Pierce Freelon hears voices. They’re not imaginary—far from it. They’re the voices of artists and activists who inspired him. Pierce has made them a central feature of his second children’s music release, Black to the Future. On last year’s D.a.D., Pierce made himself and his family the focus of his songwriting. Subsequently, the 15 songs on Black to the Future use the concept of Afrofuturism (think Black Panther), giving Pierce and four generations of his kin the license to look backwards and far-forward.
Technology cuts both ways. For every genre-busting app developer, there’s a reactionary Luddite claiming “Bill Gates is implanting us with microchips.” Pierce mined old videotapes, smartphone messages, and recorded conversations to expand upon ideas that turned into Black to the Future. His mother, jazz singer Nnenna Freelon, leads off with “No One Exactly Like You,” finishing with a scat-singing flourish. The song makes its debut 30 years after it was first recorded on VHS. (Thankfully, before the tape degraded to the point it was unusable.) The tune pays tribute to disparate tracks such as Nina Simone’s “Exactly Like You” and John Denver’s “No One Like You.”
Son Justice and daughter Stella are featured prominently, with the former tackling toxic masculinity on “Vulnerable” and the latter getting much YouTube love for her vocals on “Zombi” (released during the height of the pandemic, pointing out how COVID forced us to sequester for fear of infecting loved ones) and the new “Braid My Hair,” where Pierce tackles ground covered by Matthew Cherry’s Academy Award-winning short “Hair Love.” Pierce also pays homage to the nearly 50 years of major media exposure to a Black cultural icon with “Levar Burton”:
You are your ancestors like the stream, like Levar
Impossible is not a thing, asked Levar
He taught us how to read hymns, homonyms
He taught us how to fight slavery, Romulans
A former politician with a two-decade career in music performance and education, Pierce also founded Blackspace, a digital presence where he mentored dozens of youth, teaching digital storytelling through music and film. He ends Black to the Future with the hip-hop heartwarmer “You Are Exactly Like No One,” produced by Grammy nominee Solomon Fox. Pierce flips the conceit of the first track, sung by his mother. In doing so, Pierce expertly employs the premise of the Afrofuturist movement and contradicts the cliché “you can’t go home again.” In Pierce’s world, the best home is the one you build—and you’re always there, no matter where you are.
Born and raised in New York (with a brief sojourn in New Jersey during his preteen years), Jeffrey Cohen lives in New York with his two sons. He has reviewed children's music for the past 11 years on his own blog. Jeff's podcast, "MrJeff2000 Explains It All" is available through iTunes.