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How a mother and son turned their grief into Grammy-nominated albums

Nnenna and Pierce Freelon put grief and love into their respective albums. The result: nominations for both of them.

Nnenna and Pierce Freelon are making the Grammys a next-level family affair.

While Pierce is rooting for his mom, who is nominated for Best Vocal Jazz Album, her sixth nomination, this year she’s reciprocating the support: Pierce is vying for Best Children’s Album, his first nomination.

The duo, who are the first mother and son to be individually nominated in different categories in the same year, call the double Grammy nods a “beautiful coincidence.” 

Nnenna and Pierce Freelon told TODAY Parents that their Grammy nods are an added bonus to the albums that helped them find closure.
Nnenna and Pierce Freelon told TODAY Parents that their Grammy nods are an added bonus to the albums that helped them find closure.Samantha Everette

“You can’t make this stuff up,” Nnenna said. “There’s been music in the household all along. But this moment is so special. For us, we’re both sort of moving on our path, doing our thing, creating a record around family, and around the importance of family, and that both projects be nominated in different categories in the same year is astounding.”

Nnenna and Pierce told TODAY Parents in a Zoom interview that as joyous as this moment is for them, it’s also a reminder of the deep loss they share. Phil Freelon, Nnenna’s late husband and Pierce’s dad, passed away in 2019. Both Freelons say their respective albums are love letters to Phil, and were a way to both grieve and find closure. 

Music was always present

In the Freelon household, Nnenna says music was always a way to connect with her three children. 

“When Pierce was just a tiny, tiny little one, music was one of the ways that I connected my mothering energy, my nurturing energy. You know there’s the bath time ritual — getting in the tub and getting all lathered up … and then a story, and then a song. Man, he’s the youngest. There are three kids. Didn’t each one of them want their own story? ... It was like a performance every night,” Nnenna recalls.

The nightly concerts capped off long days as a professional musician and Nnenna earned five Grammy nominations for "Best Vocal Jazz Album" between 1996 and 2005. Nnenna said she took Pierce and his siblings to the Grammys with her a few times. Pierce said his mom's musical success inspired him and previewed what a career in music entails.

“Music was just her job. So when I was growing up, I had to do homework backstage at the theater, sometimes in the dressing room. And I got to meet and hang out with musicians who were like uncles and aunts who felt like a part of our family,” Pierce said. “I think being immersed in that culture really showed me that it was possible, and it felt like a very natural and intuitive place for me to go.”

Nnenna and Pierce Freelon performing together
Nnenna and Pierce Freelon performing togetherJade Wilson

The pair have a duet on Pierce’s album and Nnenna said “it feels intentional from a spiritual place” to earn nominations in the same year.

‘Grief is an extension of love’

Nnenna said her album “Time Travel” includes songs that memorialize experiences with her husband.

“He’s in my heart all the time,” Nnenna said, speaking lovingly of her long marriage with Phil. “If people look at me and see someone who they think is strong — I don’t know if it’s strength they see. I don’t feel like Superwoman strong. I feel like I’ve been loved. I’ve been loved so hard for 40 years that it’s on my face. It’s in my bones.”

She decided to put love and grief into the album because “there is no freedom if you don’t grieve. There’s no freedom in pretending your heart isn’t hurting, but what to do … with all that feeling. You got to do something with it,” she said.

Phil and Nnenna Freelon were married almost 40 years until he died just months before their anniversary.
Phil and Nnenna Freelon were married almost 40 years until he died just months before their anniversary.Katina Parker

Pierce said the influence of his father on his Afrofuturistic children’s album “Black To The Future” cannot be overstated.

“Grieving his death was a place where creativity became healing for us. Losing my dad really made me reflect on fatherhood and the joy and abundance and love and creativity that he poured into me. Grief is … an extension of love.”

'You forget these are children'

Pierce’s album includes archival audio tapings of his father, his late grandmother Francis Pierce, and his two kids (who he shares with wife Kathryn Freelon), putting their family history onto tracks. He said since dropping the album, families have reached out to him sharing how much they connect with him as a Black millennial dad.

He said he made his children’s album specifically for Black kids because they often have to grow up fast and regularly have “the talk” about being Black in a racist country. With the heaviness that brings, he said, “you forget these are children.”

“I want Black children to see themselves as children and to celebrate their childhood,” he said. “They deserve the opportunity to sit in their joy and their silliness and their goofiness and to see themselves as people who can grow up and thrive,” and that’s what he hopes people remember after listening to the album.

For Black boys in particular, he made the song “Vulnerable” about healthy habits of expressing emotions without fear of being perceived as soft.

“As a young Black millennial man, we don’t often talk to each other, as brothers, about vulnerability. You’re discouraged, from your uncles and a lot of other rap, male role models, especially in popular culture, from being vulnerable or being perceived as weak," he said. "And that is to our detriment in our relationships and our fathering and our partnerships.” 

Through his music, Pierce said his goal is to “make sure that we pass forward the healthy values that are going to make us a whole people.”

That path to wholeness includes accepting love and grief. Nnenna said she's been surprised by how much people have related to her album.

"I thought this was my grief, my moment, my husband, my situation. Come to find out, it's a universal longing for your loved one to be seen, to be appreciated ... and that was a shock to me because I did not do this trying to pull a nomination. I did this trying to heal my broken heart."

Nnenna and Pierce are planning to attend the 64th Annual Grammy Awards show on Sunday, April 3, and, when asked if his mom was his date, Pierce beamed at his mother.

“Let’s do it,” he said, adding, “well, just to be clear, my wife is coming with me.”

Nnenna agreed: “No. 1 is the wife ... but you can rest assured I got the other arm.”