Pierce Freelon on Why Dad Stories Matter
Image by Dalvin Nichols
Pierce Freelon is a musician, author, professor, Dad-joke teller, beefy-macaroni-nacho-maker, a midday napper, and—most importantly—proud father to Justice and Stella. This multi-talented Grammy-nominated dad counts “fatherhood” as one of his most creative endeavors. In fact, it’s what inspires nearly all of what he does! So, in honor of Father’s Day—and the recent release of Freelon’s latest picture book Daddy and Me, Side by Side, we asked Freelon all about the day-to-day creativity of parenting, the lasting impact of fathers, and the power of Dad Stories. Here’s what he had to say.
Happiest Baby: You’ve described parenthood as a creative endeavor. When and how did that eureka moment strike?
Pierce Freelon: I came home from the park one evening with two hot and sweaty kids and opened the fridge to find there was nothing but a bunch of random leftovers: a big pan of mac and cheese, a half-eaten burger, some black beans, and a few other random items. The kids were starving and there wasn’t enough of any one thing for a full meal, so I improvised. I cut the burgers into tiny pieces and spread them over a tray of tortilla chips. I layered the mac and cheese on top with beans and threw it all in the oven. After a few minutes, they were eating a heaping plate of Daddy’s Beefy Macaroni Nachos (trademark pending), topped with some salsa and cilantro.
It occurred to me that my culinary art required some of the same tools that I use in my other creative pursuits. I had to think on my toes, use my imagination, know my audience, and have lots of practice to whip up that meal. Writing a song, a podcast, or a book requires you to explore the refrigerator of words, stories, and ideas to create something that kids will enjoy. I believe that all parenting is creative, whether you’re making dinner, coming up with a bedtime story, or thinking of what to say to soothe your child when they’ve scraped their knee.
HB: Your own father died in 2019 after struggling with ALS. Can you share what it was about that experience that compelled you to put your debut children’s album D.a.D out into the world?
PF: When my dad’s health began to decline, my life came to a screeching halt. I stopped “doing” stuff like traveling, performing, and lecturing and I started “being”—being with my dad, my thoughts, and my feelings. That time of intimacy, reflection, and slowness revealed a body of work that I had been ignoring: children’s music. Songs about fatherhood, love, and family that I had been writing since my kids were really little, but never released.
HB: Was children’s music on your radar before then?
PF: Children’s music was on my radar because an amazing artist named Rissi Palmer lived in my community. Her album Best Day Ever was a staple in our household. After my father passed, [I experienced] an outpouring of creativity that I used to sew the broken pieces of myself back together. The outcome was my first children’s music album D.a.D and the beginnings of my Grammy nominated sophomore album, Black to the Future.
HB: Your first book, Daddy-Daughter Day, was born from a song of the same title after a publisher heard you and Stella on NPR. Can you share how your second book came to be?
PF: Daddy and Me, Side by Side came to me a few months after my dad passed away. I was driving my son to school and randomly decided to take a detour to the Eno River in Durham. We hiked for over an hour, listening to the birds and frogs, climbing trees, and basking in the sun. We talked about my father and nature, and the universe, then we got some food, and I dropped him off at school super-late. It occurred to me later that the intimate moments we shared, talking about our ancestors, being vulnerable about our feelings, and spending quality time together in nature as father and son—without mom or his sister—was a story that deserved to be told.
HB: Why do kids and families need more dad stories—and, more specifically, more Black dad stories?
PF: In American culture, women and moms are stereotypically seen as nurturing caregivers, not dads. So much so, that I used to get awkward compliments for doing basic things, like taking my kids for a walk in the park or doing my grocery shopping with babies in tow. “Wow you’re such a great dad,” people would say. I guess they weren’t used to seeing a young dad occupy those roles. I think perceptions have changed in recent years, but we still don’t see enough fathers portrayed in the media as loving, empathetic, primary caregivers, particularly not enough Black men. This lack of representation is harmful and shifting the narrative is part of my Afrofuturist practice. In my books Black men nurture, Black men cry, Black men frolic.
HB: Can you describe storytime with your children when they were small? What was your favorite part?
PF: My stories are always improvised and interactive. My kids participate in the storytelling process by giving me ideas and making choices for the main characters. I usually end stories with having to peel myself away from my daughter, who prefers to cling to me like a vice grip if she’s still awake at the end of the story.
Freelon with daughter Stella | Photo by Shoot With Bliss
HB: Listening to children’s music together is often a staple of parenting small children. Have you been able to keep that alive as the kids get older?
PF: My kids are in middle school and luckily, they still listen to my music! I call it “family music” because I want the kids, parents, and grandparents all rocking with it. Some music is universal in a wonderful way: Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” Beyonce’s “Brown Skin Girl,” Pharrell’s “Happy” — all these songs have lyrics that are appropriate for all ages, with incredible music, and are great for all ages to enjoy. That’s what I strive to create when I write family music, and so far, my kids haven’t ditched me.
HB: How will you be spending this Father’s Day?
PF: This Father’s Day I will be performing at the Levitt in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. When I get home, I will likely celebrate with a nap.
HB: Can you give us your best Dad joke?
PF: I’m on a seafood diet. I see food and eat it!
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