For now he knew what Shalimar knew: if you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
Flyyyyyy!Patti LaBelle, “Somewhere over the Rainbow”
Part I: Flight—Breath, Movement, Elsewheres
Labelle, the powerful funk/rock/soul group that performed and recorded from 1971 to 1977, had the power to shake up the room. Make the walls thump with their voices. Lift folks up till they soar. On a 1975 appearance on Soul Train, at the height of the group’s popularity, the audience watches transfixed, forgetting to pose. Listening, they move together, individuality somehow melded into one more coordinated body. The bass thumps in their chests and carries them out and onto the dance floor, and we, too, feel the beat deeply. It carries even thirty-five years later. These are not some demure girl group. These are some kind of funky jungle birds, soaring, flying over the audience with their voices, giving them chills.
Within moments of constraint, often linked to the material world of sexism, poverty, and loneliness, we find a consistent sonics of flight and transcendence [End Page 77] in 1970s R&B/funk/rock trio Labelle’s music and performances. We hear the sonics of flight in Labelle’s voices: Patti’s long-held, soaring opening notes, the use of Sarah and Nona’s background voices to circle, support, and uplift, the driving use of repetition and improvisation in the songs’ endings—all aspects of virtuosity, an African-derived aspect of the jazz aesthetic. In Labelle’s distinctly Afrofuturistic and feminist work, the black female body itself becomes a technology for flight. As Mark Dery defines it in his influential essay “Black to the Future: Afro-Futurism 1.0” (Dery, 1995), Afrofuturism is the self-conscious appropriation of technology in black popular culture in order to think out problems of imaginative freedom in the past, present, and future. We might think of this technology in familiar terms—images of space travel, computer enhancement of voice like vocoders—or in less obvious ways—the African drum, the phonograph, the microphone. Labelle’s use of voice, as well as rocking funky dance, combined with incisive lyrics bring to Afrofuturism a black-feminist informed critique of race, sexuality, and gender. The technologies of their highly theatrical performances, including elaborate stage shows and costumes—and not the least, the microphone—make heightened use of the black body, bringing to the fore its survival and flourishing. At the same time that Labelle makes outrageous and amazing use of technologies, they could not do so without the body itself—the body’s movements, its sensuality, the body’s breath as it lifts others and sends them into flight. We see in Labelle’s vocal and dance performances the ability to transcend the merely human toward the spiritual. Labelle uses these powerful tools to move across the constraints of genre, and to push past racialized codes of gender, drawing from the styles and histories of the past, and envisioning a freed-up future for its audiences.
In many ways, Labelle’s ability to capture these moments of flight come from the hard work and insight from a career of struggle and deep immersion in the business of making music. Interviews with the group reveal a foundational sense of neighborhood and family for each of the women, but also experiences of struggle and risk: childhood poverty and violence for Hendryx, losing family members to cancer and diabetes for Labelle, and for all three, navigating the often financially and emotionally exploitative aspects of the music business, handling racial segregation on the road, and the sometimes sexism of the chit-lin’ circuit.
Patti LaBelle, born Patricia Louise Holte on May 24, 1944, began singing at age fourteen, at the Beulah Baptist Church, where she soon began garnering solos. She formed the Ordettes, her first group, in 1958, where she was joined by her future Labelle partners, Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx, in 1959. Daughters of the Black Migration, like Patti, Dash and Hendryx were both born and raised in Trenton, New Jersey—the town where P-Funk...