Pierce Freelon and The Beast to perform at AoA
By Reggie Ponder
Saturday, May 25, 2019
The jazz and hip-hop band Pierce Freelon and The Beast will bring both an eclectic sound and some history about African-American music to Elizabeth City Tuesday night.
The free concert at Arts of the Albemarle’s Maguire Theater begins at 7 p.m.
“We’re really looking forward to it,” Freelon said in a phone interview on Friday. “I hope we have a packed house of curious listeners who are both entertained and informed about the kind of continuity of this (musical) tradition.”
Although most of the band’s shows are in larger cities up and down the East Coast, Freelon and The Beast also makes a point to get into rural communities — especially in his home state of North Carolina. The group has performed on Ocracoke Island and in Boone, and numerous other communities in the rural eastern and western portions of the state.
A resident of Durham — he’s the son of Durham’s Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon — Freelon said about 10 percent of Freelon and The Beast’s concerts take place in smaller communities in North Carolina.
Freelon, who is an African-American studies professor at both UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. Central University, said Tuesday’s concert will provide audience members with something of a historical trip through African-American music, starting with spirituals, continuing with the blues and jazz, and moving on to hip-hop. The concert also will highlight hip-hop’s roots in other art forms such as poetry.
“Both hip-hop and jazz are part of a continuum of African-American cultural expression,” Freelon said.
Even though he was not a musician, the late Muhammad Ali is revered in the hip-hop community because he introduced a larger audience to a rap tradition that went back generations in the African-American community, Freelon said. And a number of important jazz albums in the 1960s and 70s by artists such as Oscar Brown Jr. contained elements of rap and hip-hop, he said.
James Brown also was an important precursor of later hip-hop with his “percussive” singing style, Freelon said.
“It didn’t just spring out of nowhere,” Freelon said of contemporary hip-hop. “That’s what we hope to illustrate.”
About a third of the concert Tuesday will be original material but the bulk of the show will be standards from African-American music that range from spirituals and blues to jazz and hip-hop, he said.
“You’re going to hear a lot of songs that you recognize and maybe a few that you don’t,” Freelon said.
The show will be “book-ended” at the start and close by original works that are “genre-bending,” he said.
Freelon said the band’s name has a multi-layered meaning. Drawing on a Marvel Comics character “The Beast” from the X-Men series, the name is also a colloquial term for an outstanding athlete or someone who is extremely accomplished in their field. It also plays on sociopolitical references such as the phrase “belly of the beast.”
In the case of the Marvel reference, Freelon said creator Stan Lee commented that the Beast was one of a number of characters inspired by the American Civil Rights movement.
Freelon said the Beast was a world-class scientist who was feared because of his outward appearance, and the comic emphasized the theme of prejudice and fear based on appearance.
“As an African-American man in America I could always relate to that character,” Freelon said.