Free To Be… Pierce Freelon
As a sensitive kid of the seventies, listening to the 1972 album Free To Be… You and Me helped lay the foundation for the gentle giant that I am today. The album and accompanying book had songs like “William’s Doll,” performed by Alan Alda and Marlo Thomas (the producer of Free to Be…), about how it was okay for boys to play with dolls and learn to be caring fathers instead of just breadwinners when they grew up. Free To Be… You and Me taught that the career options available in life and who you saw yourself as an adult weren’t locked into the cookie-cutter molds of the fifties and sixties that we saw on television sitcoms, with songs like “When I Grow Up” (sung by Roberta Flack and Michael Jackson on the television special and Diana Ross on the album). And most importantly, Free To Be… You and Me taught that we could all be emotionally vulnerable to build better communities with songs like “It’s All Right To Cry,” featuring retired NFL lineman Rosie Grier.
Fifty years after Free to Be… You and Me, Freelon’s work shows that we are still working at breaking down the concept of gender roles through children’s music as well as being emotionally open and learning to share about mental health awareness.
Stephen Lawrence, the musical director of Free To Be…You and Me, passed away on December 30, 2021. He composed over three hundred songs for Sesame Street from 1984-2012, and his work on Free to Be introduced kids to the concept of gender neutrality, particularly in their roles at home and in careers.
Taking up the torch, the musician and educator Pierce Freelon released his Grammy-nominated children’s album Black To The Future on April 30, 2021. Fifty years after Free to Be… You and Me, Freelon’s work shows that we are still working at breaking down the concept of gender roles through children’s music as well as being emotionally open and learning to share about mental health awareness. This work is in thoughtful hands and a caring heart with Freelon, if Black To The Future is any measure to go by. Before listening to the album, I would encourage you to listen to his remarks in the final council meeting for the Durham City Council’s Third Ward to hear that he is a person who cares about community, honors the past, and is willing to be open about and share his emotions for the betterment of others.
Freelon’s sense of community threads throughout Black To The Future. On the “Miss Ella Jenkins” track, Pierce and his daughter Stella have a conversation with the eponymous educator, performer, and “First Lady of the Children’s Folk Song.” A heartfelt moment of Jenkins asking Stella about her own music segues to the next track “Zombi,” and makes for a stronger connection to the song. “Zombi” features Stella on vocals, singing about what it feels like to be a kid today during the Covid pandemic and to be blocked off physically and emotionally from everyone. “Zombi” shares with multiple generations the experience of childhood during an unprecedented present.
Freelon’s sense of legacy also threads throughout Black To The Future. The album opens with him calling to his son Justice to bring him a VHS videocassette with a recording on it from 1988, leading into the track “No One Exactly Like You,” a duet featuring Pierce and the audio from 1988 of his mother singing. His mother is Grammy-nominated jazz singer Nnenna Freelon, who has been a spokesperson for the National Association of Partners in Education and also has been doing Babysong developmental workshops since 1990. The presentation of the song “No One Exactly Like You” is that of a cross-decade duet, with Freelon passing along the wisdom of the previous generation to his son as it was passed on to him: advice to be your original self and share your unique song with the world.
Freelon’s Afrofuturism is also represented in his music with the track “LeVar Burton.” Through “LeVar Burton,” Freelon takes legacy one step further and one step beyond his own family by looking at artistic legacy through the work of actor LeVar Burton. The song talks about not only what was learned from Burton hosting the classic PBS literacy show Reading Rainbow but his iconic starring role in the groundbreaking miniseries Roots, which brought a multigenerational story of slavery into American living rooms in the seventies. The song also tells of the importance of Burton being on Star Trek: The Next Generation and his role as top science officer admired for his intelligence and knowledge on a show about exploring the universe set generations in the future.
Freelon’s Black To The Future is an album which tears away bigger chunks from the wall of stigma. His track “Vulnerable” is coming at a time when we all need to know it is okay to share our feelings, no matter our age. And the track “Braid My Hair” with his daughter Stella shows that there is still work to be done regarding the image of traditional gender roles in the home. Black To The Future dropped during the Covid pandemic at a time when we were all closer with family, and it is an album that reminds us to bring vulnerability and heart to all our generations. With this album, Freelon has laid the groundwork as an artist with a legacy that I am looking forward to following in the future and thank him for helping multiple generations to be caring community members and know that they are free to be themselves.
Dominic Loise (he/him) is open about and advocates for mental health awareness as seen with his essay writing for F(r)iction. His work has appeared in multiple journals and he was a finalist in Short Editions’ “America: Color it in” contest. Dominic can be found at @dominic_lives on Instagram and Twitter.