Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon
Ladies and gentlemen, Nnenna Freelon.
She needs no introduction.
The Durham, North Carolina-based six-time Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist, music educator, arts advocate, producer, and arranger is a whole vibe.
She puts fire, passion, jazz, blues, gospel, sultry soul, poetry, and a whole lot of “stank,” respectfully, on everything she intricately touches. She exudes her power through her femininity and Blackness with enviable poise and can’t help but command a room whether she finds herself. Whether that is on the countless stages that she graces with her buoyant presence over the decades or when she explores her latest endeavors, “Great Grief,” her podcast where she tackles love and loss. Her inspiration for the show came after her acclaimed husband, Phil Freelon, one of the most cherished Black architects in U.S. history, died of ALS in 2019.
Freelon, 66, a proud mother to three children (newsworthy successes in their own right) and grandmother to six, told the Michigan Chronicle during a recent interview that her life has many highs (including awards and accolades and lows especially with her husband’s death and her sister’s, Debbie, in 2020 to cancer.
“It’s like looking through a kaleidoscope. You see different things,” she said of grief.
Freelon, a creative by nature, can’t help but use her talents to turn some of the hardest pain points in her life into expressions of art that others can glean from and relate to.
“People are relieved to know they can be creative, can dance with their grief,” Freelon said adding that some people in the Black community can feel “ashamed” about still mourning their loved one’s passing, and through her podcast, she wants to get the message out that it’s OK.
“(It is important to) be creative in this thing that is a part of life – this thing called grief,” she said adding that death is normal. “Don’t nobody come here to stay. How we deal with it in the vacuum of someone’s passing determines the quality of life we have.”
And what a life Freelon has.
Behind the Name and Fame
Freelon’s name, “Nnenna,” is of Nigerian origin, and comes from one of the country’s three main ethnic groups, the Igbo tribe. It means, gift of God, she said of the apt name her mother chose for her.
“My mother was ahead of her time,” Freelon, who has no Nigerian affiliation, said.
Raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts by Southern sharecropper parents (part of the Great Migration) were looking for a way out, she said.
The middle-class, mixed neighborhood she grew up in encompassed Italian, Jewish, and Greek neighbors – often a lot of first-generation residents.
“I grew up with a lot of newly transplanted southerners and … I had an up south upbringing — those people who came to Cambridge brought their food and worship southern traditions with them,” she said adding that although she ate Boston baked beans there were collard greens and cannoli’s, too. “All part of my very rich upbringing.”
There were some tough times, too.
“Was there racism? Yes. Did people call you the N-word? Yeah. But we were raised in a community that made all the kids feel … that there wasn’t nothing we couldn’t do,” she said, adding that her parents found that truth in their own way, too.
“In coming north, they discovered Black is beautiful and they had options in terms of their dreams and their wishes, and they both started businesses,” she said of her successful parents. “We are the children and grandchildren of people who had dreams beyond being a sharecropper.”
Concrete and Steel
She knows about dreams realized and came to Detroit recently to see hers and her late husband’s unfold.
Detroit’s newest multi-use housing complex, nestled in Midtown, recently brought 68 units online in the city’s historic Sugar Hill neighborhood.
In late September in the Sugar Hill Arts District, city and area officials broke ground on The Freelon at Sugar Hill, a multi-use housing complex at 119 Garfield St, which Sonya Mays, president & CEO of Develop Detroit Inc., headed up.
The $38 million housing project from Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH) and Develop Detroit includes housing for Detroit residents and deeply affordable units for veterans, as well as commercial space for entrepreneurs. The project replaces a vacant lot at Garfield near John R with 11,900 square feet of retail space and a 160-space parking garage.
The building is named in honor of Phil Freelon and was one of the last developments that he worked on before his death. Nnenna Freelon attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony and spoke on the impact that the housing complex will have going forward.
“My husband was a dream builder. He was a listener. … Before we agreed on concrete and steel and other materials, there were dreams. Dreams that included the least of us. … dreams that included those who do not have a roof over their heads. Because we know that justice begins with home,” she said during the event.
Freelon said during the recent interview that it felt like her husband was “alive in the space” to her.
Heart, Hearth and Home
Their shared life together (they met through a mutual friend when she was 23 and he was 26) was filled with a lot of love, dreams, and hopes.
“When I met him (there were) proverbial sparks – we talked all night and had so many people in common,” she said. “It just felt like that little voice saying, ‘This is the one.”
The couple, before the fame, learned about compromise and compassion and grew.
“I was a baby, he was too,” she said of their young ages. “We had nothing. He had no (architecture) firm (then) – he had a bucket full of dreams,” she said adding that their young children down the road were born and she was a stay-at-home mother and sang around the house before she became famous for her vocal skills.
“I was a stay-at-home mom all through the ‘80s with a husband who encouraged me to face my dreams,” she said. “I had to figure out how to weave my dreams of mothering and singing together.”
Freelon successfully learned how to navigate and tells others, no matter how busy they are, to do the same.
“How do you figure out how to develop skills you don’t have so when your dreams start bearing fruit you can be ready to step up into that space,” she said. “You can make a plan to add to your own treasure – nobody is stopping you from doing that.”
Freelon did just that and when there was not a lot of money to go around she had musicians rehearse at her house and she would pay them in spaghetti and meatballs.
“I would rehearse when babies were asleep and practice very quietly so as not to wake them up,” she said. “It would not have happened without the support and encouragement of Phil. Love is a noun and a verb … it is an action and place – it is not just something you say. …It’s not me versus you it’s us. Everything (we) brought home to the hearth. If there’s a takeaway it’s that (our) dreams were comingling and (we were) rising together.”
The second season of Great Grief premieres in November.
For more information visit greatgrief.com.