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How a mother and son turned their heartbreak into Grammy-nominated albums

Nnenna and Pierce Freelon are making the Grammys a next-level family affair.

While Pierce supports his mother, who is nominated for Best Vocal Jazz Album, her sixth nomination, this year she returns the favor: Pierce is up for Best Children’s Album, her first nomination.

The duo, who are the first mother and son to be nominated individually in different categories in the same year, call the double Grammy a “beautiful coincidence”.

Nnenna and Pierce Freelon told TODAY Parents their Grammy nods are an added bonus for the albums that helped them find closure.Samantha Everette

“You can’t make this stuff up,” Nnenna said. “There has always been music in the house. But this moment is so special. For us, we are both moving forward on our path, doing our thing, creating a record around family and the importance of family, and having both projects nominated in different categories the same year is staggering.

Nnenna and Pierce told TODAY Parents in a Zoom interview that, as joyful as this moment is for them, it’s also a reminder of the deep loss they share. Phil Freelon, Nnenna’s late husband and Pierce’s father, died in 2019. Both Freelons say their respective albums are love letters to Phil, and were a way to both grieve and find an end .

The music was always present

In the Freelon household, Nnenna says music has always been a way to connect with her three children.

“When Pierce was just a toddler, toddler, music was one of the ways I connected my mother energy, my nurturing energy. You know, there’s the bath time ritual – getting in the tub and getting lathered up…then a story, then a song. Dude, he’s the youngest. There are three children. Didn’t each of them want their own story? … It was like a show every night,” Nnenna recalls.

The nightly concerts capped off long days as a professional musician and ultimately turned into five Grammy Award nominations for Best Vocal Jazz Album between 1996 and 2005. Nnenna said she took Pierce and his siblings at the Grammys with her a few times. Pierce said his mother’s musical success inspired him and provided insight into what a career in music entails.

“The music was just his job. So when I was growing up, I had to do homework backstage in the theater, sometimes in the dressing room. And I got to meet and hang out with musicians who were like uncles and aunts who felt like part of our family,” Pierce said. “I think being immersed in this culture really showed me that it was possible, and it was a very natural and intuitive place for me.”

The duo duet on Pierce’s album and Nnenna said “it seems intentional from a spiritual place” to earn nominations in the same year.

Nnenna and Pierce Freelon perform together
Nnenna and Pierce Freelon perform togetherJade Wilson

“Sorrow is an extension of love”

Nnenna said her “Time Travel” album includes songs that commemorate experiences with her husband that are now just memories.

“He’s in my heart all the time,” Nnenna said, speaking lovingly of her long marriage to Phil. “…if people look at me and see someone they think is strong, I don’t know if that’s strength they’re seeing.” I don’t feel like strong Superwoman. I feel like I was loved. I’ve been so loved for 40 years it’s in my face. It’s in my bones.

She decided to put love and heartache into the album because “there’s no freedom if you don’t cry. There’s no freedom in pretending your heart isn’t hurting, but what to do…with all that feeling. You gotta do something with it,” she said.

Pierce said his father’s influence on his Afrofuturist children’s album “Black To The Future” cannot be overstated.

“Grieving his death was a place where creativity became healing for us. Losing my dad really made me think about fatherhood and the joy and the abundance and the love and the creativity he poured into me. Sorrow is… an extension of love.

Phil and Nnenna Freelon were married for almost 40 years until his death a few months before their anniversary.
Phil and Nnenna Freelon were married for almost 40 years until his death a few months before their anniversary.Katina Parker

“You forget that they are children”

Pierce’s album includes archival audio recordings of his father, late grandmother Francis Pierce and his two children (whom he shares with wife Kathryn Freelon), putting their family history on track. He said that since the album’s release, families have reached out to him to tell him of their connection to him as a young black millennial dad.

He said he made his children’s album specifically for black kids because they often have to grow up fast and regularly have “the conversation” about being black in a racist country. With the heaviness that it brings, “we forget that they are children”.

“I want black kids to see themselves as kids and celebrate their childhood,” he said. “They deserve the opportunity to sit down in their joy and their silliness and their awkwardness and see themselves as people who can grow and prosper,” and that’s what he wants them to leave after listening to the story. ‘album.

For black boys in particular, he made the song “Vulnerable” so they would learn healthy habits of expressing their emotions without fear of being perceived as soft.

“As a black millennial kid, man, we don’t often talk to each other as brothers about being vulnerable. You’re discouraged by your uncles and a lot of other rap, male role models, especially in popular culture, to be vulnerable or to be seen as weak,” he said. “And that comes at the expense of our relationships and our fatherhood. and our partnerships.

Through his music, Pierce says his goal is to “ensure that we impart the wholesome values ​​that will make us whole people.”

This path to wholeness includes accepting love and heartbreak. Nnenna said she was surprised at how much people bonded with her album.

“I thought it was my grief, my moment, my husband, my situation. Come and find out, it’s a universal desire for your loved one to be seen, appreciated… And it came as a shock to me because I did this don’t do this trying to get a nomination I did this trying to heal my broken heart.

Nnenna and Pierce plan to attend the 64th Annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, April 3, and when asked if his mother was his date, Pierce beamed at his mother.

“Let’s do it,” he said, adding, “Well, just to be clear, my wife is coming with me.”

Nnenna agreed, “No. 1 is the woman…but you can rest assured I have the other arm.”