meta-scriptNnenna And Pierce Freelon Are The First Mother & Son Nominated Individually At The Same GRAMMYs Ceremony: How They Honor A Husband & Father Through Music |
Nnenna and Pierce Freelon, 2022 GRAMMYs nominees, posing for a photo
Nnenna and Pierce Freelon

Photo: Samantha Everette


Nnenna And Pierce Freelon Are The First Mother & Son Nominated Individually At The Same GRAMMYs Ceremony: How They Honor A Husband & Father Through Music

When Nnenna and Pierce Freelon learned they'd been individually nominated for golden gramophones in different fields at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards, one thing was certain to both of them — the very missed Phil Freelon was cheering them on

GRAMMYs/Mar 16, 2022 - 05:25 pm

The great architect Phil Freelon once said that "art is the most powerful force in the universe." And in a spacious, light-filled house he designed in North Carolina, the wife and son he left behind are meditating on that quote — how it comforts, nurtures and galvanizes them.

"Whenever I say that, I'm capturing the residue of his energy and essence," musician Pierce Freelon tells in a Zoom window with his mom, Nnenna. "I'm pushing it forward into the future, and I'm celebrating his legacy and his wisdom. Everything he told me — he gave me lots of gems. And sharing those gems — sharing a piece of him with other people — I think that's the best way I can do it."

Both Nnenna and Pierce released albums in 2021 — the former made the loss-imbued jazz album Time Traveler, and the latter made Black to the Future, a children's album that explores Afrofuturism. Phil plays a massive role in both, despite passing away of ALS in 2019 — it's like he's in the director's chair. Using sampling and stitching techniques informed by hip-hop, Pierce weaved his father's presence through both albums, even incorporating audio footage of his voice.

And then, a surprise: Nnenna and Pierce learned they'd both been nominated individually in different fields at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards. (Nnenna is up for Best Jazz Vocal album; Pierce, for Best Children's Music Album.) At press time, it's official — nobody can find another mother and son nominated for GRAMMYs in separate categories in the same year. And to hear both tell it, it was emotional watching the nominations roll in — and Phil was heavy on their minds. 

"Listen: he's laughing right now," Nnenna — a six-time GRAMMY nominee — tells "One of the things he really, really wanted me to do was keep singing. He is happy, happy, happy right now." 

Read on for an in-depth interview with the Freelons as they discuss Time Traveler and Black to the Future, how they reacted when they learned about their 2022 GRAMMY nominations and how they keep the very missed Phil alive — in music and life alike.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

How did you guys react when you learned you were nominated for GRAMMYs as mother and son?

Pierce: I'd called my mom the previous day to say, "Hey, we should get together and maybe do an Instagram Live. It'd be a way to engage our audience. It'd be fun!" Talking my mom into a social media thing isn't always the easiest.

Nnenna: I said no.

Pierce: She said no! She was reluctant to join me. But it was totally cool — I spent the day with my wife and her parents at their place. We were sitting at the edge of our seats, super excited — Children's was first; it was pretty early in the day — and we were super pumped, calling my mom: "Hey!" She congratulated me, and it was really exciting.

But the highlight of my day came 15, 20 minutes later when they did the jazz category. I was sitting there at the edge of my seat, and when they announced her name, I was so thrilled — so excited. I picked up my phone and it was ringing and ringing — "Pick up!" — and she's not picking up the phone! So I called back again and again and again. I'm like, "Where is this lady?"

Meanwhile, I'm a complete mess. It's tears and snot bubbles galore. Way more emotion than when I heard about my nomination. I was just thrilled and moved because I knew what that album meant for her. It was about my dad, and a lot of his energy and presence was with me. And it was so frustrating that I couldn't reach her!

So then, finally, call number five, she picks up the phone. She's like, [Bewildered] "What is it, Pierce?" I'm like, "Where have you been?" She's like, "I was walking the dog." "Mom, you got the nomination!" It was enthusiasm and joy and…

Nnenna: Tears. I had a few tears too. I was like, "Really? Are you serious?" I decided I wanted to be in nature while all this was going down. So, I was walking the dog. There were all these messages from Pierce and other friends and colleagues. It was just an amazing day. It was so great.

Pierce, does everything you do feel like a tribute to your dad, at a certain point?

Pierce: I hold all my ancestors close to me. They influence my voice as an artist, as a father, as a husband. So, yeah, my dad is a big part of my creative voice. My grandmother — my mom's mom — Queen Mother Frances Pierce is another one.

There are a lot of other folks who are not in my family who are deceased, but whose voices ring in my ear with a type of clarity. Sometimes, I say something into a mic and I'm like [Glances upward], "Is that you, Baba Chuck? Is that you, Dad?" Different folks who've poured into me.

I think, absolutely, my dad has been an important part of my music. Particularly, in children's music, as I reflect on themes of fatherhood and love and caregiving. He was that for me, so I hear him a lot in my voice when I sing about those topics.

What was your dad like in person, Pierce? What was it like to have him in the room?

Pierce: Dad was a large presence, physically. He was 6' 5", athletic, charming, and had a great, beautiful smile and laugh. He was positive energy. He was optimistic, had a great sense of humor and was very loving. 

Sometimes, I meet other people's parents and I'm like, "I'm so grateful!" Nothing against them, but there's a brand of Black masculinity that can be very stoic and cold. Not just Black masculinity, but men in general around things like empathy and vulnerability. My dad was loving and goofy and silly and great. 

Nnenna: He loved to tell jokes. He loved puns. Word-y sort of jokes. There's this brand of dad joke that's so corny. It really isn't funny, but you crack up anyway. He was the king of the dad joke.

Pierce: He's up there. might be the king, but he's up there.

Tell me about the creative intent behind Black to the Future. I generally don't think of Afrofuturism as something easily funneled into a medium like children's music.

Pierce: Afrofuturism is a lot more infused into our daily essence than I think we give ourselves credit for. When I think about our family in particular, my mom and dad fell in love over "Star Trek" and books like Dune and authors like Octavia Butler. That was part of our childhood growing up. 

For me, telling stories about Black male vulnerability, celebrating figures like LeVar Burton — who played everyone from Kunta Kinte to Geordi La Forge on "Star Trek" — stepping into spaces of fatherhood that are rarely depicted. On songs like "Braid My Hair," I'm doing the primary caregiving and caretaking of my daughter's crown. 

Those things are very much rooted both in Afrofuturism and in our daily practice as Black people surviving and thriving in this country, which was not designed to happen. So, I think Afrofuturism shows up in a lot of different ways, and it shows up in my family on a daily basis. That's what I tried to communicate through the album. 

Nnenna: I also think that if you really want to look at the future, you need look no further than the youngest person in the room. We create these multiple futures by what we do in these moments that we have. It's not out there; it's right here.

I'm so proud of my son for activating this space, that is a nontraditional place to look for Black men.

Tell me about your experiences working on the record together.

Pierce: Going back to my dad and thinking about my previous album, D.a.D, it really was rooted in a grieving practice — which was connected to digging through the archives.

When my dad was ill, one of the activities we shared was looking at old family videos — VHS and Hi8 tapes. It was kind of a nostalgic grieving ritual that we did together. No music whatsoever — just sharing a moment and memory with my dad. At that point in his struggle with ALS, he was wheelchair-bound. 

But at the same time, as a creator and creative, digging through these archives was sparking a lot of ideas. I was finding things in these old tapes that were ripe for sampling, transformation and reinvention. One of those things was a tape of Mom in eastern North Carolina in 1980-something, singing a song as part of a residency at a school.

The song was really pretty and felt timeless. [Sings and snaps with jazzy cadence] "No one exactly like me/ No one exactly like you." I was like, "Mom, tell me about this! Did you ever record or release this?" It was this relic. She had forgotten about recording it. It was that old.

Digging into those archives and sampling them was part of my practice for Black to the Future. Also, bringing my mom and this lullaby she sang into the future.

Nnenna, I keep thinking about something you said in our last interview — how one needs to propagate grief like a plant with any containers you can, of any size. It seems like both of these albums were vessels of that sort.

Nnenna: Indeed they were. 

I came to music as a live performer. The recording part of what I do came after I developed as a live performer. Of course, now, there are artists who come to music through recording and they've never been on a stage until after the record comes out — and maybe never! There are some people who spend their entire creative lives in a virtual space, and they don't travel.

Pierce really helped me think about a new way of putting this music out there with Time Traveler, using my husband's voice. Incorporating his loving message to me. In that way, the record really became an instrument of time travel. The track ["Time Traveler"] opens with Phil's voice talking to me, even though he's on the other side of the veil. 

It isn't something I would have necessarily gravitated to without Pierce supporting and saying, "Yeah, Mom, yeah! This would be great!"

What's it like to hear Phil's voice these days?

Nnenna: It's a joy for me. He could see his death coming, but he thought, "Let me drop this piece of sweetness for my honey for a time she's really going to need it." He had to think of doing that. For me, it's a super-sweet moment when I hear his voice.

Pierce: I'd have to agree. Around when he passed away, it definitely choked me up. There have been times when a song popped up in a playlist that I didn't expect, and I'll hear his voice. I always smile.

We're at my mom's house right now, which my dad designed. As I pulled up, I felt his presence. I just said [Casually]"Hey, Dad." As if he were here, and he is here. His energy's here.

When I encounter him sonically, energetically, spiritually; when I walk into one of his buildings; when I hear one of his quotes; it's as if he were still here in the physical realm. And I speak to him and relate to him in that casual tone. It's very familiar, and I treat it as a real, human encounter.

I wish you all the best with the GRAMMYs ceremony coming up. Are you guys going?

Nnenna: Yes, we're going. I thought for a moment that maybe I wouldn't, but I have a super-handsome man to walk on the red carpet with.

Pierce: Eyyy!

Nnenna: Somebody that I love. My boo! You have me on one side; you have your beautiful wife on the other side! People are going to be like, "Man, how can we get it like Pierce has it?"

Pierce: I went to the GRAMMYs a ton as a kid, when my mom was nominated in the '90s and early 2000s. This is something I'm really looking forward to and excited about.

How psyched would Phil be about this?

Nnenna: Listen: he's laughing right now. One of the things he really, really wanted me to do was keep singing. He is happy, happy, happy right now.

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Nnenna & Pierce Freelon
Nnenna & Pierce Freelon

Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for The Recording Academy


Family Matters: Watch Mother-Son Duo Nnenna & Pierce Freelon Celebrate Their 2024 Best Children’s Album Nomination

Nnenna and Pierce Freelon discuss their approach to making intergenerational art and the honor of receiving their first GRAMMY nomination together for their collaborative children’s album, ‘AnceStars,’ at the 2024 GRAMMYs.

GRAMMYs/Apr 18, 2024 - 10:52 pm

American musician Pierce Freelon first attended the GRAMMY Awards in the '90s when his mother, jazz artist Nnenna Freelon, received her first nominations. More than two decades later, Pierce and Nnenna shared a full-circle moment at the 2024 GRAMMYs award ceremony when they received a joint nod for their children's album, AnceStars.

"It's not something you can make happen. It's not something you can make up," Nnenna said in an interview for the newest episode of Family Matters.

They spurred the idea for AnceStars after they presented at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards: "It was such an awesome experience, we said, 'You know what? We need to do a record together." When they heard they received a nomination for their project, there were "tears of joy."

"I'm bursting with pride," Nnenna declares. "This is a moment." His mother shared the sentiment adding, "I'm proud of Mom. It's cool to be in a career that is purpose-aligned."

Nnenna and Pierce also introduced their next generation to the beauty of collaboration. Pierce's daughter, Stella, appeared on AnceStars and had the opportunity to attend the ceremony with her father and grandmother, as Pierce did in the '90s.

Press play on the video above to learn more about Nnenna and Pierce Freelon's nomination for Best Children's Album at this year's GRAMMY ceremony, and check back to for more new episodes of Family Matters.

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Autumn Rowe at the 2023 GRAMMYs
Autumn Rowe at the 2023 GRAMMYs.

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Acclaimed songwriter Autumn Rowe reveals the inspirational location where her Album Of The Year golden gramophone resides, and details the "really funny way" she first met Jon Batiste.

GRAMMYs/Apr 10, 2024 - 08:33 pm

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"It reminds me that anything is possible," she says in the latest episode of Where Do You Keep Your GRAMMY?

Rowe won her first-ever career GRAMMY in 2022 with an Album Of The Year award for Jon Batiste's We Are. "It was very stressful," she recalls with a laugh.

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The win also taught her one unforgettable, valuable lesson: "We matter. The music matters. Everything matters. We just have to create it. If there isn't space for it, we have to make space for it. Don't wait for something to open."

Rowe says she grew up "super dirt poor" and never even had the opportunity to watch the awards ceremony on television. "To be a GRAMMY winner means it is possible for everyone," she declares.

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Doja Cat & SZA GRAMMY Rewind Hero
(L-R) Doja Cat and SZA at the 2022 GRAMMYs.

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy


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Relive the moment the pair's hit "Kiss Me More" took home Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, which marked the first GRAMMY win of their careers.

GRAMMYs/Mar 1, 2024 - 06:11 pm

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Doja Cat walked in with eight nominations, while SZA entered the ceremony with five. Three of those respective nods were for their 2021 smash "Kiss Me More," which ultimately helped the superstars win their first GRAMMYs.

In this episode of GRAMMY Rewind, revisit the night SZA and Doja Cat accepted the golden gramophone for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance — a milestone moment that Doja Cat almost missed.

"Listen. I have never taken such a fast piss in my whole life," Doja Cat quipped after beelining to the stage. "Thank you to everybody — my family, my team. I wouldn't be here without you, and I wouldn't be here without my fans."

Before passing the mic to SZA, Doja also gave a message of appreciation to the "Kill Bill" singer: "You are everything to me. You are incredible. You are the epitome of talent. You're a lyricist. You're everything."

SZA began listing her praises for her mother, God, her supporters, and, of course, Doja Cat. "I love you! Thank you, Doja. I'm glad you made it back in time!" she teased.

"I like to downplay a lot of s— but this is a big deal," Doja tearfully concluded. "Thank you, everybody."

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Baby Keem GRAMMY Rewind Hero
Baby Keem (left) at the 2022 GRAMMYs.

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GRAMMY Rewind: Watch Baby Keem Celebrate "Family Ties" During Best Rap Performance Win In 2022

Revisit the moment budding rapper Baby Keem won his first-ever gramophone for Best Rap Performance at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards for his Kendrick Lamar collab "Family Ties."

GRAMMYs/Feb 23, 2024 - 05:50 pm

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In this episode of GRAMMY Rewind, turn the clock back to the night Baby Keem accepted Best Rap Performance for "Family Ties," marking the first GRAMMY win of his career.

"Wow, nothing could prepare me for this moment," Baby Keem said at the start of his speech.

He began listing praise for his "supporting system," including his family and "the women that raised me and shaped me to become the man I am."

Before heading off the stage, he acknowledged his team, who "helped shape everything we have going on behind the scenes," including Lamar. "Thank you everybody. This is a dream."

Baby Keem received four nominations in total at the 2022 GRAMMYs. He was also up for Best New Artist, Best Rap Song, and Album Of The Year as a featured artist on Kanye West's Donda.

Press play on the video above to watch Baby Keem's complete acceptance speech for Best Rap Performance at the 2022 GRAMMYs, and check back to for more new episodes of GRAMMY Rewind.

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