J. Cole, NC jazz singer and her son among 2021 Grammy nominees

North Carolina will be well represented at the Grammy Awards in January with some repeat nominees, winners and even a mother and son nominated in two different categories.

Nominations for the 64th Grammy Awards were announced in 86 categories on Tuesday. The awards will be presented Jan. 31, on CBS.

Durham jazz singer Nnenna Freelon, who has been nominated for several Grammys before, is nominated this year for “Time Traveler” in the Best Jazz Vocal Album category.

Pierce Freelon, her son and an outgoing member of the Durham City Council, is nominated for Best Children’s Album for “Black to the Future.” He also contributed a song on the Grammy-nominated album, “All One Tribe,” in the same category.

“I mean, it’s a whole family smorgasbord here,” said Nnenna Freelon with a laugh during a phone interview Wednesday with The News & Observer.

“Can I tell you how sweet this moment is?” she said. “To imagine myself walking down the red carpet with my son. You can’t make this stuff up. … And we’re both nominees!”

Durham singer Rissi Palmer also contributed a song to the nominated children’s albums, “All One Tribe,” by the 1 Tribe Collective as well as a song to “Activate” by 123 Andrés.

Durham duo Sylvan Esso was nominated for Best Dance/Electronic Music Album for “Free Love.” This is their second nomination, following 2017’s “What Now” in the same category.

The Triangle-based producer 9th Wonder is nominated for Best Progressive R&B Album for his work on the collaborative EP, “Dinner Party: Dessert.”

J. Cole, who grew up in Fayetteville and lives in the Triangle, earned three nominations, including Best Rap Album for “The Off-Season.” Cole earned his first Grammy Award in 2020 after several nominations.

Roots musician Rhiannon Giddens, who grew up in Greensboro and went to the N.C. School of Science and Math in Durham, earned two nominations. She is nominated for Best Folk Album with Francesco Turrisi for “They’re Calling Me Home.” Both are nominated alongside songwriter Justin Robinson for Best American Roots Song for “Avalon.”

Country superstar Luke Combs nabbed a nomination for Best Country Solo Performance for “Forever After All.”

Mother-son nominees

For the Freelon family, learning of their nominations Tuesday was bittersweet, joyful and surreal.

Both Freelons honor Phil Freelon — Nnenna’s late husband and Pierce’s father — in significant ways on their respective albums. Phil Freelon, a famed architect who designed the National Museum of African American History and Culture, died in 2019 from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Nnenna Freelon’s “Time Traveler,” her first album in 11 years, has been described a “sonic love letter” to her husband of 40 years. The mix of jazz, soul and originals serves as a soundtrack to their relationship and the memories they shared together.

Pierce Freelon’s album includes archival audio from family videos and tapes, so his father’s voice is present in the album’s title track, “Black to the Future.”

Nnenna Freelon’s nomination is the sixth in her career with the first in 1996.

“It was really a way to heal a part of me that was frankly broken,” she said of the album. And what I learned through the process is when you reach for your own healing, you open the door for others.”

“At this point, being recognized by my peers, for what seemed like such a personal reach, is extraordinary,” she said. “I was honestly not expecting a nomination for this. I was very very happy and content and proud of having put something so honest out in the world. The nomination came as confirmation to me that Phil, wherever he is, was actively advocating for this sweet moment for our family.”

Sweet indeed, but first came the tears, said Pierce Freelon, who broke the news of the family’s nominations to his mother through sobs. She had been walking the dog and not paying attention to the nomination announcements while her son was anxiously following them, cheering for both his fellow nominees and his own success.

“Of course I was happy for my friends, I was happy for the 1 Tribe Collective,” he told The N&O Wednesday. “And of course, super proud to really step into a legacy and a foundation that my mom laid for me in this music space, to be Grammy-nominated.”

The nomination also felt “redemptive,” he said. He had released his debut album, “D.a.D,” in 2020, to critical acclaim. He had hoped then that he would be nominated at that time. He was disappointed when he was passed over, but was even more frustrated that the slate of nominees didn’t have any artists of color among them.

“During a year where there was this kind of beautiful, diverse rich spectrum of voices of color who had submitted compelling albums, the return that we got from the Grammy nominating committee was just a narrow view of what children’s music is,” he said.

This year was different with nominees including a Latin duo (123 Andrés), a collaborative of 24 Black musicians (1 Tribe Collective), a singer born in India (Falu), and a bilingual husband-and-wife duo (Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band).

“Just a complete reversal,” he said. “I have to name that. That was dope. Even if I didn’t get nominated, a slate this diverse after last year just felt like a victory.”

And then came his mother’s nomination, her first since 2005. He called her nomination the “highlight of my day.”

“Since I was nine years old, it’s like, ‘Oh my mom has been nominated for a Grammy,’” he said. “It was always a source of pride and something people associated with her identity. They used to call it ‘Grammy Nomi-nneena.’”

Both Freelons described feeling Phil in those precise moments. Nnenna said it was as if her husband was “activating” the moment for the family. She joked that he was “given to excess” with the multiple nominations.

Pierce Freelon described feeling “possessed by the spirit of my father” and said he couldn’t control his reaction. It was a moment like he had never felt before.

“It was an uncontrollable, involuntary convulsion of what I can only describe as deep gratitude and unbridled joy for her,” he said. “And for us. And for him. I know how he feels about this moment.”

Both say they’ll continue to feel Phil’s presence when they attend the awards.

But first, there are some other matters to sort out: what will they wear?

Nominees with North Carolina ties

Best Dance/Electronic Music Album: “Free Love,” Sylvan Esso

Best Progressive R&B Album: “Dinner Party: Dessert,” Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, 9th Wonder & Kamasi Washington

Best Rap Performance: “M Y . L I F E,” J. Cole Featuring 21 Savage & Morray

Best Melodic Rap Performance: “P R I D E . I S . T H E . D E V I L,” J. Cole Featuring Lil Baby

Best Rap Song: “M Y . L I F E,” Shéyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph & Jermaine Cole, songwriters (J. Cole Featuring 21 Savage & Morray)

Best Rap Album: “The Off-Season,” J. Cole

Best Country Solo Performance: “Forever After All,” Luke Combs

Best Jazz Vocal Album: “Time Traveler,” Nnenna Freelon

Best American Roots Song: “Avalon,” Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson & Francesco Turrisi, songwriters (Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi)

Best Folk Album: “They’re Calling Me Home,” Rhiannon Giddens With Francesco Turrisi

Best Children’s Music Album:

  • “Black To The Future,” Pierce Freelon
  • “Activate,” 123 Andrés (Durham singer Rissi Palmer contributed “I Just Can’t Sit Down.”)
  • “All One Tribe,” 1 Tribe Collective (Pierce Freelon contributed “Cootie Shot” and Palmer contributed “Little Black Boy, Little Black Girl.”)

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Jessica Banov is a breaking news and features editor. She is the Mid-Day Breaking News Editor for the Southeast region. She oversees coverage of entertainment, the arts, food and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun.

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