Politics and Progress With Patti LaBelle 

By Matt Bell

Originally published on Advocate.com November 20 2008 12:00 AM ET

The last time
girl-group Labelle dropped an album, the thought of a black
president or same-sex marriage seemed as
“far-out” as the band’s
disco-spacewoman suits and fusion of disco, rock, and soul.
It was 1976, to be exact, and even though Sarah Dash,
Nona Hendryx, and Patti LaBelle continued to put out
their own work, 2008's Back to Now is their
first full-length effort since Elton John came out of
the closet. Always a fan of her own gay following, we caught
up with Miss Patti, fresh off of a cross-country
red-eye flight, and did some much-needed dishing about
the new album, Barack Obama, and her pal Jennifer
Hudson.

The Advocate:There have been rumors for a while that Labelle
would get back together. There was the one song on
the To Wong Foo soundtrack, and
then "Lady Marmalade" became a huge hit again. What
finally got the three of you back together?
Patti LaBelle: We were apart for 30 years, but
not really apart, because the girls would be working with me
or doing something with me all the time, like the BET
Walk of Fame or the Apollo Special. So we were never
really away from each other for 30 years, we just left
the scene and we all left it together. It wasn’t like
Patti LaBelle wanting to go solo, because even two
years after the split-up I was seeing a shrink so I
could get my mind right to go out there without them.
I didn’t want people to blame me or throw eggs at me
for leaving Labelle. So the band split, but we stayed
in touch and we got married again recently after
hearing this song "Rosa," about Rosa Parks, that is on
the album. And so we did "Rosa," and after that we
started recording with Lenny Kravitz, Kenny Gamble, Leon
Huff, Wyclef Jean, and finished the project.
It’s only been this long because every time we
would want to get together, I would have so much on my plate
that I couldn’t make the right time. Now I'm
able to dedicate a little more of my real time to Sara
and Nona. If I had to come back half-step, I didn’t
want to come back at all.

Has the creative process for you three changed
since you first got together, or did you fall right back
into it?
It seems as though it never stopped. We
didn’t have to work too hard to get that sound
or that feeling again. It was like old-school. It was
still good.

You’ve always been one to deliver strong
message-type songs. "Tears for the World" on the new
album hits on a lot of issues, from Hurricane
Katrina to the wars to homelessness to global
warming. How did that song come about?
That day we were recording with Kenny Gamble,
and Leon Huff came into the room and it was a dark
day. It was dark in the studio and my Feng Shui was
jacked up. I was feeling real bad energy and so I had
everyone in the studio pray together. Leon came into
the room and asked me why I was crying and I said they
are tears for the world. The world was going insane
and there was so much that seemed wrong. He went home that
night and wrote the song, and when I heard it I
thought it was awesome. There’s so much
devastation in the world today. I mean, the gay rights thing
right now -- everyone is crying and things are upside down.
The most positive thing is that we did get Obama. It
was such a blessing, and then this gay rights thing
happened the same day. Finally, it seemed as if it was
time for everyone to just get along and then Prop. 8 came
after this great Tuesday night.

Exit polls show that the black community voted for
Prop. 8 in large majorities. As someone who is loved so
much by both the gay community and the black
community, what do you think could help to mend
the divide?
Really? I honestly haven’t heard that! I
haven’t been able to keep up with the news. I
just catch a little bit on CNN and I was devastated
about what happened to the gay community in California. You
know, I thought we [the gay and black community] were
together! I know it’s possible for the gays and
the blacks to come together because we’re both
the underdogs. I just think it’s sad. Everyone should
just give peace a chance and let everybody be
themselves. I’m so tired of judgment. I hope it
gets right. I’m praying for it to get right.

 PATTI LABELLE X100 (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COM

Did you ever think you’d see America vote for a
black president? What were you doing that night?
Yes. I was sitting on the edge of my bed, afraid
to watch because I thought there would be some
trickery. Even though I knew Obama should get it, I
kept thinking that someone was going to trick him out of it.
I turned it on and off over and over, and when it was
finalized that Obama won, I didn’t move. I just
silently cried and said, "Thank you, Lord, there is
hope." It’s the most wonderful night I’ve had
in my life… Well, one of the most. So I think
good things for the gay community can happen. If Obama
can happen, things can happen for the gays as well.
Obama is for the world. He is the new hope for the world. I
was in Canada and it was like he was their president.

It does seem like the perfect time for Labelle to
tour, time to celebrate. Will this be a final farewell,
or is this the beginning of something new for Labelle?
This is the beginning. There should be more
albums and more tours! I’m no one-hit wonder.
And Verve, the record company, is behind us. We plan to
keep on going as long as we can.

Labelle is known for flamboyant concert costumes.
Should we be expecting anything crazy this time around?
How much of these crazy looks are from your input?
To be honest with you, I don’t know what
I’m wearing tomorrow night! At the Apollo
Theater, I’ll have something outrageous made.
I’m very involved in what I wear. We go to the
designer to get me the sketches and then we have to go
see the muslin and then make the judgments. I don’t
just let anyone make something for me. I have to work with
them through the process.

You and Jennifer Hudson became fast friends after
you met at the 2007 GLAAD Media Awards. Have you heard
from her? How is she doing?
She called for me three times and I was out of
reach. When her assistant finally got me on the phone,
Jennifer just said, “I can’t talk to Mama
Patti right now.” It had to be so crazy for her. When
she’s ready she’ll talk to me herself,
but I’m reaching out and praying for her.

How do you find the energy to keep going -- to keep working? I am tired, but I do it because I can. It
hasn’t gotten so bad that I can't sing or
dance, but I do have to give myself Patti time. And me,
I’ve got 18 jobs -- I’m like a Jamaican!
It’s like every day I say I have to take off
next week! I just have to get away.

But you've kept doing it. You don’t have to
keep working. What drives you?
My people! And really, the offers come in every
day and I just like to say yes because I can. I can
complain about my being tired, but it’s my
fault.

-- Back to Now
is in stores now. For more information on
Labelle visit
www.labelleisback.com.