Musician spreads freedom through past vibrations

Khari Wendell McClelland recreates music from the Underground Railroad. | Photo by Andrew Jeffrey

In hopes of finding freedom and social justice, enslaved Africans travelled northward to Canada from the United States through the Underground Railroad between 1840 and 1860.

It is difficult to estimate how many slaves reached safety by the Railroad due to the need for confidentiality, but Vancouver-based musician Khari Wendell McClelland has reinvented the music that once accompanied these freedom-seekers while they were finding their way north.

McClelland, whose new single drops in February, wants his music to bring hope and encourage acceptance.

“I also hope that people feel –through my music and through my stories – that they deserve to be heard on this planet, in their skin,” says McClelland. “I hope today they have a strong sense of dignity and pride through listening to the music.”

Underground Railroad music

In August 2014, writer Karolyn Smardz Frost visited McClelland in Nova Scotia and introduced her book I’ve Got a Home In Glory Land. The book sparked McClelland’s interest for slave music. In the book, a couple escapes slavery and successfully settles down in Toronto. This adventure reminded McClelland of his great-great-great-grandmother Kizzy.

Choosing a very similar route that the couple took in the book, Kizzy made her way to Canada via Railroad transfer. Inspired by the journey, McClellan started to ask more questions.

“This is gonna be a good vehicle for music, [which] makes me think, ‘What kind of music accompanied them on this journey?’” he says.

To retrace Kizzy’s route, with the assistance of CBC radio producer Jodie Martinson, McClelland went on a six-week journey in 2015.

Because of limited information on those who escaped slavery, it is difficult to trace their tracks. For instance, they might have changed their name somewhere along the journey. Upon realizing how challenging it was to find her records, McClelland came to understand that music was a better way to connect with Kizzy.

“In some ways, we were left with finding lots of information about people who travelled similarly to Kizzy, but we were not able to [retrace her steps]. So I think the music becomes even more important because there are so many different ways, but it’s the only way to really connect to her and her story,” McClelland says.

Vancouver as a stage to fully express musical talent

Growing up in Detroit, McClelland recalled that he always sang in the bathtub when he was a small child. Seeking new adventures, McClelland moved to Vancouver about 13 years ago. For McClelland, Vancouver isn’t only home, but also a stage to discover his artistic talent and fully express himself.

“I think I was looking for new opportunities to just experience new things, but also I think moving to Vancouver freed me up to express myself artistically and creatively in ways that I might not have if I had stayed in Detroit,” says McClelland. “And I think that sometimes new locations and new places may allow you to understand yourself in different and new ways. ”

McClelland’s musical gift and skills helped him encroach on the music scene in Vancouver. He became a member of Vancouver’sh gospel group, Sojourners, about seven years ago.

McClelland discovered the Underground Railroad music through three different means: online, community members ranging from academics to elders, and the historical archive. He still remembers the first time he heard William Riley’s songs. He was so submerged in the freedom seeker’s dark experience that it brought tears to his eyes.

“The themes in the story are about very dark parts of human experiences, so I definitely had some moments when I felt tears,” he says.

From time to time, when McClelland sings an Underground Railroad song, the memory of Kizzy comes to mind.

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