When Khari Wendell McClelland performed music from his Freedom Singer project at a concert in Windsor last fall, it was a bit of a homecoming celebration and the first time the Vancouver-based singer returned to the area to play for his relatives. What made the show that much more special was that the music and songs were inspired by his great-great-great-grandmother Kizzy, who was one of the brave American slaves who fled to the safety of the Underground Railroad through Amherstburg.
With a Freedom Singer album in tow, McClelland returns to the city for a special performance at Phog Lounge on Thursday (February 15). The new show will be a little different than last time, but is still expected to have a huge impact.
“I think there is definitely going to be a difference when people come to the show on Thursday,” he told YQG Rocks. “It’s going to be a bit more focused on the music, I’ve got a bigger band this time and we’re going to thow in some newer songs as well.”
Freedom Singer is a documentary-style piece of theatre that blends Khari’s original music with 1850s freedom songs, verbatim interview excerpts, and first-hand stories. It tells of McClelland’s journey to find the music that would have accompanied his great-great-great-grandmother Kizzy, an escaped slave who walked to Ontario, lost her legs to the cold, had two children with a British-Canadian, then returned to Detroit after emancipation. The touring music version is less theatrical, but no less impactful.
“We regularly think about all the positive things in our lives and mostly forget about the negative – there’s something natural about that,” he revealed. “Sometimes it’s hard to bring out the harmful things from the past, try to rectify it and be really honest that it happened. That’s a bit of what we do with Freedom Singer.”
Khari’s family history is deep-rooted in Freedom Singer. In 2015, he retraced the steps of Kizzy and discovered the songs that likely accompanied her and thousands of others as they escaped U.S. slavery. He used information documented by journalist Jodie Martinson on CBC’s The National and Tapestry to help create the music for the show.
Some of that research also involved visiting the Amherstburg Freedom Museum where he gazed over displays and artifacts from the days of the Underground Railroad.
“The fact that flogging was taking place in that area during that time is a painful reminder of our history; of our past,” he said. “What most people forget is that it also happened on the Canadian side as well.”
McClelland is performing the music of Freedom Singer at two shows at Phog Lounge on Thursday (7pm and 10pm). Tickets are available at the door. For more on Freedom Singer, visit Project Humanity.