Stories of the Underground Railroad have always been part of Khari Wendell McClelland’s family lore. With relatives on both sides of the Detroit River—the 44-kilometre channel that separates Detroit, Michigan, from Windsor, Ontario—he’s always been acutely conscious of his roots in the region, and of an older and less comfortable connection to the American South.
“I can’t actually remember the first time I ever heard those stories, because they’ve just always been a part of how our family has understood ourselves,” the singer says, checking in with the Georgia Straight from a tour stop in Gananoque, Ontario. “As I have matured and grown and found some interest in connecting with concepts of identity through looking at family, I’ve chosen to ask some more detailed questions…in an effort, really, to understand who I am, and what it is I’m meant to be doing in this time on this planet.”
Those questions, and some of the answers McClelland received, are at the heart of Freedom Singer, a new documentary-theatre project that traces his great-great-great-grandmother Kizzy’s perilous journey from slavery to liberation. And though the stories and the songs it features might be a century and a half old, they contain discoveries that will be new to many viewers—and some that were new to McClelland himself.
“It’s incredible to take the time to speak with your great-aunt—and to speak with your own mother, even—about events that you might have not thought to ask about,” he says, noting that the biggest revelation was that he has Indigenous blood. “It’s been amazing to learn so much about my family history, and there’s a richness to what it feels like to connect in that way.”
It’s not surprising that many of those connections come through music. As the youngest member of Vancouver’s leading African-American gospel group, the Sojourners, McClelland has been tutored in the sounds of the civil-rights struggle by a pair of relatively recent arrivals from the United States, Marcus Mosely and Will Saunders. Now he’s taking those lessons back to their source, exploring the songs his family members might have sung as they found their way north from the plantations of the Confederacy. There have been surprises here, too.
“A lot of what I found was really dark. It’s not super happy stuff,” he says. “There’s a lot of stuff around death, and a lot of stuff around mothers and ancestors and even child theft—you know, mothers’ separation from their children. That’s one of the most core relationships in a child’s development, so the removal of a child from a mother is a really harsh thing to do.”
And while historic documents suggest singing doleful lyrics like “Never the Child Be Sold” to sunny, familiar tunes like “Oh My Darling, Clementine”, McClelland has made it part of his project to craft new and more appropriate settings for these heartbreaking texts.
“I’ve actually taken the liberty to take those lyrics and come up with melodies and chord progressions that feel emotionally congruent,” says McClelland, who’ll perform Freedom Singer with vocalist Tanika Charles and guitarist Noah Walker. “So that’s an interesting thing: how do we maintain integrity and authenticity with our own voices as we meet those old, old voices? It’s not that I want to try to exactly duplicate how somebody would have sung in the 1850s; it’s more that I’m trying to take those nuggets of truth and resonance and filter them through my own musical and cultural and social experience of life.”
Freedom Singer runs on the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre from Saturday (October 7) to October 18.