Alumni Spotlight

Alumna Musician Reconnects to African Roots

from The Rock, Fall 2013

Growing up in the hills of St. Andrew, Jamaica, Kelissa McDonald ’11 developed a love of music at a young age. With parents as the lead vocals in reggae band Chakula, music constantly pulsated in McDonald’s home, and she made sure to never miss a beat even after she packed her bags and headed to Whittier.

Under the Whittier Scholars Program, McDonald pursued the self-designed major “Africa and the Diaspora: The Dynamics of Visual Artistic Expression,” in which she combined music, the visual arts, African studies, anthropology, and sociology. Her ultimate goal: to one day join the movement to re-brand the image of Africa. For her senior project, McDonald used her graphic design skills to develop a line of t-shirts meant to showcase and celebrate the rich historical and cultural heritage of African peoples. Her major also provided her with the opportunity to take part in a meaningful study abroad experience in Ghana.

“Prior to college I lived in Tanzania for three years, where I was introduced to a whole new way of life. This experience encouraged me to learn more about Africa, which is why I chose to study abroad in Ghana. I attended the University of Legon for one semester, studied traditional Ghanaian dance, drumming and xylophone, as well as Twi, one of the main languages spoken there. [In the end, I] strengthened my knowledge of the ties between Africa and the Diaspora, particularly between Jamaica and West Africa. As a Jamaican, this was especially impactful, and allowed me to connect with the people and culture on a deeper level, making for a home away from home.”

Now 23, McDonald is living out her college aspirations. In 2012, she teamed with filmmakers Mykal Cushnie and Donisha Prendergast – granddaughter of Bob Marley – on the feature-length documentary “50 Days In Afrika,” traveling to Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Tanzania to capture the thriving art industries in Africa.

Earlier this year, she achieved yet another major milestone – the release of her debut EP, Rebel in Disguise, a six-song studio project in which she says she “went for a live, very African-inspired sound.”  In an interview with the Jamaica Observer, she further explained, “Coming back to Jamaica after five years has been about re-connecting with my roots. Being away, I have a greater appreciation for the music here."

Currently, McDonald is back in the studio working on her first full length album, which is set for release in 2014 and will be followed with tour dates in Africa and Europe. Music videos for her singles “Afrika” and “Gideon” are currently on YouTube, and she has also launched her own fashion line, Anbessa.

Kelissa McDonald's fans can preview her current album, Rebel in Disguise, by visiting her Facebook page at

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