Interview with Khari Wendell McClelland
Montreal Rocks caught up with Khari Wendell McClelland, who just flew in from a sold-out show in Halifax. His performance will surely be intense and emotional as he brings to life songs from an era of slavery and the heroes that participated in the rescue of thousands of slaves via the Underground Railroad, which is now a part of our Canadian Heritage.
Get your tickets now, as this will be a packed show!
MR: Welcome to Montreal! At least it’s not too cold today.
KWM: Yeah, it’s totally bearable!
MR: This project that you are doing is inspired by your search for more information about your ancestors and how vital that underground railroad was for their escape from slavery. During your research, you discovered some details about Kizzy, your great great great grandmother. The question I wanted to ask is if you were to switch places with her today, what would she think about the current state of racial equality?
KWM: I’m not sure what she would think exactly. It’s difficult to imagine what someone from so long ago would think today. When I think about the way to answer that question, I think of the more personal angle of how would she would see what I’m doing right now, what her family is doing right now. I think she would be very pleased to see us thriving, surviving, carrying on her name and growing stronger.
MR: Definitely she would. It would make her feel good to see that all that sacrifice and danger was worth it.
If you could put yourself in her place, back then music was very important. How would you have felt, working in the cotton fields and having that music, what would it do to your state of mind?
KWM: Again, I think it’s impossible to understand what it would be like to live under such duress & tortuous circumstances. For people who haven’t experienced that sort of thing, it’s nearly impossible to do. I am aware that with my relative experience, when I go through hardships, I always turn to music as a way to try to make it through, try to understand what’s going on for me internally. To make sense of what’s going on. I’m imagining that for her, it would be similar.
MR: This project that you are doing is basically bringing back music from that era but bridging into a more modern take on it, right?
MR: Why do you feel that is important?
KWM: It’s important to keep our stories and our histories alive, because when they die, especially the things we don’t like to look at in ourselves, we may be more easily able to repeat them.
MR: Yeah, we learn from our history. I was thinking of all the men and women who operated these so-called “stations”, the “conductors”, the “agents”…they were true heroes. They put their life on the line to help out people the literally didn’t know. Do you have any modern day heroes?
KWM: Tons of modern day heroes. They are the people who wake up every day and live their lives in service trying to help people who are invisible or forgotten. They might be people who are taking in refugees, giving them a place to live. It might be people who are making sure that indigenous kids have good clean water to drink. My heroes are people who are doing the work that is necessary to make sure that we are all having the kind of good and healthy quality of life that we all think we deserve as individuals for our loved ones, but they extend that beyond their own tribe. Those are my heroes.
MR: Cool. As the slaves ran away, they saw Canada as a so-called “Promise Land”, but that really wasn’t always the case. What kind of issues would Kizzy have faced when she arrived here?
KWM: She wasn’t received with open arms and didn’t receive the quality of life that maybe she was hoping for. Ultimately, she ended up returning to the States. She also lost her legs when she was in Canada, due to the cold, as she didn’t have proper housing.
MR: You talk about the “redemptive power of music”. I’ve read that quote from you a couple of times. Is there a small change you would like your listeners to consider in their daily lives because of the music they are listening to, specifically yours?
KWM: It’s more of a request for us to love a little bit more. To see our kinship and our bond as beyond what often see as our own and extend that out. It may be to simply more deeply love the people that are in the house with you, maybe your spouse, your children, your mother or father. Maybe it’s your next door neighbor or the old lady you always see on the street struggling with her groceries. Maybe it’s the person trying to find safe harbor from displacement. You have 65 million people in the world right now who are forcibly unable to live in the place where they were born, for all sorts of reasons. My hope is that people will see an extension of a deeper kind of humanity and love towards people.
MR: I see that as being all the little micro good deeds that you can do in a day add up if billions of people are doing it.
KWM: Totally. There are lots of people doing things on a daily basis. We still need more of them.
MR: Start at home and widen out.
KWM: Yeah, it starts with ourselves even. How do we treat ourselves?
MR: Good point. I was looking at your Twitter feed and you posted today of what seems to be a galaxy of stars and you commented: Looking for perspective? When you look up at the stars, what comes to mind?
KWM: I often draw on more cosmic references, just to give perspective to getting caught up in our own individual thing, our local or national identities, thinking that that’s the end all, be all. You have to realize how big the world is, especially when you stare out at the ocean, or when you look from the top of a mountain, you realize how small you are and how small your concerns are in the midst of all the bigness. I think it helps give perspective, we are part of something that is much larger.
MR: Compared to Project Humanity, what’s different with this “Freedom Singer Tour”?
KWM: This is really focused on the music. There is an album that has just been released, the Freedom Singer Album, which is why we are touring. We are very excited to share this new music with people and hope that they find inspiration and joy through listening.
MR: Yeah, we had it playing here at the Wark house for the last two days. It’s awesome. I also saw that you toured a little with Andra Day (read our review of her last show).
KWM: Yeah, I opened up for her at the Winnipeg Jazz Festival, and the following week I opened up for Lauren Hill also at the Vancouver Jazz Festival.
MR: Andra Day was one of the most memorable shows I’ve seen in a while, small and intimate yet quite powerful. Likewise, I’m looking forward to yours tomorrow. What are we to expect?
KWM: It’s a mix of a lot of genres of music from rap to rock, blues and gospel, country, spoken word. There is a lot of different music inside the show. It’s exciting to take all of my musical experience & life experience and put it into the music. I was born and raised in Detroit and it has a certain context. I lived in Ontario for a bit, then Vancouver where I met lots of musicians with different kinds of interests. That really helped to shape me.
MR: I noticed your Vancouver show was sold out. You have some home field advantage there.
KWM: I also had a really good show in Halifax last night which was sold out. The show in Windsor also was packed. I feel really excited and blessed to be able to do something that I love doing and to share that with people.
MR: Is there something you get from the performance? Is it a release for you or is it a way to honor your heritage and your ancestry?
KWM: I think it’s almost a spiritual practice, to be quite honest. It gets my mind, my heart and my soul right, you know? It’s a privilege to do something like that for work.
MR: Yeah. I’m sure if Kizzy were around today, she would be very proud.
KWM: Yes, I sure hope so. I like to think that she is pleased and she’s smiling down from wherever she is.
Get tickets to the show at Admission