The 2017 local election in Durham was one for the history books, specifically “The Bulls of Durham” living history book. All the City Council seats up for grabs this election held an intense race garnering lots of attention, but none compared to the Mayoral race. This election came as a major changing of the guard for the city.
After 16 years as Mayor of the Bull City, Mayor Bill Bell decided not to run for reelection. This gave way to the most involved, scrutinized and heavily funded Mayoral race in Durham history with well over 30 Mayoral Candidate forums and a cumulative $400,000 plus raised in campaign funds. Many Durham resident grumbled that the actual amount raised was significantly more and the reporting system is flawed at best. It’s Durham – it would be alarming if there weren’t rumbles and grumbles of this nature.
The real story lies beyond the hype, hoopla and moolah. The real story of Durham’s Mayoral election is the artist that bucked the Bull City norm and forever changed the Durham dialogue in the political realm and far beyond.
Neither brash nor brazen, but rather a unique and distinct Bull City blend of intelligent and compassionate, Pierce Freelon changed the directionality of the race. Moreover, he changed Durham's collective narrative.
Pierce could have run the race on namesake alone considering he is the son of 5 time Grammy nominated jazz singer Nnenna Freelon and the nationally acclaimed architect of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, Phil Freelon. He could have cut his dreads and left his hip-hop-jazz band The Beast. He could have distanced himself from the underprivileged and overlooked population he has work with for years or used them as a showcase of his altruism.
He could have spent his time rubbing elbows with deep-pocket developers rather than literally knocking on 1000s of doors. He could have done all of that, but he didn’t. Dreads, integrity and 9:19 pm hip-hop cyphers remained intact as he stood on his own and alongside the underserved in Durham.
Instead, what Pierce did from the time he announced his candidacy at Beyu Caffe on April 23rd, 2017 and is continuing to do at this very moment is show what makes Durham stand out. He went to the infamous “Mac,” MacDougald Terrace, and got to know the community, what they value and how he could help them. Then he did it again and again and again bringing friends, colleagues, and members of the Durham community to start a much needed, long-overdue to conversation. He flipped the script from the Mac being a longstanding problem to manage to a community full of potential waiting to be realized. Why? As Pierce says, “Because that’s what Durham does.”
Political races tend to be a slew of catch lines and hyper-focused, hyper-exaggerated platform talking points. When Pierce threw his hat in the ring all that changed and the Bull City now had a potential artist-in-office giving the overlooked a voice and moreover hope.
In the bleakest times that 2017 ushered in, Pierce Freelon painted a bright future. He used his voice to highlight the immediate need to change the police beats and prison bars of the school to prison pipeline happening right here in the Bull City to music beats and bars that builds community. He and his band The Beast quite literally shouted it from the rooftop… of The Durham Hotel.
From his candid answers, both verbally and in print, Pierce made it very clear that in one fashion or another Durham’s current prosperity and longstanding magic were going to be spread to everyone in the Bull City. While most candidates focus on doing what it takes to get in the door, Pierce created a team and created A Plan for Durham’s Future. This plan named the actual issues by name, discussed strategy to address the issues and included community input and involvement as a key component for every solution.
A Plan for Durham’s Future was part of a campaign that did something unheard of: changing the narrative from the underserved being problems to deal with to that of human beings with untapped potential. Pierce Freelon straight up ran a political campaign on community, growth, youth and love.
Durham’s economically popping right now. The city is quickly growing with new residents, luxury apartments and business. Yet, there are 800 to 1000 evictions in Durham every month, which highlights one of the city’s deepest issues: economic disparity.
The city has been discussing the affordable housing crisis and Durham’s persistent level of poverty. The percentage of individuals living at or below the poverty line in Durham has remained consistent as the population, jobs and wealth are booming. In one of MANY Mayoral forums held throughout the election, Pierce called this out, “Durham is open for business, but our values aren’t up for sale.”
That wasn’t a catchy one-liner – it’s the truth Pierce was putting on the table for open, fruitful discussion. Ready for a future where everyone thrives and Durham stops participating in longstanding, systemic racism, Pierce spoke candidly at every forum, in every interview and in writing many times over.
He discussed the real issues and that the real solution has to involve love. Can you name any other candidate in any political race that blatantly calls out a PAC for asking biased questions when seeking their endorsement?
When asked post-election if he realized that he had changed the narrative of this political race, but also Durham’s narrative as a whole, he humBULLy responded, “Articulating that as a campaign platform of love, that’s where we were. That’s not where the conversations have been and that wasn’t a deterant for us. We weren’t surprised or influenced by the fact that the conversation wasn’t being had. It was like how do we go about crafting the narrative and also the manifesting the future we want for Durham? Community, growth, youth and love were those 4 pieces.
“Growth by itself is what we’re seeing. Growth for profit has not nurtured community or love. There is a lot of community activism that doesn't take our growth into consideration. How do we connect those two conversations? Each of our core principles tied back to things that are all necessary for us to get where we need to go.”
Pre-election Pierce was interviewed for “The Bulls of Durham” living history book project and he answered the same 6 questions the 100 plus other interviewees answered. Even at that time it would have been impossiBULL to his story as it relates to Durham without discussing his groundbreaking bid for office. It’s part of his narrative now and as a city we’re seeing the positive impacts his campaign has had.
Pierce is not a career politician – he’s an artist from a family of insightful artists. He’s a husband, a father, a professor, a rapper, created of an Emmy award winning PBS web-series Beat Making Lab and founder of BlackSpace, a digital maker space for Durham’s youth. He’s the youngest person appointed by the governor to serve on the North Carolina Arts Council Board and has served on the boards of Durham Literacy Foundation, Nasher Museum of Art, KidzNotes and more.
As he mentioned in his interview for The Bulls of Durham, as well as his portion of the book “27 Views of Durham,” Pierce is a Durham native. He ventured to UNC Chapel Hill to get his B.A. in African American Studies and to Syracuse University to get his M.A. in Pan African Studies and then returned to the Bull City.
He describes himself as a “total blerd.” Pierce explains this as “I'm really into comic books, anime, video games and other nerdy things. The North Carolina comic-con is in Durham now and I've been connecting with a lot of blerds, black nerds.
“When Moogfest approached me to do some kind of panel initially going to do like this puppet show thing that called 5P1N0K10, which is a project from a buddy mine out of Chapel Hill who is like a master puppeteer and we made this kind of political puppet show about a about kind of militarization and the prison industrial complex.
"That kind of fell through and I was like, “Why don't I get some of the comic-book people around Durham to do some kind of panel?" It was 3 local comic book artists and 3 students from BlackSpace collaborated in kind of imagining the future and science fiction's role and envisioning new possibilities. How important that is to be visionary and have creative mind when you're thinking about the future and trying to build it.
“That's a roundabout way of saying something about me is that I'm an Afro-futurist which is just kind of looking at shaping the future from like a Pan-African black radical tradition.”
On November 16th, 2017 Pierce Freelon went into length about explaining what Afro-futurism is and how a dear teacher of his view Harriet Tubman as an Afro-futurist. This was at the 2017 Charleston Lecture in Southern Affairs a lecture he gave alongside his father Phil Freelon called “BlackSpace Making and the Built Environment.”
Pierce was able to share that story and put it into terms in a way the audience understood and were completely engaged. This shines a light on Pierces unique skill to be able to communicate difficult concepts and topics in a way that builds engagement, intelligence and community.
During our interview initial interview Pierce took the time to fully breakdown how race is an American construct in full detail, inclusive of Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676. All without judgement or loss of excitement. That speaks volumes. His passion for equity via education and compassion is contagious. It’s also what lead him to run for Mayor of Durham.”
“Our great state of North Carolina I've always considered to be a progressive state for a southern state. In recent years it's definitely taken a turn for the harmful with policies like the bathroom bill and other kind of policies that I find objectionable, crazy and mind-boggling at the state level, including in our education system.
“As a graduate of the UNC system the way things have trended in recent years have just been mind-boggling and so there was a sense of obligation of stepping in and doing something about that. I have been working both at Blackspace and as a community organizer here in Durham, as part of the local Black Lives Matter movement or the local movement for black lives.
“I've been involved in actions, rallies and protests. Then also being generative and creative with youth in the community to create solutions, alternatives and envision other futures. That's been where the lion's share of my civic engagement has been focused. Then there was 45 - waking up on November 9th, 2016 was a wakeup call. There have been several moments that have been shaking I would say the murder of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin were also just jaw-dropping.
“Even locally in Durham I remember growing up, moments of awakened consciousness. I remember there still being Klan rallies in Hillsborough and cross-burnings in Durham. We're in a progressive bubble here in Durham in the midst of this conservative state that has this long legacy of institutional racism. That has always been on my mind, but at the end of last year I've really began thinking seriously about what my obligations are as a conscious citizen to shape some of the change that I'd like to see. Change that I haven't seen our leaders make here at the local level.
“I've studied history and politics. I understand that political power is built at the grassroots, local level. There was an opportunity to step up and to be that change. I didn't feel like I had the luxury of being able to wait until it was convenient, til the time was right, until it was appropriate or acceptable by other people's standards. I've been called to serve, so I'm stepping up to do it.”
While Pierce didn’t win the Mayoral race he won the attention, head space and heart of the Durham community and completely shifted the city’s narrative. The Plan for Durham is still in the works and most exciting of all, Pierce lit the community up with hope once again when he announced on November 8th, 2017 that #WeAintDone.
Steve Schewel’s election to Mayor leaves his City Council seat open and Pierce is ready to jump in and fill that position. This comes to the elation of many as Pierce and Steve proved during the election process they’re a great team.
Just like Pierce’s journey to City Council, we ain’t done either. We’ll revisit more of Pierce’s story in a future blog. Until then you can find Pierce Friday evenings at the 9:19pm Cypher and more than likely out in the community bringing enlightenment, motivation and change.
Help make "The Bulls of Durham" living history book a printed reality in your hands on Durham's 150th anniversary, April 10th, 2019 and get all sorts of incrediBULL goodness at The Bulls of Durham SHOP including, but not limited to the famed Bull Love Mug.
Click HERE to go to The Bulls of Durham shop.
For individuals and entities wishing to boost their bottom line and our community, reach out to TheBullsOfDurham@gmail.com to discuss sponsorship and other funding opportunities.
Sheila Amir is a health & nutrition writer who fell in love with Durham, North Carolina and starting writing a book about it.