“There are funerals where they bring out a boombox and it’s so impersonal. It doesn’t honor or celebrate the person, it doesn’t touch souls the way live music can,” says singer and songwriter Jayanthi Kyle. She sings at funerals, offering the healing power of song to families who are celebrating the life of loved ones who have died.
“I had a lot of family members and close friends pass when I was younger,” Kyle says, citing her experiences as a young woman in preparing her for this work.
Kyle grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis and the projects of Chicago. Her father moved from India to Minnesota to attend North Central Bible College. At that time he met Kyle’s mother after a mutual friend, local storyteller Sister Mattie Clark, introduced them. Both of her parents were preachers with full-time jobs that included factory worker and nurse. Growing up in a Christian household, Kyle was compelled to go to church.
She began singing at a young age and learned songs from her maternal elders, “I was fortunate to get to know my great-grandmother and my grandmother, who both taught me some of the songs in their history – mostly gospel and work songs. I also was in a few choirs and kicked out of a few others,” shares Kyle with a laugh.
No longer getting kicked out of music groups, Kyle is the singer for six different bands in town, including Black Audience, Gospel Machine, Bain, Romantica, and Jayanthi Kyle and the Crybabies.
Singing for struggles
Additionally, Kyle shares her voice to organize politically. She organized the choir that sang at the first same-sex marriages in Minnesota at the Minneapolis City Hall in August 2013. In 2014, she got involved in the Million Artist and Black Lives Matter movements, and applied her heart, time and artistry to these struggles. She wrote the song “Hand in Hand,” which is a fierce and uncompromised anthem that feels born from the legacy of the civil rights movement and the Black church and it has been sung in courtrooms and at demonstrations.
“Any kind of singing is an exchange,” Kyle says. “With funeral singing, people are so expectant, fertile. They are vulnerable and ready to receive something. I think it is important to bless someone as they go out [from the living world] and hold the others who are left behind.”
With an easy smile, a halo-like afro and a heavenly voice, Kyle’s presence soothes mourning families. “I saw what [singing] did for people,” she says. “It allowed them to grieve, or have a break from their grieving. It would allow them to ‘not be’ at the funeral, if that is not where they really wanted to be, they could be taken away by music.”
Kyle sees her work as more than providing a performance. She sees herself serving as a fellow mourner. “I really enjoy hearing what people say about the departed,” Kyle says. When she sings at funerals, she sits with families and friends and witnesses while they reflect on precious memories.
Knowing the difficulty in preparing a funeral, Kyle provides a list of songs for family members to choose from. “People have a year or more to figure out the music for a wedding,” she explains. “When somebody dies, you’ve got, like, three days to plan.”
“A lot of people like to hear hymns. It is comforting when they are grieving. Some people want to hear ‘I’ll Fly Away'” Kyle says. “There was one day where I did three funerals, all suicides. At one of them I sang, ‘You Are So Beautiful To Me.’ I have sung Leonard Cohen, too. But usually it’s something like ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand.'”
Kyle spoke of a funeral for a young woman. “It was a small service, about 20 people, and the dad picked out songs that he thought would be appropriate,” she recalls. She sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
“As soon as I started, you could feel the people in the room begin to weep, like they felt they had a place and time, that it was an appropriate moment to let it out. As soon as I finished, her father put his hands to his lips and brought them away and opened his hands, almost as if to say that he approved, that it was perfect. That meant a lot to me. It seemed to me that he felt that I had put the room in a good place.”