Songs trace journey to freedom
> BY ALEXANDER VARTY
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.”
Walking into the main gallery of the Museum of Vancouver’s City on Edge: A Century of Vancouver Activism exhibit, the first thing that hits you is the noise: voices chanting “Power!”, cowbells, and cheers. Joining the rowdily immersive soundscape are photo and video images of protests and riots of the past 100 years, all flashing across 10 big projection screens—a raucous collage of social unrest and activism.
Shots of police marching Macjacket–clad Clark Park gang members out of a 1972 Rolling Stones concert sit alongside 1922 UBC student rallies against overcrowding, 1980s peace marches, 1993’s Clayoquot protests, and early-2000s anti-olympics events. A 1907 photo of antiasian demonstrations juxtaposes with 1971’s Gastown Riot and 1994’s infamous Stanley Cup rampage.
There are 650 images in all, mostly gleaned from old Vancouver Sun and Province archives (many never published), and the message is as loud and clear as the slogan on a political placard: in this city, people take it to the streets.
Why is it that Vancouverites have such a passion for public protest? Cocurator Viviane Gosselin has had many hours to contemplate that, while sifting through hundreds of images with retired Pacific Newspaper Group librarian Kate Bird.
First off, the plethora of public protests is a sign of the freedom and social democracy people feel here, Gosselin says. “Our ability to take it to the street is not given to every country of the world,” she observes.
“And then there’s the labour history,” she adds, gesturing to photographs that date back to Vancouver’s early years, including a blown-up, blurry 1907 shot of women marching