She was there at Minneapolis City Hall on the first day of marriage equality in Minnesota, her singing voice brimming with joy and light as the first cohort of same-sex couples exchanged their vows. She was behind a megaphone during protests over the police shooting of school cafeteria worker Philando Castile, her song carrying grief, resistance and hope in the aftermath of the traumatizing event livestreamed on Facebook. And she has sung in many a school, encouraging children to find strength in their voices — a power she demonstrates in a singalong to “Hand in Hand,” an original tune that became an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement.
An achingly beautiful singer and songwriter, Jayanthi Kyle believes that her alto voice is a gift endowed for the purpose of healing. She has given moving expression to emotions at some of the most significant public moments in recent Minnesota history. Think of her as a modern-day Nina Simone, the jazz icon and civil rights activist, except that Kyle comes by way of Maple Grove, where she grew up, and Ford Heights, Ill., her birthplace.
“Singing is therapy and medicine,” Kyle said. “The vibrations heal our bodies.”
Minnesota is rich with singers — probably 50 for every lake in our water-suffused state. But Kyle is a rarity among them, not just because of the qualities of her voice, but also because of the variety of situations and causes she embraces. She still sings in bands — at one point she was in 11 simultaneously. But she’s cut her regular collaborations to just a handful, including the Give Get Sistet, an a capella troupe of six black women, and her ongoing duet with guitarist David Crittenden, whom she met at a funeral.
More often than not, you can find her singing in nursing homes, hospitals, juvenile detention centers or shelters — places that are far from glamorous but where, she believes, her healing is urgently needed.
She has worked with the Rev. William J. Barber II in the Poor People’s Campaign, part of a national call for moral revival, as well as the Peace Poets of New York City.
On Saturdays through May, she is teaching children in a class called “Homies and Harmony” at the Water Bar in northeast Minneapolis.
“We don’t have to wait for others to sing to us or be ashamed of our voices,” she said. “We all have the power to heal.”
Discovering power of song
Kyle remembers when she first discovered the power of song. She was 5 or 6 when she was locked accidentally in a bathroom with her mother.
“I was feeling scared and she started singing,” she said of her mother, breaking into the religious number, “Open Up Your Heart And Let The Sun Shine In:”
“Let the sun shine in /face it with a grin /smilers never lose /and frowners never win /so let the sun shine in /face it with a grin, open up your heart /and let the sun shine.”
That eureka moment, courtesy of her mother’s voice, helped her develop her own as she sang in church. The other discovery was her strength in the face of grief.
“I had a couple of family members die when I was younger,” she said. “Everyone was overcome with grief and couldn’t get through a song. But I was able to set aside my own grief and deliver some hope.”
In fact, while Kyle has sung at weddings, birthday parties and many happy occasions — she describes herself as “a musicologist specializing in arrivals and departures” — she is partial to funerals.
“At a wedding, you can never sing a song beautiful enough,” she said. “The singer is just part of the show and everyone is just focused on the dress or something else. At a funeral, everyone is, like, please, we need this.”
Her favorite funeral titles include “I’ll Fly Away” and Patsy Cline’s “You Belong to Me.” But about a decade ago, she had a request for Joe Cocker’s “You’re So Beautiful to Me.”
“It was the mother who wanted to express it about her son, who had committed suicide,” said Kyle. “And I just turned it around, singing it from the perspective of the deceased in thanks to everyone gathered there.”
While she performs to pay the bills, Kyle said that it also keeps her grounded.
Sometimes singing “is as much [about] self-care as it is ministering to others,” she said, noting that she often talks about her work “as a result of growing up Baptist and Pentecostal” in holy-roller congregations.
“Nowadays, I refer to this as my ministry,” she said. “I’m administering healing in song.”
(Homies in Harmony, 10:30 a.m. Saturdays through May 25, Water Bar, 2518 Central Av. NE, Mpls. $25. 612-888-3793 or water-bar.org.)