Durham County

Pierce Freelon plans to bring hip-hop, youth to the Durham mayoral race

Pierce Freelon
Pierce Freelon

Local rapper Pierce Freelon’s musical colleagues are officially on notice that he’ll seek their talents to support his recently announced campaign for mayor.

“If you have played a gig with me or festival with me, I’ll be calling you and asking you to perform with me,” said Freelon, 33, leader of the jazz hip-hop band The Beast and founder of Blackspace, a digital maker space where young people learn about music, film and coding.

Freelon wants other musicians help to get an artist into office.

“That should be my slogan,” he said. “Artist in office.”

The statements mark how Freelon hopes to shake up the election and mobilize a young base, compared to his more politically experienced opponents who may stick to the traditional methods.

“We’ll be doing concerts. We’ll be kind of aggressively targeting and listening to and building solidarity with young organizers and young artists, and kind of the next generation of Durham voters,” Freelon said. Freelon also plans to do knock on doors and pitch to political actions committees, he said.

Freelon is the third candidate to announce he’s running to succeed Mayor Bill Bell, who’s stepping down after serving 16 years.

City Councilman Steve Schewel, 66, and former City Councilman Farad Ali, 50, have also indicated they will seek the two-year mayoral seat. Candidates don’t officially register until July for the fall election.

Schewel, a visiting assistant professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, served on the Durham school board from 2004 to 2008 and was elected to his first term on the City Council in 2011.

Ali, chief executive officer of the minority business development organization The Institute, was elected to the City Council in 2007, but didn’t seek re-election. He is currently vice-chair of the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority Board.

While the mayor has one vote on the seven-member City Council, the mayor’s leadership has historically set the tone for the city, Bell has said.

The change in leadership comes as Durham continues its nationally recognized transformation from a university-town with a blighted downtown to a technology-driven urban hub with foodie restaurants and movements recognized by multiple publications, most recently Vogue.

The shift is leaving some behind, pricing renters and longtime homeowners out of their neighborhoods and bringing in jobs that they don’t have the skills to fill.

Promoting inclusive change and working to tie together the various facets of Durham’s population appears to be the buzz phrase for the fall election, and Freelon’s campaign will be no different, he said.

“The time for young leadership, for changing of the guard, for new ideas and new perspectives and new folks to have a seat at the table, that time is now,” said Freelon, a Durham native who has taught at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. Central University.

A camera man has been following Freelon to some of his initial campaign activities as Freelon is exploring creating a documentary or web series from the experience.

“What we are trying to do right now is just capture and film all aspects of the campaign on the chance that if something happens we didn’t miss an opportunity to capture an important moment,” he said.

Freelon is the son of jazz singer and composer Nnenna Freelon and renowned architect Phil Freelon, principal architect of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C.

Omar Beasley, chair of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, said all the candidates will bring something interesting to the race, but ultimately it’s about getting people to the polls.

They’ll also have to work for endorsements from Durham’s three political action committees, the People’s Alliance, the Friends of Durham and the Durham Committee.

“Durham is one of those towns where PACs rule the day,” Beasley said.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges