Great Grief! When I heard the title of Nnenna Freelon's podcast, I thought finally someone is telling the truth. I know good grief is an ironic expression meant to underscore difficulty but grief in my experience has never been good, not even in an ironic way. At least not in the moment. Nope. I hate Grief, and she hates me. That hate is current, visceral and debilitating.
I've been an editor at Scalawag for seven years. In that time, my heart has been flattened by the loss and inhumanity I've read about: the devastating effects of abuse, transphobia, misogynoir, gutted dreams, and swallowed screams of our contributors who know suffering intimately. Emailing with contributors who are being cooked to death inside Texas prisons or praying for medical procedures desperately needed and repeatedly denied. Oftentimes I have to close my laptop, close my eyes, and rest my head on the table before I can go on with editing.
Oddly, it's in working with the authors of the grief & other loves essays that I often catch my breath. As I sit down every month and bear witness to their profound reconstituting losses, I am struck by the the clarity of attention and their capaciousness to bear life.
People who label this as strength misspeak. What they are witnessing—what I am witnessing—is creativity at work. A certain inclination towards improvisation oftentimes born when death and/or life doesn't give you any options and playing by the rules ain't gonna work.
That is why I was excited to sit down with Nnenna Freelon, the multi-Grammy award nominated jazz vocalist, to talk about Great Grief. This listening experience takes us along on Nnenna's grief journey following the deaths of her husband, architect Philip Freelon, and her younger sister.
Great Grief is a creative outpouring of stories made from the sensations of grief. Rather than trying to make sense of grief, this expansive musical—wandering through love, loss, memory and prophecy—creates space for as much wonder as wondering.
The podcast first debuted on WUNC public radio in 2021, but finds a natural home at Scalawag this August.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Nnenna Freelon: I think we're confused basically fundamentally about what grief is. What is grief? It truly is love. It truly is creativity. I'm trying to find a way to fall back in love with life. I'm trying to find reasons to get up in the morning, excitement about what's coming. Grief says you got to build that yourself girl. That is something you have to do. So my explorations into music and into this podcast are all efforts on my part. To find ways to just be in love with my life again.
That is my experience with great grief. Check it out: [I'm] a jazz singer who's just suffered incredible losses, losses that are bone deep. My husband, yes. That has a certain shape because it has to do with my adult self, but then my sister? She's my child self. I mean, all of my little girlhood, all our little tussle, all of our difficulties, all of our figuring out. You know, all of that was wrapped up in that grief, right.
And then I started having vivid dreams, auditory hallucinations like I thought I was hearing people call my name, not unable to sleep. Now, when I read about grief, all the symptoms lined up, but they lined up in a creative fulcrum. Initially, I didn't understand. I thought I was going cuckoo, and accepted the rearrangement of the way I was experiencing the world as an aspect of grief. And so therefore, just wait until it gets better. I didn't see it as a creative place to dig. I think that's important to say, because I think a lot of us feel confused, we lack concentration. We just may go to the doctor, and the doctor may prescribe a drug or you could go to your natural health practitioner and they could say, do deep breathing and move your body. But nobody ever invites you to celebrate the fact that you are having an altered experience. Nobody ever said that to me, Alysia. No one said "Oh, good, something great's 'bout to happen."
Alysia Nicole Harris: That's certainly not a common perspective, and your podcast Great Grief is not a traditional podcast. Can you tell audiences a little bit about what they can expect and why you choose to approach your podcast in such an unconventional way?
Nnenna Freelon: I have to stay in my lane, girlfriend. I am not an interviewer. I'm not trained in that, I've never taken a journalism class. That's number one. Number two. This is not interview based. Why? Because we were in quarantine. And so I would be asking for a skill set that I didn't possess. I am a storyteller. I do have a story to tell you—what you hear is me expressing from where I live. This is my world. This is a world I know. I can't give you advice. Like advice. This is how you do grief, blah, blah, blah, blah.
I can demonstrate through story what happened to me. Take what you want. Leave the rest. And I think that's the main difference between my podcasts and a lot of grief, therapeutic kind of "This the way this thing goes; You can expect this to [be] five stages, blah, blah, blah." There is a place for that but I think we are way too mental. We want a roadmap for grief. We want to know how long it's gonna last so we can fit it in our schedule. I got one year, six months, three weeks to grieve.
But story is the bedrock of humanity… Understand I didn't set out to be a podcaster. COVID had a role in it, where I was emotionally and psychically and spiritually had a moment in it and all the years I spent as a performing artist, a teaching artist, a Black woman, a mother, all of that folded into that as well. And the fact that grief was kicking my behind. That stuff had to come up and out. And so it came up and out. I'm looking at this voice memos and, you know, scribbles on paper and furiously writing on the computer, and all the stuff that was flowing through. And my girlfriend said, "Girl, that's a podcast."
ANH: How does being a musician inform how you express grief? Why do we need music beyond just using words?
Nnenna Freelon: That's an awesome question. Music is—as poetry is—a different kind of container for grief. Sometimes when them old ladies in church was rocking back and forth and moanin, that wasn't because they didn't have words. That's because the flow needed to come up and through the body. And that's what happens for me as a singer.
Words take you only so far, and then you start sounding ridiculous, or saying stuff that just can't contain your feelings, or that sounds trite, or sounds like just some untruth. So music gives me a place to continue working the thoughts and the ideas without words. On a hysiological level, music excites different brain cells than words do alone, than reading. So when you have music with words, both sides of the brain are firing. It engages the heart. It's a whole body experience in a different way than reading something, you know, because you can read the lyrics to Chaka Khan's "Through The Fire." Okay, but let Chaka sing that. You like on the floor. So that right there is the difference.
Music has been used to unlock the the spaces that we've shut down in grief, and can allow the tears to flow. Grief wants to move. Grief doesn't want to be, you know, in a box. When we feel stuck, it is because we have locked her in a room or in a space.
Six-time Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist and host of the podcast "Great Grief" Nnenna Freelon discusses love, death, and growing through the changes on her first album in about a decade.
ANH: Wow. That is a profound insight right there. Because I think that we often think that grief just wants to sit on you.
Nnenna Freelon: She does that too, with her heavy ass. Yes, she does. She does that too. But for the purpose of you becoming so uncomfortable that you get up. Move…
ANH: This podcast started out at WUNC public radio, but now it's homed at Scalawag. What are you most excited about in this phase of Great Grief and its partnership with Scalawag?
Nnenna Freelon: Well, I was brought to WUNC by a powerful sister who's no longer there. So I had a safe place for creative engagement with her. I never had to explain myself. Now I'm in the company of many Black women and other women who stand on the shoulders of Blackness and resistance and social justice and change, and all of the the folds in between that. I really don't have to explain myself now. There's no area that the podcast could go and grow where I would have to say, "Wait, wait! What I was really trying to get to was here." There is a creative place where we can build a grief community together. And that is thrilling to me.
I also firmly believe, you know, a lot of times when we, when we gather as Black women to create something, we think we're doing a subset of the real work when the opposite is true. We are the root upon which everything else stands. So it behooves us to gather, to get our stories and put them out there, and to not worry about how this is going to land and how popular it's going to be. This is not for everybody. And that's okay. That really is okay.
ANH: Speaking of us, the bundle of episodes that we're releasing at the end of this month is really geared towards Black women and creating a space where our griefs can be acknowledged. Oftentimes, we've been holding a lot of other people down and don't really have the space to talk about the very real grief that we are experiencing.
Nnenna Freelon: They say women hold up half the sky. If women hold up half, Black women hold up both halves.
I think if we could just share that denying your own grief doesn't help anybody else. The messages that were told, you know, "you gotta press on and keep on keeping on" has infiltrated our experience with grief and blocked us from the dance that is ours to have, ours to choreograph, and also ours to demonstrate to our young daughters and sons as to how you spin through this, how you move through this, how you live with this. Because in our efforts to deny and be strong and hold it down for everybody else, we're sending a message that it's not okay: people who say, "You know, my mother during the day went on with life as usual. But I heard her crying at home at night." It happened behind the closed door, i.e., it wasn't okay for it to manifest in a everyday way. And perhaps it would have dissipated in a very natural way if it didn't have to be hidden.
So I think there's a lot of us potential, and I don't want to just say "healing" because that again, says, "Do this so that you'll be better." We can think more in terms of an analogy that has to do with digestion, like, we swallowed this thing we didn't ask for and then it alchemically gets transformed into something that gives life.
'We know what it means to be profiled, criminalized, incarcerated, and murdered by police. That trauma doesn't die with us.'
Grief can be a thing you eat, swallow, digest, and create beauty with. That is its highest purpose. It is not designed to torture you and create misery. So just even meeting grief there, even if you don't believe the words, like you don't have to believe them. And it sounds unbelievable when you get that phone call that says: "Your son's been shot. Come to the morgue, identify his body." You ain't thinking about "Let me digest this and let it turn into beauty." You don't need to hear that on the day you get that phone call. That's why I don't tell people this is what's gonna happen for you. How would I know? But when you are in your quiet moments, and you're like, "What shall I do with this?" hold in the back of your mind the possibility—the curiosity that there is more than just this.
ANH: The podcast was just the beginning. Since, its inception it's also evolved into the event series Great Grief Live.
Nnenna Freelon: I don't even know that there's a real word for what the great grief experience is. I've wanted to use performance. I've wanted to use informants. I've wanted to use live podcasts, none of them seem quite right. So a podcast is an effort to tell stories using technology, right? Turn on your device, you experience, but storytelling is an around the campfire kind of reality. Everybody gather. You know, everybody sit at the feet of the great griot, or however it manifests in different cultures. Real people are in real places together.
The Great Grief Live experience is a campfire, fireside thing. And I think the fire is the stories, and it ignites moments of creativity. So there's this creative friction that's going on, and it's mad. It's great.
ANH: So the next Great Grief live event is in Jackson, Mississippi at the Mississippi Museum of Art as part of Scalawag's partnership with Jasmine Williams and Sarah Jené's exhibition on grief. What can folks expect and what should people bring to this experience?
Nnenna Freelon: Well the name of the the name of the exhibit is We Grow On. There are certain plants that if you don't give them enough water right on time, they will die. And then there are plants, where if you give them too much water, they will die. And then there are those plants that will appear to be dead, but if you give a little water, they'll put right back up. That's the plant I want to be. I may be in a dry season that you just give me a little bit. I don't mean like a lot. It just needs to sprink-sprink and I be like "Mmmm." That has something to do with your root system. That has to do with something innate in the plant itself that allows it to revive.
I think it's very important we are going back to the garden, to nature to get some preaching. I'm doing some research into the Indigenous people who occupied those lands before the Mississippi Museum of Art arrived there. So there will definitely be a land acknowledgment, invocation, and invitation. This is definitely gonna be spirit-filled and it might not jive with everyone's spiritual beliefs but I'm going try to keep it as open as I can.
Join Scalawag and Nnenna Freelon at The Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson for a Great Grief live launch event celebrating the close of We Grow On Wednesday, August 23, 2023.
So I'm gonna invite everyone to bring their ancestors with them. Don't come by yourself. Bring grandma. Bring mama and them. Bring your brokenness. Put it in your purse if you have to because we are going to acknowledge that we are all carrying stuff. So bring your curiosity along with your profound losses.
And bring a pen and paper. Be prepared to take something and make something with that. Doesn't mean you have to be a songwriter, maybe there is a quilt or a painting, or a pound cake—some kind of work that is joyful, creative, and nourishing can come from this. So my prayer will be, those for whom this can bless, let them come.
_more from grief & other loves:_
No woman makes it through life without a sister. Through faith, family, and struggle, we inhabit a deep solidarity that allows us to hold one another close, even at the very end. Nnenna Freelon walks us through her journey of losing her sister, Debbie.
Photographer Justin Hardiman, a collaborator with Jasmine Williams and Sarah Jené's 'How We Get Over: We Grow On' project at the Mississippi Museum of Art, shares stunning portraits and excerpts from his audio-visual project, 'The Color of Grief.'
Grief is a woman with plenty to say. In the first episode of Great Grief, Nnenna Freelon asks us to consider what happens if we stop running from our grief, sit down, and listen to her for a change. Listen and read along with the podcast transcript.