Blackspace and Star Wars

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If Moogfest is the collision of the arts and technology, Durham’s Blackspace is the perfect microcosm of the festival. 

Blackspace is the brainchild of UNC professor and musician Pierce Freelon, founded in 2014 as a hub for Afrofuturism, art, digital media and social entrepreneurship. During Moogfest, it’s coming to life each day through a series of programs including “Beats and Star Wars Demo” at the Full Frame Theater and “Black Wall Street Beats” at his new Beat Lab at American Underground @Market. 

In “Beats and Star Wars Demo”, Freelon and his team encouraged kids to record Star Wars- themed phrases into a phone. Saved in the cloud, the recordings were then available for Freelon to sample and tinker with. After a child from the audience made a beat using Freelon’s equipment, the beat and the recordings were mixed together to make a catchy Star Wars-themed tune that kept a captive audience of mostly elementary-age kids. 

Blackspace and Star Wars 2
Blackspace founder Pierce Freelon integrates beats, Star Wars and recordings from kids into a song in front of a full house at Moogfest. Credit: Amy Huffman/ExitEvent

Freelon is an expert at captivating audiences of children—his own kids sat in the front row. But long before he was a father, he's engaged, entertained and taught children through music, arts and technology. Freelon has traveled the globe as president and co-teacher of the Emmy award-winning PBS web-series, Beat-Making Lab. He serves as a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and NCCU teaching Political Science, music and African-American studies. And he’s a musician in his own right—he’s frontman to the group “The Beast.” 

Freelon grew up in Durham and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, but moved to Syracuse, NY for graduate school and then Los Angeles for a few years after that. While in L.A. he was reminded of a phrase his grandmother often said, “bloom where you are planted.” Soon after, he and his pregnant wife decided to move home to raise his family and make his impact on the city he was planted in. 

After several years teaching and running the Beat Making Lab, Freelon founded Blackspace with a mission to “emancipate minds and shape change in our communities through the arts and technology.” 

The startup does that through cost-free, year-round programming—from after-school programs to field trips to Detroit—for high-school students ages 14-19. Previously called Artvsm, Blackspace’s programming provides kids the opportunity to learn about social justice, politics, digital technology and social entrepreneurship through the arts. Students of Blackspace come after school or during the summer and work on the projects of their choice, which Freelon describes as, “basically like open gym or recess but in a space with a bunch of computers and tools.” 

And by arts, Freelon means by “any medium necessary.” Last year, one child loved crocheting, and crocheted then sold hats with “Black Lives Matter” woven into them. 

Originally based in Chapel Hill, Blackspace’s programming is now expanding to Durham with the new space. Freelon hopes a just-launched Kickstarter campaign (video below) will help cover some of the up-front expenses for up-fitting the space, purchasing musical equipment and expanding the programming. So far, the project has raised $429 of its $22,000 goal, but has 36 days left. 

Blackspace Kickstarter Video, Credit: Blackspace

To conduct and staff programming, identify students and advertise its services, Blackspace relies heavily upon partnerships with local and international partners like Chapel Hill’s Marion Cheek Jackson Center and Creative Currents based in Panama. The company has also created its own sharing-economy of sorts. So far, unless Freelon has grant funding, program staff is not paid, but receives in-kind services—like free access to Blackspace’s studio—in exchange for mentoring and teaching the students. 

Heavily influenced by Afrofuturist thinkers and authors like famed Octavia Butler, Freelon embraces vague, large concepts and goals like “black liberation,” but has taken a strategic approach to implementing the values into tangible programming that will build up the next generation.