If you are too offline to know what “Verzuz” is, or too young to understand why everybody has been raving about Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight on social media this weekend, let me help you out (sort of). You missed one of the greatest, possibly defining, cultural events of the pandemic era because you decided Instagram had too many ads and you thought, what, the women who helped define the R&B genre are “old people” music?
First off, Patti and Gladys — and their surprise guest, Dionne Warwick (who, notably, was Whitney Houston’s cousin) — made some of the most important music in American history. Whether your knowledge of their discographies started after their hits were made or, like me, you grew up on a steady diet of their songs, you can and should recognize echoes of their work in current hits such as Beyoncé’s “Lemonade album, or Chloe x Halle’s “Forgive Me.”
And, if you somehow missed the “Verzuz” phenomenon, basically, two artists perform (or in the case of producers, play) up to 20 songs of their discography and discuss them while streaming on Instagram (and now AppleTV) in a nominal “battle of the bands” — though, really, it’s viewers who win. Beginning in the early days of the coronavirus quarantine, matches were between current stars, but over time “Verzuz” has evolved — technologically and otherwise — to include the greats of past decades.
Which takes us to Sunday, when all-time greats Patty LaBelle “faced off” against Gladys Knight for the aforementioned bragging rights. Of course, the singing was flawless; of course, the competition sublime; of course, bringing in Dionne Warwick just added to the perfection. But for many people, listening to them sing their back catalogues and compare stories brought up so much more than that.
For me, their music stirs up childhood memories of Saturday cleaning and Sunday cooking: I was raised by my grandparents and an aunt, and it was not a weekend unless the radio was on and there were greens to pick or chores to do while the radio played. Whether it was 1991’s “Superwoman” with all three artists or Patti LaBelle’s “On My Own,” Sunday’s “Verzuz” wasn’t just the sound of an era, it was the soundtrack of my childhood.
Music weaves itself into our lives: it cements certain moments into our memories, evoking the smells, the feelings and even the flavors that were integral to the first time we heard a given song. I can’t tell you what was on top of the Billboard charts when I was 5 or 7 (or even 11) because even though Patti LaBelle’s and Gladys Knight’s works were technically songs for Gen X’s parents (or very cool grandparents), they also were the first music that many of us heard as kids.
And yes, I still associate it with chores — that music playing on a Saturday morning meant it was time to get up and clean — but also with feeling loved, with dancing with the broom, with singing into a ladle, and sitting in the kitchen hearing the stories I wasn’t old enough to hear.
When my grandmother passed away, I listened to Patti LaBelle, Dionne Warwick and Gladys Knight (along with Aretha Franklin and others) on a playlist whenever I wanted to remember that feeling of being a child in her kitchen; nothing else brought those memories back so fast. There’s something about the memories their music evokes for people, especially my age, that can be both a shared experience and yet utterly unique.
In some Black communities, we often talk about giving people their flowers when they are alive — which means recognizing their work, and telling them you appreciate and love them when they’re alive instead of waiting until they are gone to appreciate them out loud. “Verzuz” on Sunday allowed the past to speak to the present, allowed us to remember that the generations that came before us fought to make a way for us to thrive. It was a way to give Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight and Dionne Warwick their flowers while they are alive, especially at a moment when so many elders are being taken from us too soon.
But beyond that, to see the women whose music feels so integral to my life with grandmother on stage together on Sunday night was amazing for another reason.
My grandmother’s death was hard on me; I wasn’t ready to let her go. And I missed her furiously watching “Verzuz” — so much so, I cried when some of her favorite songs came on. But then I called my aunt, and we talked about her, food, the music and I remembered that she loved me and she would be happy for me, for the family I built and for the career I have now.
The past can be painful, but it can also be the foundation for everything you love, for the strength that it gives you to face the future even when it is fraught. It’s easy right now to get caught up in fear, to be stressed and afraid and to forget that your ancestors came through so much to let you get this far. You can keep going, keep fighting; you can teach your kids and your grandkids that love lives in you and in them. And you can do so with a soundtrack — so they’ll remember not just the songs but what you taught them when it comes back on.
“Verzuz” with Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight reminded me — and should remind you — that listening to the past is not just about the music; it’s about the memories.