In addition to being a well-established hip-hop artist and musician (and the son of singing great Nnenna Freelon), Pierce Freelon is always looking to educate the youth. That’s why he considers himself something of an “artivist” – an artist who also dabbles in activism.
“I’m just standing on the shoulders of the Nina Simones and the Billie Hollidays and the Henry O. Tanners or the James Baldwins or the Paul Robesons,” says Freelon, 32. “They were artivism – they were using their art.”
Freelon says this on a Tuesday night in a conference room above his latest project, Blackspace. Located inside the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau in downtown Durham, Blackspace is a digital-maker space where young people learn about music, film, coding, etc.
“Our motto is . . . shape change by any medium necessary,” he says. “So, we’re in there making films, making albums, making apps that all kind of relate to or build towards kind of de-colonizing our minds and getting free.”
Blackspace is an extension of the community work the UNC-Chapel Hill alum did when he went to the Durham School of the Arts, where he taught afterschool programs and went deeper into hip-hop lyricism.
“It was a curriculum I developed as a senior thesis at UNC called ‘Blackademics,’ which was basically teaching black history through hip-hop lyrics,” he remembers. “And I found that work to be the most fulfilling thing that I had ever done. And connecting dots in a way that, for me, should’ve been a part of the core curriculum required, curriculum standards that every high school student should know.”
For Blackspace, Freelon launched a Kickstarter campaign in May for the $22,000 needed to build the space. Not only did he make his goal, he raised an additional $2,008. Blackspace opened in August, but before that, Freelon took some young people on a trip.
“We did a summer program with about a dozen local youths,” he says. “We took them to Detroit for a social justice and digital activism conference, called the Allied Media Conference. It was a two-week program where the first week was in D.C. The second week was here in Blackspace, making music and audio documentary pieces in collaboration with the Jackson Center in Chapel Hill.”
Freelon also headed to Haiti with some children. “I brought two young folks from Durham to Haiti to do a beat-making exchange, and one of the students from Haiti came to Durham,” he says.
Since opening in August, Freelon and Blackspace have also done another summer camp where black liberation was explored through different digital mediums. Since September, a poetry and spoken-word writing and performance group meets every Thursday night. The poetry slams for that group happen every third Thursday night at Beyu Caffe. (In November, the slam will be at the Durham Artists Movement.)
Freelon is still raising money to keep Blackspace going. Friday night, there is a benefit show at Motorco Music Hall in Durham, featuring music from Freelon’s group The Beast as well as West African dance group Diali Chissokho & Kaira Ba.
“Kaira Ba reached out to me,” he says. “They wanted to do, like, a Rock the Vote thing. It’s the weekend prior to the election, and they were like rock against patriarchy and homophobia, you know – a very Trump-centered ‘Vote, Y’all!’ moment. And they wanted the money from the event to go towards a community organization. And so, they asked if Blackspace would be interested in a partnership, and I said, ‘Hell yeah!’”
Freelon is looking forward to expanding Blackspace and having more spaces pop up all over Bull City.
“This space is really, in my mind, like a satellite location for what will become a hub in our black community,” he says. “And I’ve been looking in places in east Durham. I haven’t found a spot yet. I’ve been looking for places to invest into roots that are closer to the community. . . . This is work that will be based in the community.”
Who: “Kaira Ba and The Beast Present: A Party for Blackspace”
When: 9 p.m. Friday
Where: Motorco Music Hall, 723 Rigsbee Ave., Durham
Details: 919-901-0875 or motorcomusic.com