Life in Tune: The Freelon Family’s Musical Stories of Life and Loss

For mother and son musicians Nnenna and Pierce Freelon, music is an outlet for grief and a form of healing
by David Menconi  | photography by Samantha Everette 

The Freelons have long been considered the first family of Durham’s artistic community, in many ways serving as the face of the city. Matriarch Nnenna Freelon, 67, has amassed six Grammy nominations through a stellar career as a jazz singer. Her late husband Phil, a renowned architect, designed landmark buildings including the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and the Gregg Museum of Art & Design at his alma mater North Carolina State University. Their son Deen is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and daughter Maya is a visual artist. Their other son Pierce is both a Durham City Council representative and an acclaimed hip-hop artist.

Despite the charmed-life appearances, however, the Freelons have endured a lifetime of loss in recent years. Both Nnenna and Pierce have turned to music to heal and record the hard times as well as the good, a family affair all the way around.

These dark years started with Phil’s death from ALS in July 2019. Just six months later, Nnenna’s younger sister Debbie Pierce died from cancer. In the shadow of those losses, Nnenna’s latest album Time Traveler (her first in more than a decade) stands as both fond remembrance and bittersweet wake for the departed.

“This is what we call life, I guess,” Nnenna says. “It’s tough, but it’s good, too. There’s no soft-pedaling it or pretending everything’s cool because it’s not what I asked for. But it has come with some gifts, too. Art has saved me — singing, writing, reflecting. It’s been a period of growth. I have to take it a day at a time, and there are days I don’t feel so lucky.”

This summer found Nnenna launching a new podcast, Great Grief, which hosts a series of conversations that extend the Time Traveler album’s themes of loss and mourning. She describes the album as a “sonic love letter,” with a tracklist focused on covers of many of her husband’s old favorites by the likes of The Stylistics, Marvin Gaye, and Dionne Warwick. Always an impeccable singer, Nnenna shows a newfound depth and edge here.

“Nnenna embodies words and music from a very visceral space,” says Jaki Shelton Green, North Carolina’s poet laureate. She enlisted Freelon to sing on the title track of her own 2020 album, The River Speaks of Thirst. “She speaks truths about grief and sorrow and joy, and how it’s all such a big stew together. She is definitely the songbird unraveling all that, and she does it so beautifully with this new tribute.”

During his illness, Phil jokingly referred to his ALS as A Love Supreme, after the late-career masterpiece by North Carolina-born saxophone icon John Coltrane. Phil himself is actually heard on Time Traveler, which Pierce helped produce. During caregiving stints for his father, Pierce spent a lot of time looking through and organizing family archives of recordings, pictures, and videos. That included recorded messages that Phil left behind, which are on the Time Traveler title track.

This trove of family material also led to Pierce’s current musical identity. After years fronting the hip-hop jazz group The Beast, he has lately made two outstanding children’s albums, 2020’s D.a.D and this year’s Black to the Future. And they don’t necessarily qualify as “solo” albums, because his own kids are prominently featured in both.

“It was moving to participate in creating [Time Traveler],” Pierce says. “And in looking through everything, I found so many gems, hooks, and song ideas. All that, plus a decade of being a parent myself, coalesced into an album, D.a.D. It turned out so well, we did another one.” While previous albums had touched on parenting, this one embraces his current role. “For my entire career, it’s always been music about my life,” he says. “So much of my life now is about being a parent, so it makes sense.”

Fittingly, mom appears on Black to the Future to make it a three-generation family affair. Nnenna sings the opening track, “No One Exactly Like You,” a song she wrote more than 30 years ago on a teaching gig in Brunswick. “Pierce has come full circle back into the family vibe with this heartwarming, family-oriented approach,” says Nnenna. “It’s pretty awesome.”

“They always come back to the way they used to be, these children,” Nnenna says. “They go into the world, then they come back and retain something so sweet and elementary and beautiful. I’m proud of all my kids, they’ve all done amazing things.”