What is the value of an apology? That is one of the questions that JUNO-nominated singer and songwriter Khari Wendell McClelland is exploring in his new concert, We Now Recognize. The show, which consists of all new songs, will tour six Canadian cities for Black History Month. It comes to the Lincoln Alexander Centre in Hamilton on Feb. 19 at 8 p.m.
We Now Recognize is a partnership between McClelland and Project Humanity, a non-profit organization that uses the arts to raise social awareness. The two collaborated in 2017 and 2018 to create the documentary theatre musical of the Vancouver-based artist’s debut solo album, Freedom Singer. Freedom Singer interpreted songs that might have accompanied McClelland’s great-great-great-grandmother Kizzy as she escaped from slavery via the Underground Railroad.
This show is another personal work, although McClelland originally took inspiration from the current sociopolitical landscape. The number of political apologies that have occurred struck him in the past decade or so and especially in Justin Trudeau’s term. He began to question what constitutes a substantive and meaningful apology.
In writing the show, McClelland found himself reflecting on being wrong and the extent of his compassion for those who do wrong. He considered how recognizing wrongdoing feels and how to move forward from it. With this, he also thought about the relationships he has with the generations of men in his family.
“[I was] looking at my grandfather and my father and my brother and even considering what it would be to be… a father and what the implications might mean for a larger society… [I]t's men who are exerting power and have a lot of control in society… What are some of the ideas… I grew up with that I have at different times perpetuated in my own life and trying to figure out like what that might look like through a generational lens,” said McClelland.
The show explores other ideas that McClelland cares about, such as community and the way we wield power over the natural world. In bringing different ideas in proximity with one another, McClelland sees the work as an assemblage like a quilt or collage.
McClelland sees being able to explore a multitude of ideas as a way of celebrating Black life. Unlike his past work with Freedom Singer, which tackled the history of slavery head on, We Now Recognize, is a subtler approach to Black history that it more rooted in the present and in the future.
“I feel like there are ways in which black life can be can be understood as a monolith, that black people in Black communities aren't allowed to have a diversity of experiences and perspectives. I'm very curious… about creating some kind of radical subjectivity around Black life, like being able to be all these different ways that we are just as human beings,” McClelland said.
Not only will the concert allow McClelland a chance to bring forth the multiplicity of Black life, it will allow him to stretch himself and grow as an artist. The personal show will force him to be vulnerable in a way that he hasn’t been before with the communities across Canada that has supported him.
McClelland sees the connection to music as something that erodes for many people over their lifetime. For him, however, it is something that he hasn’t stopped doing ever since it became a part of his life as a kid growing up in Detroit. It moves him in a way that isn’t necessarily positive or negative, but just is. He also sees the medium as essential to building community.
“I feel like healthy communities move together. That they practice together, that they have rituals together… [O]ur connection to artful practices actually has the potential to heal us as communities and individuals coming together… has this real potential for a deep kind of healing… I think it is just a deep medicine in the way that we come together and make music and make art,” explained McClelland.
McClelland is looking forward to this tour to see how audiences connect with the new songs. He is eager to see the way in which people are moved by this meditation on wrongdoing and apology, whether positively or in a way that is a little uncomfortable.
Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, has been immortalized in just about every form possible. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is only the latest effort to valorize Lincoln in his quest to end slavery and enfranchise African-Americans.
Glamorizing and whitewashing presidents’ terms in office is nothing new and is in fact a routine part of political makeovers. As soon as George Bush Jr. was out of office, efforts to resuscitate his image began. Former president Jimmy Carter is often thought of as a humanitarian, which ignores the fact that during his presidential term, the U.S. government backed dubious and undemocratic regimes in Iran, Zaire and the Philippines.
But as soon as I started watching Lincoln, something irked me. In an effort make him out to be a hero, Lincoln became a recipient of this same sort of political rebranding.
I do appreciate that Spielberg chose to adapt The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which in some regards enlightened the public of the machinations and maneuvering Lincoln partook in regularly. Although this could certainly nurture an alternative perspective on the president and his legacy, the overall tone of the film was one of support for American cultural imperialism and patriotism.
Did the film examine Lincoln’s shortcomings in office? No. Even films like Oliver Stone’s W looked at instances of failure in George Bush’s presidency. But under the direction of Spielberg, Lincoln is personified as a long-winded but gifted rhetorician, a patient and loving husband and father and an advocate for abolition.
While I commend Daniel Day Lewis’ performance, which truly seemed to possess the essence of Lincoln’s archetypical character, I was extremely disappointed that neither Spielberg nor any of the writing team decided to look into conflicting or alternative portrayals of Lincoln.
Instead, the entire film fixates on bringing the audience to the story climax, where everyone can celebrate the triumph of Lincoln’s hard work and dedication to forever altering American society.
And by the time it closes (spoiler alert) with Lincoln’s assassination, we, the audience, are so emotionally attached to this arbiter of morality, that we leave the theatre assured that Lincoln was a great president and a great man. Even more so because he is portrayed as a martyr.
His ability to pass the 13th amendment, and thus obtain freedom for all African-Americans, is a positive thing. But using his crown achievement to suggest that Lincoln was a hero and an activist for equality is misguided and manipulates the historical record.
When it came to his treatment of Native Americans, Lincoln had an atrocious record of addressing equality rights. Just prior to issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring an end to slavery, he also enacted The Homestead Act, which removed thousands of indigenous people from their lands.
Lincoln also ordered the execution of 38 Santee Sioux men, simply because they refused to leave their ancestral land. This act marked the largest public execution in American history.
Lincoln does make some effort to show how the president was probably more concerned with the positive political implications than the moral implications of ending slavery. But it’s that surge of emotional attachment and pride for Lincoln and his presidency that the film actively promotes, which I believe has the stronger and more tangible affect on the audience.
So go see Lincoln, appreciate the realism of the set, costume and perhaps even some of the acting. But please realize that this film has an agenda. Just because the guy has been dead for over a century doesn’t make it any less manipulative or relevant to the political branding today.