Happy Hour with Pierce Freelon


Born and raised in Durham, Pierce has traveled the world, building spaces for creative expression and social justice. He founded Blackspace, a digital maker space where young people learn about music, film and coding, in Durham. In 2012 he co-founded Beat Making Lab, a PBS web-series, which took him from community centers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to making beats with environmentalist Jane Goodall. He is the frontman of the jazz and hip-hop band The Beast.

Pierce earned a BA in African and African American Studies at UNC Chapel Hill and an MA in Pan African Studies at Syracuse University. He has taught music, political science, and African American studies at both UNC Chapel Hill and North Carolina Central University.

Pierce lives in Durham with his wife of 10 years and their two children.





What is ARTivism and how do you apply it to your work as a musician, community organizer and candidate?

I am the founder of Blackspace, a digital maker space in Durham where young people learn about music, film, 3D printing and coding. INDY Week described our community impact when they honored us with an INDY Arts award this December:


“Focused equally on imparting skills and self-esteem, Blackspace shows young people of color not how to assimilate into white-dominated arts and tech worlds, but how to redefine them. As a true alternative to, rather than a workaround for, white supremacy, there's nothing else like it in the Triangle.”


Prior to Blackspace, I co-founded Beat Making Lab, an Emmy-Award winning PBS web-series and social entrepreneurship community program. As the youngest lecturer in the Music Department at UNC Chapel Hill, I led efforts to raise over 1 million dollars to create Next Level — a collaboration with the US State Department which has sent dozens of local Hip Hop artists abroad for cultural diplomacy and conflict resolution. I have partnered with some of the largest tech companies in the world, such as Apple, Lenovo and Red Hat, as well as local businesses and community organizations including American Underground, East Durham Children’s Initiative, Holton Career and Resource Center, and the Durham Crime Prevention Council; to provide Durham youth access to resources, training, and mentorship.


This is ARTivism - merging the worlds of art and activism. All of my biggest inspirations are ARTivists: Nina Simone, Pauli Murray, Gene Roddenberry, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, James Baldwin, Fela Kuti. My mentor, the late Durham legend Baba Chuck Davis was an ARTivist. And like him, my life’s work has been in service to youth - both in Durham and around the world, and I hope to continue that service as a member of City Council. 


What made you decide to run for Mayor last year and now the City Council seat vacated by Mayor Schewel?

I was born and raised in Durham, and want to preserve the spirit of what makes our city a thriving, creative and diverse community. As Durham continues to grow, it is increasingly important that we leverage our political power to ensure opportunities for all. That's why I ran for Mayor. 


Mayor Schewel articulated some priorities in his inaugural address, which are shared values of mine. Durham needs a civic agenda that centers racial and economic justice, uplifts marginalized voices, and makes Durham a beacon of progressive values in our state and in our country. My background as an artist-activist, business owner and community organizer underscores my unique capacity to help the City of Durham deliver on these promises, as a member of City Council. 



What are you most proud of about your mayoral campaign last year

My experience running for political office galvanized an incredible amount of enthusiasm and contributed to the expansion of our electorate in this year’s municipal race. Our campaign ignited thousands of millennials, community organizers, creatives, and local residents without the backing of Durham’s powerful publications or PACs. Even though we didn’t get their endorsement, INDY Week called me this year’s “most exciting candidate”. In this political moment in the United States, we need candidates and public servants who are able to excite and connect with a wide audience; who can utilize social media to clearly articulate and widely disperse progressive platforms and ideas; and who is capable of partnering, and finding common ground with people of different backgrounds, for benefit for everyone in Durham. 


We also need public servants who are willing to go into the community. During the campaign, we launched our canvassing in McDougald Terrace. We knocked on thousands of doors. We raised over $100,000. We listened to people’s frustrations and aspirations for Durham. We shifted the public discourse on poverty, public safety and growth. We opposed bail-for-profit, evictions and bigotry. We championed Jobs For All, participatory budgeting, and sustainability. Grassroots organizing and connection to community is vital if we want to be accountable and provide a seat at the table for folks whose voices have been marginalized. 


I can’t wait to serve the City of Durham, and believe these experiences make me uniquely qualified to add my voice the chorus of the most progressive City Council in the south. 


What do you love most about Durham?

The people. Long before Durham was a destination, we've always had the best people. 


What does our downtown need now?

For starters, a new monument celebrating a real icon of American values, to replace the Confederate monument that was torn down by The People. Also, we need more: co-ops, social entrepreneurship, diversity, green development and arts. 


What is your biggest hope for our community?

That we develop the tools to tackle the living legacies of institutional racism, classism and patriarchy. That we take seriously, and think imaginatively about the issues of poverty, gentrification and violence that have historically and disproportionately affected people of color, particularly people of African descent in the City of Durham. 


How do you find quiet and foster your creativity in spite of our noisy, interruption-oriented culture today?

I go to the park and sit on a blanket. Sometimes I meditate, sometimes I just sit and listen. Sometimes I bring my family, sometimes I go alone. I turn off my phone and I don't leave until I'm ready. 


What is your favorite mixed drink or wine?!

I like sweet drinks with umbrellas in them. Cosmo is probably my go-to.