“Community, Growth, Youth, and Love…That’s what Durham does,” mayoral candidate Pierce Freelon says to an enthusiastic crowd, at his launch party, April 23, at Beyu Caffe. Ten days earlier, he had announced his mayoral candidacy.
story by: Leslie Rachael Nydick
with contributions from David Madzivanyika
According to Freelon and his supporters, he’s been considering a mayoral run for ten years. Lack of political experience is a big part of his appeal. He’s relying on others-and that’s what community-building is all about.
He’s also drawing on his spirit of entrepreneurship and his drive to create jobs. This combination is the source of many new ventures in Durham., which is why the Beyu Caffe may be the most fitting, local space to host a first-time, mayoral run. Dorian Bolden, owner of the Beyu, describes his decision to start his own business as a venture into unchartered territory. However, it was also based on hard work, resourcefulness, love, and creativity.
“The creation of the Beyu Caffe has always been about… various individuals helping me along the way…my passion for creating Beyu Caffe is not about my own self-interests, but about creating a positive venue for the community and a positive work environment..”
Judging by the crowd at the Beyu, Freelon is jumping into politics with a loyal, ethnically diverse, and multigenerational following. Despite the downpour outside the café, the space is standing-room only. High school students, millennials, and elders abound. Citizens who’ve never met him have come to learn about his candidacy. Family and friends who’ve know him for years are here to support him. With music humming in the background and the clinking of plates and saucers, it’s difficult to listen to your neighbor. Still, voices are buzzing; folks are listening.
“This is my first time meeting him,” said an artist in her twenties,“I’m a supporter of the Arts and want new politicians, people who understand the Arts.”
“He embodied the creative economy,” Mary B. Regan, former Executive Director of the North Carolina Arts Council, says of Freelon’s stint on the Board. “He listened to ALL the members of the Board, then when he spoke, he was thoughtful and influential…he helped chart the course of the Arts in our state.”
At age twenty-five, Freelon was nominated by the Governor to be on the Board of the North Carolina Arts Council-the youngest member ever. According to Regan and others, his mission in art and in life has been to share his opportunities with others. While he appeals to those who have felt abandoned by traditional institutions and leaders, he also has been a part of these institutions and has been mentored by traditional teachers.
Over the years, he’s learned how to access resources and how to provide access to resources for those who are outsiders. For example, in 2012, Freelon and Steven Levitin co-lectured a course in the Beat Making Lab at UNC-Chapel Hill. The mission of the Lab was to create music that would “do good” for the community, according to the Chair of the Department, Mark Katz.
Katz brought Hip-Hop courses to the Music Department, paving the way for others, like Freelon, to take initiative. Creatively combining University resources, crowdsourcing, and public funding, Freelon spread music from the Beat Lab to the community, extending the classroom around the globe, as far as the Congo, Senegal, and other African nations.
Freelon has worn many hats over the course of his life, including: musician, political science and music professor, activist, husband and father. He’s an Emmy-winning, web series producer, with a passion for community and technology.
As founder of a digital maker-space and youth center in downtown Durham, Blackspace, Freelon has galvanized youth. Durham’s own are honing their skills at Blackspace, gaining the confidence to build, create, improvise, and network. It is a vibrant space where all ages and ethnicities are welcome.
If you find yourself at a gathering, don’t even try to linger on the margins. Freelon and the students will approach you, give you a Blackspace sticker, offer you a hand, and guide you into the improv circle. Before you know it, you’re smiling and swaying to the beat. And before you head home, you’re handed a clipboard by a sixteen year-old, asking you for your email address, your support of their digital maker-space, and your return to the improv circle. You leave with a clear message: Everyone belongs. Everyone is empowered. Anyone in Durham can be a leader. Perhaps this is IT, the hope that so many of us hold dear: to integrate with our neighbors in a spirit of love and acceptance.
Freelon has reeled in some powerful players, national and statewide organizers to help staff his team, including Anastasia Apa out of Florida, who has a long history of raising money for progressive political organizations, and Joshua Vincent, a political consultant who was instrumental in organizing for Obama 2008 in North Carolina.
Back in Beyu, the vocal cords of Nnenna Freelon, prospective “First Mother of The Mayor” and Grammy Award nominee, resound with words of wisdom and warning for the entire community, both at the event and in the event that her son becomes Mayor of Durham.
“Folks say he doesn’t have any experience in politics, and I say, ‘What has experience done for us? If he’s messing up, you can be sure we’ll be knocking at his door,” his mom roars, amidst laughter and applause.
“Pierce is like my son,” said one of the elders in the room, whose home serves as the campaign headquarters. “I’m here to support him. He’ll make Durham the best it can be.”
“He’ll bring voices and perspectives to the center that have been pushed away, “ said a local, spoken word artist, whose refrain: “Make a joyful noise!” was met with cheers. “He’s inspired by those who’ve come before…you are worth fighting for…can’t ignore…” were some of the words heard over the din.
“Durham historically has had two narratives,” said a long-time, Durham activist and filmmaker, “social justice and economic stability. Folks like Ann Atwater embody this. Working for affordable housing and voting rights. The question for the mayoral race is: who can best intertwine these narratives? Embody them and lead us into the future? The answer is Pierce Freelon.”
“It’s time for new blood. I want someone with spice,” chimed in a seasoned, local campaign worker. “I’m not voting for anyone over 50.”
“Community, Growth, Youth, and Love..That’s what Durham does,” chanted Freelon, and his supporters. Hearing the lively jazz instrumental music in the background at the Beyu, you feel the excitement in the air. There’s a new face on the political landscape. So bring on the candidates for Mayor of Durham and, as Max said, in Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are, “Let the wild rumpus start!”
David Madzivanyika is a sophomore at Hillside High School in Durham. He was born and raised in Durham. He maintains a 4.0 GPA in high school, serves in the Student Government, and was the PAC-6 All Conference Tight End in 2016.