Interview: Meet Mark Clennon, the Impressive Talent Behind “I Don’t Know Who You Are”

Mark Clennon © courtesy of the artist
Mark Clennon © courtesy of the artist
A Jamaican-born, Toronto-based singer and actor, Mark Clennon broke new personal artistic ground with “I Don’t Know Who You Are” last year and scored a spot in his hometown’s prestigious film festival in the process.
Stream: “I Don’t Know Who You Are” – Mark Clennon

There’s a funny scene in the old ’90s movie Cool Runnings, based (not very accurately) on the true story of the inaugural Jamaican Olympic bobsled team. The bobsledders, none of whom have ever seen snow before, arrive in Calgary, head to the airport exit – and can only stand in stunned horror at the sight of a nation every bit as frigid, blustery and frosty as their home island is tropical and warm.

Another Jamaican named Mark Clennon experienced similar culture shock when he first arrived in Canada himself. But for him, the most impactful contrast between Toronto and Kingston had less to do with the weather and more to do with the tremendous increase in creative diversity and LGBTQ tolerance within his new land of residency.

Mark Clennon © courtesy of the artist
Mark Clennon © courtesy of the artist

“Jamaica is a small country with a small sphere, so you’re not really exposed to that much diversity,” he noted. By contrast, Toronto is “such a diverse space that you’re just being exposed to so many different types of music, and it subconsciously seeps into your musical language and how you make music. So, I think moving to Toronto exposed me to sounds that I would not have heard of before. Subconsciously, I just started playing around with it.”

Make no mistake – growing up in Jamaica played a major role in Clennon’s desire to pursue music himself. He describes his country of origin as “just one of those crazy places where everyone is a musician. Everywhere you go, someone is singing, rapping, performing, and I think just being born in Jamaica helped with that creative fire.”

Mark Clennon © courtesy of the artist
Mark Clennon © courtesy of the artist

Although he acknowledges that “Jamaica just has an incredible musical legacy,” Clennon eventually decided it was time to move beyond the limited range of genres that dominates the scene across the island (“dancehall, reggae, and maybe some RnB”). As a gay man, Clennon also wanted to move away from this “very homophobic country” that often criminalizes the LGBTQ lifestyle. Those factors ultimately led him to leave Jamaica and head up to Florida, then even further up to Toronto.

Once settled in Canada, Clennon produced some initial works such as the 2016 EP, When the Smoke Clears. Clennon is “still very happy and proud about” his early output but appreciates that he’s become even more of a creative risk-taker over the years.

“Back then, I was new to the industry, and not trying to be too rambunctious and crazy,” he reflects. “Whereas now, I’m just a little bit more confident and brave and able to take a [few] more risks…. Now, I’m singing, writing, producing, playing multiple instruments on the record, and just embracing a lot more of my identity and culture.”

One of the major demonstrations of this heightened skill set came last summer in the form of I Don’t Know Who You Are, his full-length cinematic debut accompanied by a vibrant theme song.

Mark Clennon © courtesy of the artist
Mark Clennon © courtesy of the artist

Film is one of Clennon’s longtime passions – he says he’s been acting for longer than he’s been making music – but he had difficulty breaking into that competitive industry in Toronto, so he decided, “I just sort of had to turn off my acting brain and focus on music.”

He finally boomeranged back to his early passion once he teamed up with filmmaker M.H. Murray, another Toronto-based LGBTQ creative artist who’s faced hardship due to his sexual orientation. Murray and Clennon channeled their shared experiences into the 2020 short film Ghost, in which Clennon plays a young man named Benjamin looking to protect himself from HIV.

The duo eventually expanded this premise into a full-length feature entitled I Don’t Know Who You Are, which they filmed in Toronto in fall 2021. Clennon reprised his role as Benjamin and the additional screen time allowed him to elaborate on his character’s personality– among other things, by revealing that he is a dedicated saxophonist. Clennon even learned to play this instrument to prepare for his role in the film.

“I’m actually really happy that that happened,” he says. “Since doing the movie, I’ve been able to incorporate the saxophone into so many other parts of my musical journey.” That notably includes the film’s title track, “I Don’t Know Who You Are,” which sprinkles some saxophone-playing atop an overview of the traumatic ordeal Benjamin goes through onscreen. Lyrics like “Lately, I’ve been fighting for my life” and “It seems my world is fall, fall, falling apart” are predominant therein. 

“He’s a musician and he’s sort of using his music simultaneously to talk about what he’s going through,” Clennon says of his character. “I wanted to write a hopeful song – sad, but also hopeful. It was really fun to do it and perform it in the movie.” The song also came quite naturally to Clennon, given how much he could relate to its central themes: “The moment we wrapped [filming] for the day, I ran home, sat at my piano and the song poured out of me.” 

I Don't Know Who You Are - Mark Clennon
I Don’t Know Who You Are – Mark Clennon

“I’m also very excited about the opportunities to marry music and film, because I don’t want to stop doing either,” he adds. “I’ve always been a musician [and] a very theatrical, performative person. I’m very excited about this project, which has a musical element to it.”

Both the song and the movie were well-received, with the latter featured in the Discovery program of the Toronto International Film Festival (“It’s a really amazing event; it brings out so much life into the city,” Clennon says). With his debut full-length film in the bag, Clennon has shifted his focus to his debut full-length album, Warm, which he reveals will be out this summer and will lean heavily into his native culture, with Jamaican reggae and dancehall influences aplenty. 

While Warm remains in the works, Clennon hopes that “I Don’t Know Who You Are” will continue to make its mark on audiences, including back in his native Jamaica, where his sexual orientation has often led him to be denied acceptance.

“I just hope that, ultimately, people are going to take away something good from the song and that they’re able to connect with the lyrics and the music itself,” he expresses.

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Stream: “I Don’t Know Who You Are” – Mark Clennon

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I Don't Know Who You Are - Mark Clennon

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