After her more than 40 years in the music business, Patti LaBelle’s signature multioctave range, kinetic performances and fashion forwardness have endeared her to fans worldwide. Her latest effort, Timeless Journey (Def Jam), is a pilgrimage to Patti’s soul. And when Patti invites folks into her world, expect the plain and simple truth because that’s the only way this Grammy-winning sister knows how to be, even after recording nearly 50 albums.

On the eve of her sixtieth birthday, ESSENCE caught up with the soulstress, who kept it real about keeping up with the younger generation, adopting a child, and her friends Janet Jackson and the late Nina Simone.

The important thing about getting any award is always making sure you deserve it and that you maintain the standard that earned you the honor in the first place.

My biggest accomplishment is my son, Zuri. Hair, clothes, music—all that other stuff makes me feel good temporarily, but they come at a cost, financial or otherwise. Not my son; his love is free.

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I never feel pressured to have a more youthful sound. I just do what I do best, and people have an appreciation for it. What I do is good enough that Wyclef, DMX and OutKast ask me to work with them. Although I admire all the younger artists, I never try to emulate them or sing young music. I will always do what’s best for Patti and nothing that makes me feel less than my 59 years. If I tried to do anything other than that, it wouldn’t be real.

I was talking to Nina Simone about a week before she died. She told me I was going to have to learn how to be mean. I can’t be mean, but I have learned to demand what’s rightfully mine. When I put my foot down and say, “This is mine,” I mean it.

My ex-husband and I are still friends. We have a son together. Anyway, my ex wasn’t the enemy; the marriage was the enemy. We stayed together for my son.
If I wasn’t so old and I had the right man, I would have another child. I would even adopt. I missed out on raising my son in his younger years. I was always on the road, and my husband took care of him and went to all the PTA meetings. But I have to tell myself I did my best and make peace with it. I suppose there is still a void there. But if Zuri would have some kids, then I could just take my grandbabies and raise them.

Someone asked me how I felt about being a Black woman—an older Black woman—in the industry. I said, “I know that if I were Madonna or anyone else, I’d be further along in my career.” I also let them know I don’t worry about age, but I always worry about color. In America, a White woman is always going to come before the Black woman. That’s just the way it is.

I spoke to Janet the night before the Grammys, and she said she wasn’t coming because she hadn’t been invited. They invited Justin but not her; that’s the kind of racism I’m talking about. Racism will always exist.