When I was 12 years old my grandmother grabbed me firmly by the shoulders, and told me she had a vision that I would one day make a million dollars. Jesus came to her in a dream with good tidings, and she ambushed me in the hallway of my parents’ house to share her prophecy.
At the time I thought she was attempting to lure me back into church. My family was once regular at St. Titus’ Episcopal, until my older brother Deen started boycotting services as a conscientious objector. By the time I was 12, church visits were limited to the occasional fish fry or pancake supper. When Granny Franny told me I would hit the holy lottery, I assumed she was trying to use the prospect of cash to succeed where pancakes had failed, and bring me back into the house of the Lord. It didn’t work.
She was always trying to convince me of something; that I was African, or that I would grow up to be a preacher. I just wrote her off as a crazed senior citizen who didn't know me very well. It turns out she knew me better than I knew myself.
Queen Mother Frances Pierce passed away a few years ago, but her energies and prophecies are still a part of my life. I’m not a preacher, but I do use music to tell stories and share my values with the community. I am an artist and educator, and hip hop is my gospel.
I have taught emceeing and spoken-word community workshops since I was a student at UNC-Chapel Hill. An African and Afro American studies major, I developed a hip hop curriculum, which I took to my alma mater Durham School of the Arts with bandmate Aden Darity. Minutes before our very first workshop at DSA, the vice principal announced over the loudspeaker that a student had tragically died over the weekend. The kids in our workshop poured grief and emotion into their lyrics and our performance-assembly at the end of the week was an impassioned celebration of his life. The residency was a deeply spiritual experience for me. It showed me that my skills as an emcee could help bring out powerful and cathartic artistic expressions in others. Using hip hop to build community became my life's work.
Over the years, I have developed curriculums for the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, Durham’s Juvenile Crime Prevention Council and more recently for Beat Making Lab; an international program that I co-founded with producer Apple Juice Kid. We donate music equipment to community centers and train aspiring producers in the art of beat making. About a year ago we were teaching a Beat Making Lab in Fiji, when I came across a grant issued by the U.S. Department of State. The grant called for an “international exchange program in hip hop and urban arts,” which was precisely the work we were engaged in with Beat Making Lab.
I reached out to Mark Katz, chair of the music department at UNC (where Apple Juice and I were co-teaching Beat Making Lab as an elective course) and began to develop a grant proposal expanding upon the international Beat Making Lab model. Adding emcees, DJs and dancers to the entourage, the program would send hip hop ensembles overseas for a cultural diplomacy project. With the the deadline quickly approaching, Mark and I spent several sleepless nights sending drafts back and forth until we solidified the proposal. Months later, we got word that our application was accepted and that UNC would receive full funding for the program, which would go on to be called Next Level.
Though the original budget was around $800,000, professor Katz secured matching funds and additional support from the state department, bringing the grand total up to $1,007,000.
So Granny Franny was right! She told me I would “make” a million bucks. She didn’t say I would get to keep it for myself. In fact, she told me it would be used for “God’s work.” Apparently God is a hip hop head.
I can feel Queen Mother and the ancestors celebrating as we harvest the fruits of their collective labor. If not for their encouragement and prophetic foresight who knows if I would have been able to perceive this opportunity, let alone be part of a community poised to seize it.
Over the next two years, Next Level ensembles will travel to Bangladesh, Bosnia, India, Senegal, Serbia and Zimbabwe. Among those selected to be a part of the program include several of my dear friends and colleagues from the hip hop artist-educator community. For me, having had an integral hand in creating this opportunity is the biggest blessing of all.
You can reach Pierce Freelon at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @Durhamite.