Nnenna Freelon and Pierce Freelon made history in 2022 when they became the first mother-and-son singers to be nominated for individual Grammys in the same year, albums inspired by the loss of their respective husband and father. An award-winning architect best known for leading the design of the widely admired National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, DC, Phil Freelon died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 2019, aged 66.
Veteran jazz singer Nnenna’s sixth career Grammy nod, last year, came for Time Traveler, a collection of covers of some of her late husband’s favorite songs (vocals of “pure, powerful magic,” according to Downbeat magazine). Hip-hop artist Pierce’s Black to the Future children’s album exploring Afrofuturism (“a one-of-a-kind”: Kids Rhythm and Rock) featured four generations of Freelon family voices.
The two Freelons continued their celebration of the family patriarch with the release earlier this year of AnceStars, a family-oriented collection of 13 songs exploring life, loss, legacy, and healing. “It’s another love letter, testament, journal entry to the one and only Phil Freelon and our many other ancestors,” says Pierce.
Both Freelons took part in Where Our Spirits Reside, a live giant puppet production featuring music from the album presented recently at the Forest Theatre in Raleigh and Chapel Hill, North Carolina—the latter close to where they each make their home in Durham.
The youngest of three siblings, among the many things Pierce remembers his father with appreciation for is the way he nurtured reflection. “He would often have me quiet myself, close my eyes, sit in silence, to seek through meditation, through prayer, through silent reflection, the answers to the questions that I seek,” he recalls, “and I really appreciate him for that. To this day, I utilize that tool, that technology, when I need a compass to point me in the right direction.”
Nnenna speaks of her husband of 40 years as “an amazing human being” whose “family was his greatest design project; he valued family.” She recalls his insistence on using the best materials for a project. “He believed that there were no problems that were unsolvable after you break [them] down,” she says. “Everything was a design problem: you just had to figure out how to design your way around it.”
I’m always reflecting on the materials that I’m bringing to a project: are they quality?NNENNA FREELON
“So, I’m always reflecting on the materials that I’m bringing to a project: are they quality? Are they the best? If you use cheap materials to construct something, it inherently does not have the strength to stand, and I think that’s a metaphor you can use for life and for the built environment.”
Nnenna speaks proudly of how Phil “believed that everyday people deserved good designs: people like you and me, not just the high and mighty, not just the fancy.” Opened in 2016, the NMAAHC’s design—wearing “with pride an exterior that celebrates both Africa and America,” according to NPR—has been much applauded. The museum is “a testament to Phil’s belief that our stories deserve a home equal to the power of those stories,” Nnenna says.
Love and wisdom
Music runs deep in mother and son. Nnenna remembers growing up not only on church music (“Those old hymns, those old spirituals, are like the griots telling the story of a people”) but also on the big band sounds her father loved. Though she earned a degree in health care administration, she never pursued a career there “because that was not my soul’s purpose… that was not what I was put here on the planet to do.” Pierce describes music as the air he breathed as a kid. “It’s like asking a fish, ‘Did you think you’d be a swimmer?’ It was just the culture of the household.”
Nnenna has also blended her art and her heartache in Good Grief, a podcast described by digital magazine Scalawag as “a life-honoring outpouring of word, story, and song.” When Phil died, “a big hole in my life opened up,” she explains. “I had to figure out what to do with these deep and heavy feelings; this podcast is part of that… People who come looking for advice, I may not have too much, but I do have a song for you, and I do have a story.”
Speaking of having stories, so does Pierce. He has penned two children’s picture books (Daddy-Daughter Day and Daddy and Me, Side by Side) as part of his desire to address misrepresentations of the Black family, and in particular, distortions about Black fathers. “I had a loving, nurturing, goofy dad,” he recalls. “I am that because he showed me the blueprint—no pun intended.”
From their own experiences of a warm and loving home, what’s essential for building strong families? “Lead with love, always, in every action,” says Nnenna. “Sometimes we don’t think, we just act, and after the fact, it can look not very loving. And I don’t mean love in terms of nice, nice, nice. Sometimes love means no, no, no.”
She recalls getting corrected by other adults when she did something wrong as a kid. “You took correction from the community, and you accepted it… That was not interference; that was love and care… I see many children [now] who are just out there raising themselves.”
For Pierce, remembering how his siblings came back to North Carolina to be with their father after his diagnosis, intergenerational households have a lot to offer: “As the children are coming up, they can be nurtured with the wisdom of the elders; as the elders are transitioning, the children can assist as caregivers.”
Pierce laments contemporary culture’s over-emphasis on independence: “We’re not pooling our resources like our ancestors were forced to, and we’re in the process of losing out on some of that intergenerational exchange.”
Nnenna emphasizes the need for intentionality if you are going to achieve anything in this life. “Even your choice not to have an intention ends up having an intention,” she says, “so you might as well be clear about why you are doing what you are doing. Our ancestors could not afford to be willy-nilly about their intentions: if your intention was freedom, you had to get that together. You could not wait. So, I’m taking a cue from those who came way before me, that everything that I do be joy-filled and information-filled and love-filled and beauty-filled.”
NNENNA FREELON: MY WAYMAKER
My grandmother, Irene Perry Smith, was born in Bonita, Louisiana, in 1899, and she not only made a way for herself, she made a way for her children—my mother being the oldest—and myself. There’s a through line: Value education. Act like you’re somebody. Stand up for what’s right. It’s never right to do wrong. I never thought these kinds of words would be coming out of my mouth because when they were being shared with me, I was like, “Oh, here we go,” but now they live in my bones; I find that they are in me.
PIERCE FREELON: MY WAYMAKER
Dr. Micere Githae Mugo [2023-1942] was the chair of the Department of African American Studies at Syracuse University, where I went to grad school. She was a poet and playwright, a fierce intellectual, a scholar and a mother, and a revolutionary in the struggle for independence in Kenya [where she was born]. She was a pivotal and powerful waymaker in my life.