"Black to the Future has been a way for me to connect with my ancestors -- to speak things into existence, to celebrate my heroes, sheroes and they-roes, and to celebrate Blackness unapologetically in a genre where that’s never been done before,” he expresses.
Billboard caught up with Freelon to discuss how Black to the Future and his role as a politician have shaped positive change for Black children and adults alike.
I read the Billboard roundtable you participated in regarding your white peers in the genre rescinding their Grammy nominations. What are your thoughts on white allyship? Do you think it is more often genuine or stems from white guilt?
I think that the Grammy controversy, the white allies -- The Okee Dokee Brothers, Alastair [Moock], Dogs on Fleas -- I thought their allyship was genuine. Because they were relinquishing power, and that’s true allyship. Superficial allyship would be like putting a black square on your Instagram. But having a seat at the table of white supremacy and saying, “I will not eat if my family can’t eat” -- that is allyship, because it is related to power and access and privilege, and it is a relinquishing of that in service to exposing systemic white supremacy which is often invisible.
Has the Recording Academy responded to the Family Music Forward’s suggestions for improving the voting process for the children’s album category by making it more transparent and inclusive?
That remains to be seen. We submitted a series of proposals, suggestions, recommendations, for them to consider -- and they have their own internal process to look at those recommendations. So we have not yet seen the fruits of those seeds that we’ve sown but we’re optimistic. They’ve been, at least, willing to listen -- and we’ve had several forums and conversations with them as Family Music Forward, so I am optimistic about that.
Given the systemic racism we’ve seen with the Grammys with children’s music and other music categories in general, will you continue to submit your music in the future?
Yeah, yeah. I will continue to submit my music. I don’t have the luxury of being able to say ‘Nah, I’m good,’ like my white peers.
Let’s get into Black to the Future. Why Afrofuturism?
Let me evoke the name of one of my cultural ancestors, Octavia Butler. In her book Parable of the Sower her character Lauren Olamina says, "Everything you touch, you change. Everything you change, changes you." And when I think about that in the context of Afrofuturism, I think about the way in which Harriet Tubman changed herself, her community, people that she worked with to fight a struggle for liberation. I think about Ida B. Wells who changed how we talk and think about lynching and really revolutionized that space. Changemakers, folks who dwell in the sacred healing practice of transformation.
Children and family music is a space that is in radical need for a transformation and healing, so Afrofuturism is the perfect vessel for that to me -- because I know that my voice is changing the shape and the scope of the conversation in children’s music. I know it’s changing the folks who are listening to the music, it’s changing the industry, it’s changing me! I think that’s what Afrofuturism is about, it’s about shaping change.
“Braid My Hair” reminds me a lot of Matthew A. Cherry’s short film Hair Love. Did you take inspiration from this at all when creating the song?
Yeah! Actually, my first album had a song called “Daddy Daughter Day” which I had written a year or two before I had found out about Hair Love. But when [it] came out, I was like “Yes! Let’s celebrate this daddy-daughter relationship.” And then shortly after, Hair Love won [an] Oscar. I remember the day, because that was [near] the day Kobe Bryant and Gigi Bryant died, they started the Oscars with this homage to Kobe. We saw that all day -- in addition to celebrating the Oscar -- all these images of Kobe and Gigi in this nurturing, loving, father-daughter relationship. And that day was really profound for me, because the lightbulb went off -- like, “I need to put this album out.”
We’re in a moment where Black masculinity and fatherhood is transforming, the perceptions around it, at least, are transforming. I absolutely feel kindred solidarity with Matthew Cherry. I love Hair Love, and I’ve been there struggling to do my daughter’s [Stella] hair when my wife is not available -- [but] Stella likes when I do it, because it’s a nice way for us to bond.
“No Is a Love Word” is also intriguing to me because I feel like this can easily apply to adults too when it comes to consent and turning down people in general. Was that your intention?
My intention was to give my grandmother Queen Mother Frances Pierce a platform for her ideas to disperse throughout the cosmos. ["No is a love word"] is something she’s been telling us since we were little. This album is family music. It applies to children but also to parents. "No Is a Love Word" is in dialogue with a song called “My Body” on my last album which talks about consent. If you wait until somebody is sexually active to have a conversation about consent or even introduce them to the term, you've missed an opportunity for kids and small children to become very familiar and very comfortable with what it feels like to have power in their own bodies and to set boundaries. "No Is a Love Word" is something that reminds me of its truth daily.
This album features four generations of your family which is amazing. How would you like your children’s involvement in your work to affect them later on as they get older?
Going back to Octavia -- everything you touch, you change -- my daughter now has touched many microphones, many pads and paper. Her song on the album, her solo joint “ZOMBI” is a reflection of that. Stella appeared on a couple tracks on my first album and she was like ‘Oh, so how do royalties work? How much do I get?’ I was like, “Stella, you don’t get anything because you didn’t write anything. You performed on the song so I’ll give you a little allowance money, but if you want royalties, you need to be an author.” She was like, “OK, bet. Let’s write.” I love that I’m teaching my daughter creativity, entrepreneurship, power in her own voice, technique.
I understand you are a Durham City Council member also. What do your fellow council members make of your music career?
Oh, they love it. I have a council member colleague -- his name is Charlie Reece -- [and] every time something happens, he mentions it at the council meeting. I’m like, “Bro, are you my publicist? Because I’m about to hire you.”
Before city council I ran for mayor in 2017, and “Artists in Office” was one of the slogans that we used. And it’s wild to me because I think one of the biggest issues in government generally is a lack of imagination. Artists are so important in spaces that shape politics. And when Black folks do it, I call it Afrofuturism. We are literally designing, dreaming, manifesting, speaking futures into existence.
Is there any legislation that you’ve introduced or championed during your time as a politician?
Yeah! [I] hit the ground running. Right after I got appointed, I went to this group of organizers in Durham, NC about this idea they’d been talking about for decades. Like abolitionist, Black women organizers in Durham have been my mentors for the longest. We put together a proposal called “We Are the Ones.” It’s inspired by the June Jordan quote: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” and it’s re-envisioning what public safety looks like. Hiring folks from the community to do work and build mutual aid centers and invest in projects that the community members who are experiencing violence come up with themselves.
I’ve been to so many of the hoods that have been experiencing violence in Durham [and] a lot of them say the same thing, “We need something for these kids to do. Late night activities for kids. Childcare, jobs, sports.” The kids are the ones that are all up in the mix with a lot of the uptick in violence, and they are where the solution is. And the solution is not to lock them up and throw them in a cage. We need to care for these kids.
When you’re not listening to family music, what artists are in your rotation?
I listen to a lot of Black music. Reggae, Afrobeats. I love Bob Marley, especially in a family setting. You can rock to it, it’s got a message, it’s timeless. He’s probably my favorite artist, and one I strive to emulate in terms of the universality of his music. Janelle Monae, Loner, Christian Scott aTunde Ajuah, Kamasi Washington. I’m excited about the new Flying Lotus [Yasuke, out Friday Apr. 30], he’s doing the soundtrack for this new anime on Netflix.
You have a song dedicated to LeVar Burton. Why was he such a hero to you growing up?
Roots [is] probably one of the most important television series in all of television. I was a huge Star Trek fan [because] the smartest man on the starship enterprise is a Black man. And he’s a blind Black man, who is just charming and vulnerable and goofy and nerdy. I hadn’t seen that, you know? And then Reading Rainbow. He literally taught me how to read and appreciate books.
This man was just so influential in my life personally, so when I wrote “LeVar [Burton]” and was mixing the album, I would play it in the car with my kids [and] they’d be like, “Who’s LeVar?” and we would just go into these deep discussions. I just wanted to welcome this elder, this cherished creative and introduce him to a new generation of children and families and to celebrate him. I remember when DMX passed away there was lingering sentiment like, ‘Where was this love when he was living? Give them their flowers while they can still smell them.’ I want to cherish LeVar now.
Have you ever met him before?
Never met him, but he’s heard the song! We sent it to his publicist, he loved it, he had some ideas for it. That just kind of blew my mind.