BY ROSALIND BENTLEY/AJC Staff Reporter
There aren’t many people walking the face of the Earth who can say they originated a role on Broadway, but singer Gina Breedlove is one of the few who can.
She was the first actress to play Queen Sarabi, mother of Simba, in the perennial Broadway favorite “The Lion King.” Breedlove has backed up the legendary R&B chanteuse Phyllis Hyman and crooned duets with the old-school icon Harry Belafonte. Her voice has a quality that coaxes you to stop scurrying around and to sit down and listen. It’s an intimate, almost breathy soprano that encourages you to slow down, relax and shake off whatever foolishness you dealt with at work or whatever madness you faced on the freeway. She calls it “folksoul.”
But it’s her reputation as an artist who uses her voice in the tradition of sound healing that has gained her a loyal following.
On Thursday, Breedlove and her band will bring her “Beautiful Friends” tour to City Winery at 8 p.m. We talked with Breedlove about healing, the influence of gospel music on her style, and how Spike Lee asked the cast of his film “Chi-Raq” to work with her.
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AJC: You’ve talked about the influence of the black church on your music, but it’s not really gospel that we hear when you sing. Then how did gospel shape you?
Breedlove: My father’s people were Holy Roller Baptists. Everything was built around the church. We were in church six days a week. During junior choir practice, the mothers of the church would meet in another room, and they’d be in a circle and one would start to moan, then one would start to wail, and they’d break into pieces of song and it’d become a full-on grief session. They were lightening the load of what it was to be black and female and shedding all the layers of oppression. And I realize now they were doing sound healing. It gave context to my life.
Breedlove: I remember the day my mom left. I remember everything down to what I was wearing. So, I’ve always sounded from the time I was 5 years old to bring ease and solace to my body.
AJC: But your career has largely been as a singer. How did sounding become part of your performance and work?
Breedlove: Even though I had been using sound on my own body for years, I didn’t know anything about sound healing or chakras. I thought that was woo-tastic and something only people on the West Coast did. I resisted it for a long time. But this is work our folks have done forever. It’s ancient.
AJC: You had a small role in Spike Lee’s 2015 movie about gun violence in Chicago called “Chi-Raq,” but a larger role off-screen. How did that happen?
Breedlove: Spike would ask questions at the start of rehearsals, asking everyone who they were and what they did. When he got to me, I said, “I’m a sound healer.” And he said, “A what?” I said, “A sound healer.” He said, “A what?” I said, “If you keep asking me, I’m not going to change my mind. I’m a sound healer.” Then he asked me to describe it, and when I did, he got it. He said, “Bet! I want you to do that with the cast every day.” He had me doing these circles with these women who’d lost their children to gun violence. There was so much grief. They had been walking around outside of their bodies since they lost their children, like touching but not feeling, eating but not tasting. But the grief exercises taught them to move through it and to deal with the grief in a living way.
AJC: So, what can people who’ve never been to one of your shows expect on Thursday?
Breedlove: I call them rituals. You know, we have a lot of artists today, Childish Gambino, Kendrick Lamar, trying to describe the color of the water that’s drowning us. I love their work. I love them. But I want to show you the water and lift you up. Bring your spirit and leave lifted.
Gina Breedlove and Beautiful Friends
8 p.m. Thursday. $20-$25. City Winery, Ponce City Market, 650 North Ave., Atlanta. 404-946-3791, www.citywinery.com/atlanta.