Gladys Knight ‘Verzuz’ Patti LaBelle, Technology, and the Change Black Grandmothers Are Still Praying For

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On September 13, two legendary icons of soul music treated over a half million viewers to a couple of hours of great music, amazing stories and the type of honest candor that only Black women septuagenarians could offer.

Gladys Knight and Patti LaBelle were the latest “battlers” on Verzuz, the wildly popular format created by super producers Timbaland and Swizz Beats that pits the catalogues of superstar musicians against each other. Verzuz, which began on Instagram as an entertaining outlet for folks stuck at home in quarantine, has morphed into one of the biggest brands in the music business and has provided countless feel good moments in a year steeped in sorrow.

The Patti/Gladys “battle” was possibly the brand’s iconic apex as the friendly divas played (and sang live) over five decades of chart-topping hits. Viewers on Instagram reminisced in the comments about their grandparents and parents playing the timeless tunes or cleaning up on Saturday mornings to the sounds of both Knight and LaBelle.

The event was a brief cultural reprieve in a year wracked with difficult headlines in Black America. And just when those of us who were viewing thought that “Auntie-Chella” couldn’t get any better, LaBelle and Knight were joined by the iconic Dionne Warrick, who came out singing the timeless “That’s What Friends Are For,” in honor of her peers.

I’m sure one would have been hard pressed to find a dry eye anywhere by that time.

But in addition to the cultural offering that is their extensive catalogues, Knight who is 77 and LaBelle who is 76, gave us tales of two Black women who persevered in the music industry amidst intense periods of social change. More importantly, they gave us the wisdom of mothers and grandmothers who lived through some of the nation’s most tumultuous times and could recognize the peril we are currently in.

Without giving away their political leanings, Knight and LaBelle repeatedly emphasized the importance of voting in the November election. They talked at length about the need for increased compassion, love, and systemic change. Their call for advocacy and social justice could have been taken from a performance in the 70s or 80s, but here we were in 2020 listening to two of the greatest artists in our lifetime plead with us to carry on the mantle of progress.

Three years ago, I saw The North Star’s own Shaun King give a talk at LSU that focused on the theme of “The Introduction of Innovation vs. The Dip.” Shaun spoke eloquently about the ways in which technology is always on an advancement trajectory, but humanity typically ebbs and flows regarding progress made. The Patti/Gladys “Verzuz” battle was a case study in that concept, as two musicians in their late seventies were able to entertain millions from a distance while lamenting about the need for the type of change that seems to never come.

The song of freedom is a never-ending one. Sometimes, humanity hits a high note. Most times we struggle to find harmony.

Still, I’m grateful that our amazing elders gave us something sweet to wrap our ears around last night. Lord knows it was needed.

About the Author

Donney Rose is a poet, essayist, advocate and Chief Content Editor at The North Star. He believes in telling how it is and how it should be.