Slave songs are a point of pride for Vancouver musician Khari McClelland

The words and music used by slaves "to help bolster their spirits in really, really challenging times" inspire a modern Canadian to sing, too.

His great-great-great-grandmother 'is totally the reason for my being'

Inspired by his own ancestor's escape to Canada, singer Khari McClelland has reinterpreted slavery songs for today's listeners. 8:54

The songs of African-American slaves who crossed into Canada are more than 150 years old, but Vancouver-based musician Khari McClelland still takes pride in them today. 

McClelland's great-great-great-grandmother Kizzy is one of those slaves, forgotten by the history books but remembered fondly by family. Even her last name has been lost.

"She is totally the reason for my being," says McClelland, a member of Vancouver-based gospel group The Sojourners. 
This is one of the few photographs of Cynthia Dorsey, Kizzy's daughter. No images of Kizzy survive. (McClelland family)

"Her willingness to struggle and survive in the face of so much is why I'm sitting right here."

Kizzy died before McClelland was born. All he knows is she was born a slave, somehow escaped through the Underground Railroad to Canada, and had two children with a white man she didn't marry.

Eventually, after slavery was officially abolished in the United States in 1865, Kizzy and her two children crossed back to settle in the Detroit area.

McClelland has read many books about the experiences of slaves who ran away. But he's always felt one thing is missing: the music. 

"What were the songs that people were singing to help bolster their spirits in really, really challenging times?" McClelland asks. "So that's what started me on my journey." 

For six weeks in the summer of 2015, McClelland travelled to historic sites associated with early African-Canadians in Nova Scotia and Ontario interviewing other descendants and digging into archives. He also went home to Detroit to see what mysteries he could unravel there.
Khari McClelland and his mother Cathy have used Kizzy's story as a source of strength in their lives. (Andrew Jeffrey/CBC)

McClelland's mother, Cathy McClelland, remembers one story about Kizzy that was passed down.

At some point, possibly because of the cold Canadian winter, Kizzy's legs needed to be amputated.

Years later, in Detroit, this brave woman who had walked to freedom couldn't even walk outside the front door.

"Kizzy would want to go out," Cathy says. "So they'd put her on the front porch and the neighbours' kids would come by and they would poke fun of her."

Cathy and Khari say they would have defended Kizzy if they were there.
"Leave Kizzy alone!" Cathy warns.

With so few facts to guide him, Khari McClelland has decided music can be a way to understand Kizzy's world. 

"Music is like a transportation device," McClelland says. "When I'm singing a song that somebody sang from the Underground Railroad 150 years ago, that same emotive place can resonate in me today." 

Historian Roy Finkenbine from the University of Detroit Mercy says the songs had two purposes: they buoyed the freedom seekers' spirits and they offered some advice for how to travel.
Historian Roy Finkenbine and Khari McClelland discuss how slaves used music to help them escape. (Andrew Jeffrey/CBC)

A good example of that, he says, is Wade in the Water. If slaves followed a river, they were less likely to get lost, and they could use the berries and animals along the banks for food. 

"Also, you cross the river and it throws the hounds off your trail," Finkenbine says.

The songs guided the slaves toward freedom in Canada. McClelland believes those same songs could be a guide for Canada to become the place the slaves were dreaming about, a place of true equality. 

"Look at the world," McClelland says. "There's … always someone who's marginalized and someone who's looking for a greater sense of justice, a greater sense of hope and freedom."
McCelland visited Amherstburg, Ont., and other historic sites associated with early African-Canadians. (CBC)

McClelland changed the lyrics of one song from "No more auction block for me" to "No more crooked cop for me." He pays close attention to recent cases where unarmed black people have been shot and killed by police officers in American cities. 

McClelland says the Black Lives Matter movement has put the spotlight on inequalities that still exist between African-Americans and white people. He grew up in Detroit and left with a feeling that too many young black men there end up unemployed, imprisoned or dead. 

"I simply couldn't handle it," he says, "when I knew there was an opportunity to do something different."

That opportunity was in Canada. So he followed his great-great-great-grandmother's footsteps and moved north of the border.
McClelland returned to his birthplace, Detroit, as part of his research. (Andrew Jeffrey/CBC)

"I don't feel like Canada is a perfect place," McClelland says. "That being said, for me and my life this has been a much safer, much more welcoming place to be." 

The black slaves were the refugees of the past. McClelland believes their songs will still hit home with the refugees moving to Canada today. 

"Displacement … running for your life … that's a story that refugees are dealing with right now," he says.

"So I think the music is super-relevant for people everywhere."

About the Author

Jodie Martinson

Story Producer

Jodie Martinson is a story producer with CBC Radio On The Coast. She's covered the TED Talks for CBC twice now. She also makes documentaries and some of them have won awards.


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