“Bloom where you’re planted” — you don’t need to move to NY or LA to have a career in the arts. Plant seeds wherever you find fertile soil, especially within yourself.
As a part of our series about rising music stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Pierce Freelon.
Durham City Council Member Pierce Freelon is an accomplished Hip Hop/soul/electronic musician and Emmy-award winning producer, director and professor from Durham, NC whose work has been featured on the TODAY Show, and at NPR, Now This, Rolling Stone, Parents Magazine and more. For over 16 years Pierce has traveled the world teaching Hip Hop and music production to youth in community centers. He is the co-founder of Beat Making Lab an Emmy Award-winning PBS web-series, has taught in the departments of music and African American Studies at the University of NC at Chapel Hill and is the writer, composer and co-director of an animated series called History of White People in America, an official selection of the Tribeca Film Festival. Pierce is also the founder of Blackspace, a digital maker space where he has mentored dozens of youth, teaching digital storytelling through music and film. For over a decade, he has been the frontman of critically acclaimed Jazz/Hip Hop quartet The Beast and has toured internationally and released a series of albums, EPs, and mixtapes. In 2022 Little, Brown will release his debut children’s book Daddy Daughter Day (based on his song of the same title). He is the son of famed Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon, and the late preeminent architect of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Phil Freelon. Pierce lives in Durham with his wife and their two young children.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up backstage, in dressing rooms, at airports and hanging out with musicians at rehearsals. My mom is jazz vocalist and always had me on her hip while she was pursuing her dreams.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
My mom took me on tour with her to Japan and Finland when I was in middle school. It was really dope to see the world, and learn about other cultures that were so radically different from my home in North Carolina. Most of my peers didn’t have passport stamps at that age. I remember thinking how cool it was to be able to travel and see the world, doing what you love. I never forgot that.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
It was interesting visiting Portobelo, Panama for the first time. They have a carnival celebration there called the Festival de los Diablos y Congos, where they re-enact the slave trade. They cast slaveholders devils, which wear elaborately crafted demon masks and African (Congo) wear warrior paint and fight against their enslavers as freedom-fighter maroons (Cimarrons). I stayed in Portobelo for a week, with laptops and musical equipment and made beats and wrote songs with the kids from that community. Pretty rad.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My funniest mistake was thinking I could be a professor, run a community center, perform in a band and still have a life! Work-life balance took me a while to figure out. Luckily my wife and kids have been an anchor for me throughout my career, and now I have a more healthy pace and workload.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
My Children’s music album Black to the Future is my most exciting project. It’s wonderful making unapologetically Black, quirky, weird music for the whole family.
We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
Diversity is important because of questions like these, lol! Most Black/BIPOC people that I know would find this question so obvious, that it’s boarder-line offensive. It’s like asking, “why do women deserve equal pay?” or “why shouldn’t families be torn apart at the US/Mexico boarder?” If you need three whole reasons why diversity is important, you’re part of the problem.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. “No is a love word” — saying no creates room for abundance.
2. “Bloom where you’re planted” — you don’t need to move to NY or LA to have a career in the arts. Plant seeds wherever you find fertile soil, especially within yourself.
3. “Keep an attitude of gratitude” — give thanks, every day, for the things that you have.
4. “A delay is not a denial” — timing is everything!
5. “Be humble” — stay grounded.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Naps, rest, good sleep, and slowness is important to your mental health. We live in a “grind” culture that is unhealthy. Take care of yourself. There’s a great Instagram account called the “Nap Ministry” founded by Tricia Hersey which speaks at length about this.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My big idea would be to eliminate prisons. Turn them all into community centers, with recreation spaces, game rooms, mental health counselors, jobs trainers, healthy foods and medical clinics. If folks who harmed other people were sent to healing centers instead of being locked in cages, this world would be a much better place.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’m very grateful to my grandmother, Queen Mother Frances Pierce who told me to speak the truth. Even in this interview, I’ve been exercising the wisdom she taught me. It’s helped me get where I am today, and I hope it will continue to serve me, and serve others, who may not be able to speak on the platforms that I’m privileged to speak through.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Life lesson from Black lesbian warrior poet Audre Lorde: “your silence will not protect you,” so you might as well speak up!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I’d love to have lunch with LeVar Burton because he is my hero. He’s one of the most influential and inspiring men in my life — and each of his various roles, as educator, as historian, as futurist has helped shape me into the man I am today.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!