Khari Wendell McClelland is clearly psyched about the array of musicians, poets, and thinkers he's got lined up for The Essentials, a show streaming online from Vancouver's York Theatre April 16 to 18. As well as his own group, gospel-roots trio the Sojourners, performers include folk duo Twin Bandit, oud specialist Gordon Grdina, soul/R&B vocalist Tanika Charles, Inuit-style throat singers PIQSIQ, and horn-driven dance band Queer as Funk, all of whom he regards as associates and friends.
But as he plugs the gig on the phone from his home in Strathcona, the singer also feels compelled to share the news about his new song and video, "Feels Real Good", which he'll present each night. McClelland sourced the lyrics for the tune by asking people on social media what they were doing in these challenging times to help themselves feel better.
"It was probably the most response I ever received for any single post on Facebook," he notes. "They said, 'I go to the forest.' 'I eat meals with friends.' 'I sing in a choir.' 'I just hang out with my kids.' I took all of those answers and made a song, and I think it's incredibly moving.
"A goal for me as a person," he adds, "but also as an artist, is to connect with the community and to feel like I'm really responding to what people are feeling and thinking and needing, and this song really does that in a powerful way."
McClelland has been connecting well with the Vancouver arts community since moving here from Detroit in 2004. He first hooked up with the Sojourners--which also includes founding members Marcus Mosely and Will Sanders--at the Vancouver Folk Festival three years later.
"I was actually singing with another group," he recalls, "but I went up to them and immediately was just like, 'Oh my gosh, these are the guys that are doing the thing that I really want to do.' I started singing to them, like an old Sam Cooke gospel song, and the rest is history. Very soon after that we ended up joining forces and singing together."
Growing up in Detroit, McClelland was influenced by a wide range of Black artists and different genres. Gospel, soul, R&B, hip-hop--even pop and electronic music--were all very popular as he was growing up and foundational in his listening. The first artist that he truly loved as a kid was Prince; today he cites Leon Bridges and Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes among his faves.
"I'm often just looking for something that's true," he says, "something that affects and moves me." The music of the Sojourners falls under that category.
"They represent a history that's lived," he says. "Both Will and Marcus are from the [American] south, living there through fierce segregation. I think they speak to the traditions that African Americans --and African Canadians, black folks--come from. The early black settlers and folks who were escaping enslavement, those early communities.
"But also they sing in a way that is kind of a lost art. The type of harmony singing and storytelling that is present in their songs isn't particularly popular right now. So it feels like being part of an institution in some ways, and like shepherding history."
Speaking of history, the monumental events of the past year--including the global pandemic, the turmoil of the U.S. presidential election, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement fueled by the death of George Floyd and his killer's current trial--have led to much soul-searching. Coming to grips with what needs to be done in the face of rampant racism and social injustice is part of McClelland's aim with The Essentials.
"I feel like overall the feeling is that we want to be better," he ponders, "and do things differently on the other side of all of this madness. I feel like in some ways, some things had bubbled to the surface because of the pandemic, because there was this pause that allowed some things to come forward, things that are courageous and beautiful, but also things that are really ugly and nasty--thinking about the attempted insurrection and all that stuff. It's all there kinda underneath the surface.
"But the hope is that we can come out the other side more deeply engaged in our common humanity, and sorta learn how to love better. The pandemic has allowed us to spend more time with our families than we have in our entire lives; people look out for their neighbours in a way that they never have before. I feel like people are really attempting to form deeper bonds during this time, and it's my hope that we do come out of this being changed, and we do remember what's essential and what's needed at this time."
As hopeful as he is for the future, McClelland's current wardrobe doesn't include rose-coloured glasses. He's not expecting MLK's famous wish from 1963, that people be judged by character and not colour, to come true tomorrow.
"That's still a dream," he says. "It's not like all of a sudden [racism] disappeared or something. I mean, I don't want to disparage what I think of Vancouver, because in many ways it has been a beautiful place for me to be. I have a lot of friends, and it's the only place that I've been racially profiled by police--both of those things are true. So I don't think that we're the shining city on the hill. There's still work to do."
For the complete nightly lineup of musicians, poets, and scholars taking part in The Essentials, and to purchase tickets, look here.