Khari Wendell McClelland is a gifted American singer songwriter who is known for his distinct and brilliant voice, galvanizing live performances and his passionate activism. I discovered what an exceptional artist Khari really is by watching the outstanding CBC documentary and Toques concert performance of his Freedom Singer Project.
The Freedom Singer Project started a few years ago when Khari set out on a journey from coast to coast to discover songs and stories of enslaved people that had traveled to slavery prohibited Free States and Canada using the Underground Railroad. A brave voyage to freedom that Khari’s own great, great, great-grandmother Kizzy had undertook, escaping from slavery into Canada in the 1800s. He resurrected these discovered songs by performing them live across Canada this past year.
Clips of these awe inspiring, thought provoking and entertaining performances and of the CBC documentary are at the end of this interview.
CG: Do you remember when music first started having a big effect on your life? How old were you and what were you listening to?
KMW: From my earliest memories there was always music. My mom holding me dancing to Stevie Wonder maybe was one of the first.
CG: You’re originally from Detroit, what brought you to Vancouver?
KMW: A friend suggested I come out this way after a big life change.
CG: Artists that you are currently listening to? And are there anyone of these that you’d like to collaborate with?
KMW: Anderson Paak, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, anyone from Brainfeeder Records Flying Lotus’ label. As for the Canadian scene, Kaytranada and Begonia. I would love to work with any of the above.
CG: The first song you ever wrote, what was the name of the song and how old were you when you wrote it?
KMW: I honestly can’t remember, most likely rap songs when I was probably fourteen.
CG: Which aspect of being an artist and the music making process excites you most and which aspect discourages you most?
KMW: The moment of inspiration that brings a new song to life excites me. What discourages me is thinking about the lengthy business of getting that song to the public. I prefer immediacy of creative spark, but both are important.
CG: What do you prefer, being in the studio or live performance?
KWM: I like both, but nothing is like connecting with an audience.
CG: Tell me about your song writing process. What usually comes first, music or lyrics?
KWM: I am usually struck by chord progressions on a writing instrument but sometimes lyrics and melodies flow simultaneously.
CG: Can you tell me more about your Freedom Singer Project?
KWM: Freedom Singer is a music project that was born from my quest to collect songs that might have accompanied my great great great grandmother on her journey to freedom from slavery in the US to Canada. I will begin recording that new album soon. I am really excited to create this album and share these songs. I want to give them new life so they live a long life, beyond me.
CG: The history of slavery in Canada is often overshadowed by the more tumultuous slavery practices in the United States but it did exist here at one point. A lot of people don’t know this, how important is it to you that slavery is taught in school?
KWM: I think all of our history needs to be shared so that we don’t repeat the atrocities of the past.
CG: Your great-great-great-grandmother Kizzy was born into slavery, came to Canada for freedom. I felt for Kizzy and all that she went through, I love that you honour her through out the documentary. How difficult was hearing the stories of what these people endured? What kept you going during the processes of uncovering stories, music and your family history?
KMW: It was terrible and horrific. I think it is also important for people to realize that they were people just like us with a full range of capacity and dreams and feelings. It can be distancing to simply refer to them as slaves and not full human beings who were enslaved. I was bolstered by the desire to find messages of hope and faith.
CG: What did you think of the documentary?
KMW: I like the doc. My favourite iteration was shared on CBC’s Tapestry.
CG: I would love hear about any upcoming/future projects that you’re working on.
KMW: Besides recording the Freedom Singer album I have another album that I am currently writing. I am excited for what the future brings. I really want to stretch out and bring more of my early influences into my music: Hip Hop, R&B and electronic music. I love roots music as well; I’d really like to marry the two.