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I knew I was gay from the small, innocuous moments in my childhood. There was no big, life-changing event like seeing deviant homosexuals on television, the way conservatives imagine children become gay. For the most part, I watched music videos featuring video vixens and would sweat through them, hoping no one noticed the way I was looking at these women with such intent and starvation.
I went to war with my emotions for women. I denied them, examined and scrutinized them, pretended that I had boy crushes in an attempt to convince myself that I was “normal.” I would sit with my headphones on, music blaring through my walkman, and contemplate a life with the girls in my classroom, or teachers I had crushes on. In my fantasies, if I wasn’t in a relationship with women, I was alone.
I would sit with my head pressed against the glass as my mother drove us to church, a place where I knew there was talk of hell and damnation. I don’t remember specific sermons about the evils of homosexuality the way some of my friends experienced in church, but I do remember that being a central tenant of the Christianity I was raised in. I listened to music that was angsty and defiant, what my parents would call “devil” or “white people music.” It was one of the only styles of music I felt encapsulated the turbulent emotions within me.
There was one artist who also was the soundtrack to this time in my life. One woman whose voice would often make my chest swell, my heart beat faster, and threaten my eyes with tears. That woman was Patti LaBelle.
Patti LaBelle rose to fame in the 1960s as a part of the group Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles. They later changed their name to the simple LaBelle with Patti LaBelle as the lead singer. The group was composed of Patti, Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash, and Cindy Birdsong. If you’re unfamiliar with LaBelle as a group, you may have heard their 1974 hit “Lady Marmalade,” either performed by the group themselves or one of the covers of the song like the 2001 cover with Christina Aguilera, Pink, Lil Kim, and Mya. LaBelle was a funk force and broke records as an act together, but split in 1976 following the release of Chameleon.
All of the singers in LaBelle were talented, but Patti’s voice, in particular, was one that stood out for its strength and range. Patti LaBelle’s self-titled debut album left little to be doubted about her talent and staying power. Songs like “Joy to Have Your Love” and “You Are My Friend” cemented her as a talent to keep watching. Over her decades-long career, Patti has had many hits, with 18 studio albums, 8 compilation albums, and 3 live albums. Her prolific discography includes Christmas and gospel albums in turn with her soul and R&B albums. Winner in You is one of my favorite Patti albums and includes “Kiss Away the Pain,” a song I listened to on repeat during the formative years in my life.
I was born in 1992, so my experience with Patti LaBelle’s music was from her solo 80’s era, and I was introduced to her music by my mother. My mother was the third person I came out to. After coming out to my friends Kate and Shanai, I went to my mother to tell her my big secret. I remember kneeling down beside her as she lay in bed, the way we would before bed when we prayed together; I put it as simply as I could, “Mom, I like girls.”
My mother loved Patti LaBelle, if not more than I do then equally. On our car rides to the grocery store or to my brother’s house, it wasn’t uncommon for Patti’s voice to be heard booming through the speakers. I grew up on R&B from that era and despite my impulse to rebel and listen to rock and metal, I found myself still clinging to vocal divas like Patti LaBelle, Diana Ross, or Chaka Khan. What I sought in the music I listened to was passion, something that matched the overwhelming force of despair and yearning I felt as a child. I often felt like the emotions I felt were much bigger than my age and my body. As I listened to Patti, I felt an equilibrium between the bigness within me and outside of my body.
My mother had a very common reaction to my coming out, she said girls my age often went through the crisis of attraction to their friends and other girls. She assured me I would grow out of it in those days after I came out to her. Later, becoming curious, she would ask me how I knew and who I was attracted to. She once asked me what two girls did together. At 12, I wasn’t exactly sure and told her as much. I didn’t tell her that I had seen two women having sex on TV the year previous, I wanted to maintain the veneer of perfect daughter and not sully her image of me. When she wasn’t questioning me, we were silently listening to Patti together, the both of us, I’d imagine, singing along to all the lyrics but only in our heads.
Patti LaBelle taught me about desire in those days, what made you want to cling to a person you loved or what made you grovel when the relationship ended. I think of course of “Kiss Away the Pain,” “On My Own,” “Somebody Loves You Baby,” “If Only You Knew,” and “Love, Need, and Want You.” Many of these ballads were about falling and staying in love, or the end of a romantic relationship. Listening to this music is probably why I’m a poet now, why I used to write about falling in love before I had ever even experienced it. Of course I had crushed on girls, especially the ones that I had considered friends. Love songs like Patti’s were the soundtrack to those minor crushes that I fancied into being the big loves of my life.
In “If Only You Knew,” the chorus goes “if only you knew, how much I do, do love you.” sung by Patti in her characteristic smooth soprano. Not one to be outdone, in the song, she can go from the bottom to the top of her range. The climax of the song comes in around 3:49 where Patti reaches the highest she’s gone in the song, singing “if I love you, you don’t know, you don’t know how much I need you.” It’s hard to describe the vocal performance that takes place here, the passion and talent it takes to sit at this register, the way the lyrics hit you even more because of the way they are sung with such power. Patti LaBelle sings like her very heart depends on it, like the listener’s heart is dependent on it. I understand how old heads say that this era of real singers has gone. It’s not that there aren’t great singers anymore, but the way singers like Patti care for and nurture their talent is hard to come by.
Patti’s hit duet with vocal powerhouse Michael McDonald, “On My Own,” is probably one of her most recognizable songs. The iconic lyrics sung by McDonald: “Now I know what loving you cost, now we’re up to talking divorce and we weren’t even married.” The song was written by Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager, but there’s something so lesbian about talking divorce when you aren’t even legally married to each other.
Though many of the songs performed by Patti LaBelle are classically woman to man, as a lesbian I can see my experiences with love and romance reflected in them in ways that I don’t in other similar songs. The kind of love described in these songs feels bigger than sexuality, it’s the stuff you write poems about. It’s grand, heart-stopping love that is almost all-encompassing. Patti LaBelle also hits another note for me — especially as a femme — her performance of feminity is almost outlandish, defying a look that catered to the male gaze. In the ’70s and ’80s, she was known for performing with lavish and creative hairstyles piled to the top of her head. She wore sequin gowns and dresses with robust shoulders and ample cleavage. Her makeup was dark and sharp, highlighting her beautiful features. It’s not that men didn’t find Patti LaBelle attractive, if you’ve watched any of her live performances you can see them sweat and fall at her knees, it’s that her fashion choices, her style made it seem like she didn’t care if they did. Whether decked out in feathers or pearls, she dressed to please herself.
Growing up, I did have an older sister who was also black, but my mother was white and most of the family I grew up knowing was white. In that sense, I didn’t have many black women role models to look up to. I instead looked up to the R&B, disco, and soul divas I listened to. I marveled at their beauty and fashion in a way that was informed by my lesbianism. I wanted to sparkle and shine the way they did, I also felt a desire for them. The way I perform femininity now and the women I am attracted to is informed by this aesthetic. I will fall on my knees for a black femme wearing a bold lip and something that highlights her curves and her nails perfectly done. I think about women like Patti, Diana Ross, and Donna Summer who defined a generation’s fashion and how they have impacted my identity as a femme, though they themselves were, as far as we know, straight women.
I’ve never seen Patti LaBelle perform live, though she has been to my city a few times, but I’ve watched many of the performances available on YouTube. Watching Patti perform live is a treat in itself. Her fierce femininity and attitude come across so well in that realm. She’s been known to kick off her shoes as she dances across the stage, or lie down on it as her voice climbs and wails. One of my favorite live performances of hers can be heard on the Essential Patti LaBelle album, it’s a live recording of her cover of “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” originally recorded by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (which was the starting point for one of my other singers, Teddy Pendergrass). The song was actually originally written for LaBelle, but they didn’t record it, so it was passed on to the Blue Notes.
My favorite part of this performance is how you can hear the audience yell, “tell em bout it Patti!” and other shouts of encouragement before and during her performance. These moments are accompanied by Patti’s unscripted aside to the audience where she stops to muse for a little bit with them in the middle of the song.
She says during this intermission: “you can break your back and you can break your legs and you can break your face. Trying to make these people know you in life but somehow they just don’t want to try to. So you say to yourself ‘was it something I said, was it something I done, was it the way I look, was it the way my clothes come unfastened.’ And if that turns you off baby you ain’t worth me anyway.”
I wish I had heard these words as a younger lesbian, as someone who ran from woman to woman hoping they would see and accept me, only to be rejected or treated poorly. I always thought there was something inherently wrong with me, not that there was just a lack of chemistry or respect coming from that other woman’s end. I always defaulted to believing I was the problem.
These lines before Patti explodes into singing once again and carries into the end of the song. Her voice slowly fades off stage until we only hear the background singers singing “if you don’t know me by now, you will never never never know me.”
Patti LaBelle makes my heart swell. I can feel the blood rushing in my ears, the heat rising in my cheeks, the feeling of intense excitement almost like the feeling of falling in love.
Patti’s live performance of “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” is only rivaled by her performance of LaBelle’s hit, “Isn’t It a Shame” live during her 1985 Rainbow Tour. Her expressiveness and miming as she sings “you’ve got to laugh before you cry”, followed by the characteristic Patti move of flapping her hands as if she were a bird. At one point she kicks off her shoes and prances across the stage, leaping and ascending before she falls to the floor where she rolls along while singing. She rises onto her knees in her all-white outfit, her hair proud and curly, her shoulder pads sparkling; the performance is absolutely dazzling.
Patti has a knack for singing in a way that makes you feel like the song is just for you. No song embodies that more for me than “Somebody Loves You Baby.” When I listen to that song, I feel love and feel loved. I think of my mother when I hear that song, a woman I love despite not speaking to her, a person who has hurt me and who I have hurt. Love is not an easy thing, it is its own animal.
After the song’s gentle teasing passes, Patti exclaims, “it’s me,” the somebody who loves you. I think of the women I have loved despite the ways we have hurt each other and remember this. Love itself is not pain, but it does have its trials. While there are trials in love, there is no substitute for it, for the feeling of heart touching another heart and exploding at that contact. It is in that contact that Patti’s music rests for me, the turbulent intimacy of feeling another. I learn from and grow into that space as I continue to love myself and others, for there is no greater love affair than the one we embark on with the truest version of ourselves.