contributions to the family music genre. Your first album came out last year: D.a.D. Can you tell us a bit about how this album came about?

Pierce: The title reflects the inspiration for the album. My father, who passed away in 2019, was just the most wonderful, loving dad ever. He passed away after a struggle with ALS, and during the months where I was caring for him, I had a lot of time to reflect and create. Some of it was a part of my grieving ritual, because writing songs was a way to embrace the beauty of fatherhood, but also I found myself thinking about my own role as a father, and the joy that I bring to parenting Justice and Stella, not just this year, but like, digging into my phone, finding voice memos of the kids singing songs, coming up with hooks and creative ideas.

A lot of that creative abundance that had been tucked away, almost hidden like a treasure chest on my phone, was unlocked when I was swiping through to show my dad birthdays, Halloweens, recitals. There were all these random videos of me with the kids beatboxing and doing songs, and I was like, “Oh, that’d be a dope song idea.” I’m usually just so busy that the slowing down of the intimate, quiet time with my dad forced me to be more reflective, and really, more creative. That was kind of where D.a.D. came from; it blossomed out of my father’s transformation.

That’s amazing. You mentioned your daughter, Stella, and she’s been a big part of your family music. She’s in “Daddy Daughter Day,” “Zombi,” and “Braid My Hair.” In fact, Indie Week said, “Stella steals the show.” How has it been working with your daughter on your artistic projects?

Oh, Stella is amazing. She’s a great collaborator; she’s a fast learner. On D.a.D she appears on a couple tracks. You mentioned “Daddy Daughter Day,” where she’s humming a little melody. She also does a song called “Tooth Bruh” where she does the whole song.

What’s interesting about the two tracks you just mentioned, “Zombi” and “Braid My Hair,” is that Stella was asking me after D.a.D, “Oh, we’re on Spotify? Great! So do I get paid every time a Spotify song plays?”

“Well, no, you get a little up-front fee” (I paid her for working on the album) “but you didn’t write anything so you don’t get publishing.”

“Publishing? What’s that?”

So I explained to her that you write a song, you have a performance rights organization (ASCAP, BMI or SESAC), and once you’re registered you get residual money if they play it on the radio or it plays on Spotify or on iTunes or it appears in a commercial.

And she’s like, “Well, I want to write a song.”

So I said, “What do you want to write about?”

And she’s like “Oh, my God, Covid is the worst! Let’s write about that!”

And that’s where “Zombi” came from. It’s the most counterintuitive thing in the world to see your grandmother, who you haven’t seen in months, and then you can’t hug her because you need to keep six feet of distance. So she’s like, “What am I, a zombie? I can’t touch my grandma?” That was where her brain went. I helped her write it, but pretty much she wrote that whole song. And as much as it was a creative expression, it was like her desire to be an entrepreneur and to participate in making money.

I love that!

I just thought that was awesome. As a parent, that was really joyful for me to see that she’s thinking that way, that she wants to know, How does this work as a business? My mom, Nnenna Freelon, is also a musician—she’s a jazz vocalist—and I wasn’t thinking like that at ten years old, you know what I mean? I just love that she’s a young entrepreneur, that she’s a young creative, that she’s a young businesswoman, and working with her has been a joy.

Photo: Pierce and daughter Stella
Pierce and daughter Stella (Photo by Shoot With Bliss)

You’re a cofounder of Beat Making Lab, which I think kind of fits into this as well, because you did storytelling through beats. Can you talk a little bit about Beat Making Lab?

Beat Making Lab is like a crash course in music production. We took a backpack and we put a couple instruments in it, we put a laptop in there, and a midi controller, which is like a little virtual keyboard; we put some headphones, and we brought these backpacks to different communities where folks don’t have access to this kind of technology.

And this is throughout the world, correct?

Oh, yeah, global. We were in Fiji, Panama, Democratic Republic of the Congo, all the way to Ethiopia, Kenya; working in community centers that a lot of times are very rural; places that don’t have access to this type of technology and resource. But they do have access to brilliance! It’s not a matter of ability, it’s a matter of access to the tools to tell your own story and to create your own music. So yeah, just working with kids to teach them how to make beats and share it with the world. It was a dream collaboration with PBS Digital Studios.

And you even received an Emmy for that, right?

Yeah, in 2015. We won for our episode “Heartbeats of Fiji,” which tracks our Beat Making Lab in Suva, Fiji, which was a really, really fun one. It’s an extension of two things I’m passionate about: making music and working with young people. Those are two things that just put butterflies in my stomach, that make me really happy and excited to get up every morning.

Yeah, that seems like a natural direction, that you would make a kids’ music album.

Totally. Well, Little Miss Ann, you’re an educator, you’re someone who is very musical but also dedicated to young folks. For those of us who have those two hats—not every musician works well with kids—

That’s true.

—or knows how to communicate and interact and educate and inspire young minds, so it’s nice to have that combination of skills. Beat Making Lab really hit the nexus of that, and children’s music does as well.

You actually just recently came out with a second album called Black to the Future. Can you tell us a little bit about that album?

Black to the Future is sonically, production-wise, a natural sophomore sister project to D.a.D. It really draws from my family experience, like D.a.D does. Whereas D.a.D was centered around my dad and around me as a father, Black to the Future branches off to other members of my family. There are four generations of my family on Black to the Future: The first track album opener, “No One Exactly Like You,” and the album closer feature my mother, Nnenna. Stella is on several tracks, including “Zombi,” as we’ve discussed, and my mom’s mom, Queen Mother Frances Pierce, her voice appears on the song “Attitude of Gratitude.” As well as elders like Ella Jenkins, my siblings, my nieces and nephews—it’s a family affair.

And to me, the title, Black to the Future really speaks to another thing that’s close to my heart which is Afro-Futurism, Black folks speaking worlds into existence. Viewing things through a Black lens; viewing technology and science fiction through a Black lens. Songs like “LeVar Burton” and “Solar Skate” really speak to that idea of Afro-Futurism, which for me—I’m a total nerd, comic book, video game, anime-head—

Yes, like in the “LeVar Burton” video. I saw that.

Oh, yeah. That was really important for me to include as well.

Video for “LeVar Burton” from Pierce’s album Black to the Future

You also have a song about Ella Jenkins. Who are some other influences—besides, obviously, your family—that influenced you growing up?

Well, the three biggest are on the album—that would be my mom, Ella, and LeVar. I was also a big fan of Mister Rogers. I think he was a part of so many folks’ childhood. As far as children’s media was concerned, I was a big PBS kid. My grandma would pop me down in front of PBS and I learned a lot watching a lot of the programming on that channel. (sounds of children shouting in the background) My kids—I don’t know if you can hear them in the background, they just got back from their grandparents’ house.

That’s all right. You might hear dogs, so don’t worry.

Okay, cool. So yeah, anyone who’s listening, this is podcasting in the twenty-first century, working from home, kids will be in the background. Actually, let me show you a cool parenting trick . . . Hey, Justice! Stella! I’m doing an interview right now and y’all are super loud. Could you quiet down, please? And could someone come close my office door? (sound of children answering and door closing) Thank you! I hope you include that in the interview. Let’s keep it 100 and break the fourth wall for a second!

Anyway, I would say that one of the biggest inspirations for my children’s music is my kids. A lot of the songs are things that I tell them as a parent, things I want them to know as they transition into “tweenage” and “teenager-hood” and young adulthood. Universal things. Going back to D.a.D, there’s a song on that album called “My Body,” which is about consent. That’s a conversation happening in the adult world right now, with the Me Too movement and the Time’s Up movement. We need kids to be talking about consent at a very young age, before they are sexually active—before they’re sexually curious. To know that I have control over my body. That’s an important value I want my kids to know, and adults to know. Songs like “Attitude of Gratitude” or “No Is a Love Word” on Black to the Future—these are phrases I heard from my grandmother that influenced me growing up that are important for me to pass down to my kids and other children. So yeah, a wide spectrum of influences, but I’d say for children’s music, my children are the biggest.

I can relate to that. You also mention “My Body,” and you did that with Rissi Palmer, who is another pioneer Black country female artist. And you did “Cootie Shot” with Divinity Roxx, the bassist for Beyoncé. Are there any other people you would love to collaborate with?

One of the cool things about Black to the Future is all of the features are Black women. And that was intentional. Divinity Roxx, Nnenna Freelon, Stella, Kelly Kale, they’re just some of the most talented artists that I know. And it was an honor to collaborate with them. Ella Jenkins, who was not quite a feature—we don’t collaborate on a song—but it’s a skit-type thing, an audio clip of her talking with Stella over Zoom. That to me is really important. I think that one of the things I have learned from Black women is that racism is intersectional, and with all the struggles that I have experienced and heard from Black folks in children’s music about how hard it’s been, it’s been even harder for Black women. And even harder still for Black queer folks. So that idea of intersectionality comes from Black radical feminist scholars.

I want to use my platform and whatever access and privilege I have not just to showcase the brilliance of Black women in my orbit, but also to benefit from the privilege of being their collaborator. Like, Rissi Palmer released my favorite children’s album, ever: Best Day Ever. I listen to that album when my kids are not in the car, ’cause the songs are that good. She competes with Top 40 radio because her songwriting and her voice are that powerful. So it’s dope to be in the company of Black excellence. Moving forward in the future, some Black women I’d like to work with? Janelle Monáe, Georgia Anne Muldrow . . . I don’t know . . . Solange?

Yes! Put it out in the universe!

Speak it into existence!

Video for “My Body” featuring Rissi Palmer

I’m excited because personally I feel like there’s a Black family music renaissance that’s starting to happen finally in the kids’ music world. Would you agree with me or disagree with me on that?

I do agree with you that there is a renaissance in the children’s music world. But one of the things I’ve learned from being involved with Family Music Forward and All One Tribe collective is that Black children’s music artists have been around, have been producing prolifically, for a long time. When you say the children’s music world, I think about people like Dan Zanes or Pete Seeger or Raffi, and Ella Jenkins! Those are folks who have had commercial success and are part of a mainstream children’s music community. It kind of reminds me of hip-hop. Hip-hop was thriving in the underground before people like the recording academy became aware of them, before radio stations became aware of what was happening in the Bronx.

Black folks operate in the margins. Same for jazz music. Same for ragtime. Like we make these innovations and it takes white people longer to become hip to what has already been going on in the Black community. And that’s typically how popular culture works. Then it will be a white artist, like an Elvis, who gets a lot of the credit for taking these Black innovations and running with them and making a lot of money from them. That’s just how entertainment and music industry have worked historically for a long time.

So I do think there has been a really robust legacy of Black artists, children’s music artists, that folks in the mainstream networks are just becoming aware of, and organizations like Family Music Forward and projects like All One Tribe are bringing those folks to light. We’re on those calls, Ann: people are like, “You know I’ve been making children’s music for twenty years.” “I’m the state ambassador for children’s music in Rhode Island!” said one brother. This other lady’s like, “Yeah, I started making children’s music in 1981.” I was born in ’83! Like, come on, these people have been around for a minute.

That is a really important distinction that you made, that there is already a robust community, but it’s maybe being played more on Sirius XM and Kids Place Live than it has in the past? But it’s already been happening.

It’s been happening, yeah, and I think in a lot of sectors, not just music, not just children’s music. I think that George Floyd’s grizzly and brutal murder was a paradigm shift for folks to really look inward at where institutional racism has played a role in their jobs, in their lives, in their families. You don’t typically think of something as friendly and kid-centric as children’s music as racist. It sounds like a contradiction almost. But when something that bad happens—when Emmett Till happens, or Rodney King, or George Floyd, or Breonna Taylor—these things that shake our foundations and get us to really take a close look at ourselves, there’re some interesting truths revealed.

And I think that revelation in children’s music—the recording academy, XM radio, and some of the spaces that we occupy as children’s musicians—that reckoning has paved the way for broader recognition of folks who have already been there for a long time doing the work. And it’s a real shame that it takes such a jarring example of blatant racism to get us to look at the smaller examples of where institutional racism shows up in our lives, but that’s just how this country operates and has operated for a long time. So to name that is also important, because this awakening, this renaissance, didn’t come out of nowhere. It literally came immediately after George Floyd’s murder last summer.

But that we’re already seeing some fruits of that renaissance a year later I think is a real thing we should celebrate. And Family Music Forward, All One Tribe, and allies like the white artists who rescinded their nominations in protest of institutional racism at the Grammys last year—I think it’s really important to name that context. Otherwise, it’s like “Where did this renaissance come from? It just kind of popped out of nowhere . . .” No, there’s actually a global movement for Black lives that this renaissance is connected to.

Your music is described as hip-hop, soul, and electronic. Do you feel that this music has been represented in the kids’ music world? Fairly?

Again, I feel like there’s a caveat we need when we talk about this. There’s this phenomenon in scholarship that we call Eurocentrism. It’s kind of coined by this guy Molefi Asante, who coined the term Afrocentrism. It’s basically the idea that the world revolves around white people and white history. So you study history, but it’s actually the history of Europe and the history of colonization. It’s not indigenous history; it’s not Black history. Similarly, there’s an unnamed Eurocentrism that is attached to the brand “Children’s Music” that doesn’t acknowledge the fact that if you jump on TikTok right now, there are some incredible music producers making music with their kids that for all intents and purposes could be in the genre of children’s music but aren’t named that because they’re not within the white standard for children’s music.

But that being said, I do think that hip-hop, soul, and electronic music are making their way into children’s music through white-controlled institutions in children’s music through this renaissance we’ve described. Uncle Jumbo is a great example of that; Fyütch, SaulPaul, and Divinity Roxx. Most of the electronic and hip-hop artists that I’m aware of in children’s music are BIPOC folks.

Another large contingent in the children’s music space is folk artists. Singer/songwriter folk artists, from Ella Jenkins to Rissi Palmer, there’ve been quite a few Black folks in that area as well. But as far as genre representation in those mainstream spaces on radio, in some of the publications, in festivals that cater to and focus on children, I think there has been an explosion in recent years. Again, I just want to name that those artists existed prior to the last two years. They just were getting turned away by Sirius XM and turned away by some of the festivals that do children’s music and turned away by some of the gatekeepers that provide or deny access based on what they determine children’s music to be. Which for many years meant being male, white, and folk-based. So, yeah, I’m glad to see that transformation happening within these white-led and controlled institutions.

A quote by your dad that I really thought was amazing was “Art is the most powerful force in the universe.” Can you tell us what you think children’s music’s impact is on the universe?

I think children’s music is really important because shaping the minds of young people informs how they’re going to be as adults. And so for me, as a Black millennial father, there are certain narratives in the media about Black fatherhood that I think it’s important for me to get out in front of and show what Black fatherhood looked like in my family, because it’s in direct contradiction to narratives around, you know, Black kids growing up in single-mother households or Black dads being deadbeats. Studies show it’s completely false, but it still remains the narrative because of the powerful ways it’s reiterated through media, through television, film, music.

And for kids . . . sometimes I think about Tamir Rice who was killed by police within seconds of them arriving on the scene. He was playing in a park with a toy gun and was killed very quickly. Twelve-year-old boy. My son’s age. My son, Justice, is twelve. And I think about, like, what kind of media did these police officers grow up with to make them see a twelve-year-old kid with a toy and think that’s a grown-man threat with a gun? Obviously, there’s context: someone called it in, so they had a preconceived notion of what to expect. But if you grow up with media where Black men like me or SaulPaul or Fyütch are nurturers, are caring, just imagine being that cop who pulled up on Tamir Rice and seeing the kid and thinking “That looks like the guy who used to sing me to sleep every night. That looks like the guy who was my version of Mister Rogers when I was watching television as a kid.” It might buy that kid an extra few seconds. It literally might save their lives. And when you look at children’s media—well, I’ll give Blue’s Clues credit for their most recent host who is—


—a member of the AAPI community. But the vast majority of folks presenting media to these kids, whether it’s Pee-wee Herman or Fred Rogers (as much as I love him), these aren’t spaces where we see enough BIPOC people either, and that has consequences, particularly when the media that you do see about Black men is overwhelmingly negative, overwhelmingly violent, and creates this bias in people’s heads. And it’s in the heads and the hearts of the police officers and judges and the people overlooking job applications or making policies; their subconscious implicit bias is informed by media.

There’s this really important book called Biased by a Black woman named Jennifer L. Eberhardt. She talks about how even Black boys start having biases about Black men and boys being violent, being bad, as early as four, five, six years old. She told a story about how she was on the plane with her son at five years old, and a Black guy comes and sits down and he’s kinda staring at him and he’s like “I think that guy is gonna rob the plane.” And this is a Black woman. The mother of a Black son! She’s like, “Why are you saying this?” She just couldn’t . . . and it was already the images that he’d seen in the media, not children’s images, but images intended for adults that children absorb by inertia from Mom’s watching Law and Order or some rap videos playing in the background at their older cousin’s house. They’re seeing these depictions of what they think a Black man should be. So it’s not just white folks; it’s actually Black kids who internalize these negative images of themselves.

Pierce and son Justice
Pierce and son Justice (Photo by Chris Charles)

Definitely. I can agree because I was born on the South Side of Chicago and sometimes I get the feeling like I’m not as American as someone else. And we in the AAPI community get those stereotypes of being invisible, of being subservient, and when my daughter was young that’s how I got into the kids’ music world because I wanted to present a different view of Asian American women. And so, I can completely relate to what you’re saying, especially when you have your own kids and you want to show this positive view of Black fatherhood.

Yeah, it’s important for our kids and all kids because those kids are gonna grow up and we are going to be some of the main influencers in their lives. So yeah, I think that our work is so powerful and so influential for such a vulnerable and impressionable group of folks.

I know you were born in Durham, North Carolina, and you have been able to thrive where you were raised. Can you speak a little bit about being a millennial father in the South and a millennial artist in the South?

First of all, I love being from and of the South, through and through. North Carolina is just such a rich place culturally and I love so much about the culture, the food, the slang, the weather, the geography, the history. When I talk about the history of the South, that doesn’t evoke the most positive images for many because it evokes, especially for Black folks, legacies of enslavement and oppression and harm. But when I think about my ancestors, I see a lot of resilience. I see a lot of creativity. I see a lot of swag. In the midst of slavery they created spirituals; they created jazz, they created hip-hop out of these dire situations, and that’s the quintessential American story. It’s like taking a tough situation and building abundance and resilience out of it, creating healing out of it; that to me is a Southern story. It’s a Black story. And it’s one that I’m really proud to be a part of.

On the millennial side, that’s another interesting thing about children’s music. Coming in as a newcomer, it was interesting to me how there weren’t as many folks of my generation—like younger folks, Black folks—in the space, and so that was also very important to me to be a voice for a younger generation talking about parenting and child rearing and talking to kids through a voice that is unique for a bunch of reasons. The way I interact with technology is different than people ten, fifteen, twenty years older than me. My relationship to video games, which I grew up with, is different from people who weren’t eighties babies or nineties kids. And so a song like “Movies and Popcorn and Video Games,” that song isn’t just me speaking as a father because I know kids like these things, I’m also a kid who’s into movies and popcorn and video games because I grew up with a Sega Genesis and I rap about that in the song. So I think that perspective is unique, and it’s not something I hear often in the children’s space, and so that was another area where I was interested to explore my voice as an artist.

I read that your song, “Daddy Daughter Day,” is going to be turned into a book in 2022. What’s next on the horizon? What are some short-term or long-term goals or dreams that you hope to achieve?

For me, music is part of a broader industry of entertainment that includes podcasts and movies and television. I think music for a lot of these things is a linchpin, because there’s no Lion King without “Hakuna Matata,” especially with children’s media. So for me, stepping into the children’s book space with Daddy Daughter Day is a very natural transition. The book is very musical, very lyrical. The music video tells a story of fatherhood and of joy and of fun and creativity and curiosity. I think those types of things are needed in a variety of mediums. So for me, my future feels full of stories—stories through more albums. I’m already working on my next children’s music album. It’s just pouring out of me. I can’t turn the valve off. It’s just bursting from the seams. But also writing for television, writing for film, writing for children’s books, writing for podcasts.

I’ve been so blessed in the time that I’ve been in the children’s music space to be able to spread my wings to these other mediums, and I think that’ll be increasingly important for us as artists—to diversify income streams and to stretch our wings in some new spaces—and that’s exactly what I intend to do. Some kids are gonna be more auditory/oral. Some are gonna want to see things. Some are gonna want to be able to experience things, so I’m excited to go do live shows and events and to think about things like consumer products, i.e. toys, games. I think there’s a wide spectrum of spaces where Black voices need to be heard, and I hope to be able to contribute and to offer my voice into some of those spaces to help shape some young minds in positive ways.

Yeah, we are excited about you speaking at the Children’s Music Network conference, being the keynote speaker!

Here’s the last part: I’m going to ask you five questions and if you can please answer with one word or short answers. These are just fun questions.

Okay. Let’s do it.

What are your three favorite foods?

Right now, I’m craving cherries. That’s probably one of my favorite fruits. I really like fish, preferably fried. And okra. Okra and all of its iterations.

Do you have any nicknames?

P. What else? Free. A lot of people call me Free. Councilmember Freelon. (both laugh) That’s a nickname that I enjoy hearing.

What kids’ book would you recommend people read?

I would say Hair Love by Matthew Cherry.

What was the first concert you ever saw?

First concert I ever saw was Kris Kross.

And the last question is, what was the first album you ever bought with your own money?

The first album must’ve been the Lion King soundtrack.

All right, thank you so much for your time, and I’m really excited to hear your presentation in October!

Thank you!

Many thanks to Lisa Heintz, Dorothy Cresswell, and Noam Brown for their help in transcribing this interview!