October 2, 2017

Sometimes we have an experience in life that profoundly changes the day or the week or sometimes the experience changes us, in our core, in our being. That was the case for me last evening.

A few weeks ago I bought a ticket from the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture to hear the workings of Khari Wendell McClelland, Freedom Singer. This amazing musician “traces his ancestors’ path to freedom through music”. His research took him from Vancouver to Halifax where he was able to find lyrics and stories about African-Americans, specifically his great-great-great-grandmother Kizzy escaping slavery to start a new life in Canada. It was a touching, poignant story and one that moved everyone in the room.

We met in the KIAC ballroom, a small venue and I’m not sure how many were in attendance but the room was full. The evening was started in the right tone when Peter Menzies, a local musician and volunteer extraordinaire, someone who works tirelessly in his community, introduced Khari and his team of Noah Walker and Tanika Charles. Peter spoke of the power of the small but mighty community of Dawson City that recognizes the humanity of each of us and our inherent rights. And then the music and story-telling began.

The songs that African-Americans sang were coded language within oppression to share messages of hope. The songs were maps to freedom.

Khari quoted James Baldwin, an American writer and social critic. “Our crown has already been bought and paid for all we have to do is wear it.” We are born worthy.

He reminded us to be careful of the narrative of the Underground Railroad and African-Americans being fugitives before they found freedom. The story in our history books tends to paint the picture of weak blacks, victims with strong white people saving the day. We must remember that these slaves, these fugitives rewrote their own history, with their courage and lives sacrificed they created their own freedom. He also reminded us any positive change, any breaking free requires discomfort, requires sacrifice.

We closed the evening with all of us singing Bill Withers’ Lean On Me and I am certain that everyone in that room believed the lyrics they were singing.

I am beyond grateful for Peter Menzies for buoying me up and for Khari and his team for giving me hope and insight.  If you get the chance to be witness to the story that is Khari Wendell McClellan, Freedom Singer, jump at it.

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