Mum’s not the word for Jayanthi Kyle.
The Minneapolis singer brews music for bitter matters of race and death.
Her song “Hand in Hand” has become a protest anthem sung throughout the Twin Cities by activist groups, including Black Lives Matter, as the country has gotten tongue-tied over civil rights movements.
Even when she’s offstage, simply sitting down for coffee, the harmony pours out of her. On a recent afternoon, her motioning arms — adorned with gold bangles she found during a service trip to her father’s birthplace in India — jingle in an otherwise quiet cafe in her Northeast neighborhood.
So does her voice.
Kyle, 36, bursts into song while talking about a piece she wrote for her three children of mixed race interacting with police officers:
“I met a friendly policeman, but it was just one time / We only talked about good things … We didn’t talk about crime.”
Reciting Maya Angelou poetry by heart while her frothy Chai latte goes untouched, she doesn’t mind that it’s an otherwise muffled room.
Stirring the silence is the point.
Next, she sings lyrics from a song on Gospel Machine’s debut album, “Your Holy Ghost,” for which she is the lead vocalist after years of singing at funerals and with other Twin Cities groups. The garage gospel band has its album release party Friday at the Cedar Cultural Center after performing together since 2010 at venues such as the Dakota Jazz Club, Turf Club and Bedlam Theatre. They’ll begin a tour to cities including New York and Baltimore this fall.
Gospel Machine coalesced after a quartet of white men found their frontwoman of black, Native American and Indian descent. Wes Burdine, guitarist and backing vocalist, would often see Kyle perform at church and approached her to form the band in 2010.
“Even though we all love that great soul music, the type of music I write is rougher and looser, and I think Jayanthi kind of embodied that,” Burdine said. “She has a way of embodying the performance that I don’t see very much in Minnesota music.”
She was the person — non-diva, more of a Nina Simone than a Mariah Carey — who Burdine felt could do his lyrics justice.
Burdine began writing more political songs after the 2013 Florida verdict in the Trayvon Martin case found George Zimmerman not guilty of murder. The album’s tone draws from a postrecession society still reeling from Hurricane Katrina and stricken by racial disparities.
“As we started playing with Gospel Machine and playing to audiences that are far more diverse, I realized I [had been] making a lot of music and seeing a lot of music that was designed for a particular kind of person,” Burdine said.
The themes of his new songs — war, poverty, womanhood and race — no longer melded with the pop scene he once occupied.
“Other people feel that same uncomfortability. Other white musicians,” Burdine said. “There is a need to sing with a voice and play with a voice that is more inclusive.”
Last November, as turmoil erupted in Ferguson, Mo., after the verdict in the death of Michael Brown, an e-mail popped up in Kyle’s inbox — it was from fellow activists calling for an artistic movement. Last fall, alongside Black Lives Matter activism, the group Million Artists Movement was born in the Twin Cities to spur community change with art. The local offshoot of a national movement wanted its own lyrics, and so Kyle and Burdine co-wrote “Hand in Hand.”
A year later, at a protest in St. Paul following the one-year anniversary of Brown’s death, protesters shut down intersections. They staged die-ins. They carried posters with the names and faces of black Americans killed by police officers since Brown and Martin.
They sang Kyle’s song: “The day’s gonna come when I won’t march no more / But while my sister ain’t equal, and my brother can’t breathe / Hand in hand with my family, we will fill these streets.”
The song’s lyrics provide a sense of hope and promise that “someday things will get better,” said Nekima Levy-Pounds, president of Black Lives Matter’s Minneapolis chapter. The latest protest is slated for Sunday to disrupt the Twin Cities Marathon.
The protesters often turn to the music of the 1960s, but “Hand in Hand” rang with fresh momentum.
“I think it makes it even more powerful that a woman of color from our local community co-wrote that song,” Levy-Pounds said. “It just captures the essence of the movement.”
Around that time, the Million Artists Movement was invited to perform at the May Day Parade. Kyle arrived in a handcrafted crown to sing “Hand in Hand” on a float in front of more than 1,000 people. “It was a utopia. It was a dream,” she said. But the elation of that moment didn’t last long. “The day after, quite honestly, I felt a little bit sad. Because it wasn’t real.”
She’s still marching.
The good, bad and ugly
Kyle views life’s struggles through a simplifying filter: What would this look like in a children’s story? Not everything needs to be so complicated, she says.
She was raised in Maple Grove during the 1980s — the only family of color in the neighborhood. Her family had moved from Ford Heights, Ill., seeking a better life. For her father, a first-generation immigrant from India, the Minnesotan suburb was a “utopia.”
Still today, she encounters hard-to-explain conflict. Kyle was driving through south Minneapolis recently when she spotted a Confederate flag mounted on a deck. She parked her car, walked over and, hands shaking, snapped a photo to post on Instagram, as a voice on a loudspeaker announced that she’d be reported.
When explaining racial tensions to her children, she phrases her words carefully.
“Some people are doing horrible things that people don’t want to be done to them,” she says. “The good in us is a lot more powerful.”
Music, she hopes, can propel that good. “Everybody is so scared to talk to each other about these [controversial] things, when it really is very simple.” she said. “I can do that with these songs. I can really get into these characters and into these moods.”
Of the songs on Gospel Machine’s album, she said: “They’re all about waking up with a sense of pride after being oppressed in a lot of ways.”
She’s found allies through her involvement with other arts organizations, including “The Blacker the Berry,” an exhibit by Twin Cities women of color at Intermedia Arts earlier this year.
One of the curators was Signe Harriday, a Minnesota native whom Kyle has visited twice this year in New York to meet with other black women involved in arts-driven activism.
“Not everyone in the world is able to be open,” Harriday said. “It’s also a somewhat dangerous position for Jayanthi to be in.
“As women of color, we experience that [exclusion] certainly. There is a connection that happens — that needs to happen — around acknowledging and affirming who we are in the world.”
As Harriday’s father was dying last winter, Kyle sang to him in the hospital. At his funeral in December, her voice cut through the silent church in south Minneapolis.
“The word cathartic does not even begin to brush the surface,” Harriday said. “People have actually asked to watch my dad’s funeral. They want to watch the video with me, that’s how powerful it was.”
Back at the coffee shop, Kyle can still grin about texts she’s received from people who have heard her song “Hand in Hand,” performed at protests — even when she isn’t present.
“That’s the point,” she said. “For it to be loved and for it to be shared.”