Chaka Khan: The Complexity of a Woman
A few years ago I had the pleasure of seeing Chaka Khan live in Raleigh, North Carolina. The legendary songstress was the opening act for Prince, which was obviously a treat to say the least. At any rate, I immediately noticed the strong and intense connection she had with fans, especially the ladies. After several great songs during the performance, I swear thousands of people joined Chaka as she graced us with “I’m Every Woman.” It was truly a breathtaking experience hearing the unity, passion, and excitement on stage. Chaka Khan has always kept a bond with her fan base. If you loved Chaka Khan in the 70’s with Rufus, I think it’s safe to say that you still love her in 2017. Legendary performers generally have an interesting story behind their rise to stardom. Chaka Khan is no different in this regard and her road has been filled with triumph and bumps along the way. I always feel it’s important to take a brief trip down memory lane.
As we discuss the life of Chaka Khan, we have to start from the beginning of her journey. Chaka Khan was born Yvette Maria Stevens on March 23, 1953 in Chicago. Chaka was raised in a family that was very talented. Two of her siblings had music careers and her parents had artistic talent as well. Being raised on the South Side of Chicago in the projects, Chaka would experience trials and tribulations early on. Regardless of societal challenges, Chaka was enthusiastic about music and started a girl group with her sister Taka Boom, who eventually had several songs that charted in the 70’s and 80’s. As for the girl group during their pre teen years, Chaka was perfecting her vocals and maturing. During the late 60’s, Chaka started attending Civil Rights Gatherings in Chicago and eventually joined the Black Panther Party after befriending fellow activist Fred Hampton in 1967. I wonder how many of her fans know these details about her background. Not only was she getting serious about her music career but Chaka was also serious about seeing change in America.
For the next 3-5 years Chaka was a member of several groups. In 1972 during a performance in the Chicago area, Chaka was recruited by members of a new band called Rufus. In 1973 the band signed to ABC Records and Chaka’s life would never be the same. Prior to signing the deal, Chaka married musician Hassan Khan and officially went by the stage name Chaka Khan moving forward. Chaka went on to record 11 albums with Rufus before going solo. During the bands success, there were several notable songs released that are still relevant decades later. Some of these hits include “Tell Me Something Good”, “Sweet Thing”, and “Ain’t Nobody”. Needless to say, these tracks have been remade, sampled and influenced various artists over the years. I heard “Ain’t Nobody” for the first time as a kid watching the Hip Hop Movie Breakin’. I immediately fell in love with the song and Chaka Khan’s sound. This was around 1984 if my memory serves me correctly. During this time Chaka released 5 solo albums while she was still with Rufus (Band). This definitely wasn’t normal as most lead singers didn’t have solo careers while performing and recording in a group. In 1984, Chaka was on fire as an artist.
On October 1, 1984 Chaka Khan released her critically acclaimed album “I Feel For You”. The title track and lead single “I Feel For You” was a cover of a 1979 Prince track (same name), with Stevie Wonder playing the chromatic harmonica. The other voice in the song echoing “Ch-ch-cha-Chaka-Chaka Khan” was performed by the Hip Hop Legend Grandmaster Melle Mel. At any rate, this album took Chaka Khan to even higher heights. The third single “Through The Fire” influenced a generation on singers and artist. Over 20 years after this track was released, a new rapper who called himself Kanye West sampled “Through The Fire” as the first single on his debut album, “The College Dropout.” Ironically enough, Kanye West was also born and raised in Chicago, just as Chaka Khan. I actually didn’t put two and two together until I started working on this blog. Over the next few years Chaka would work with Stevie Wonder (again), Ray Charles, Quincy Jones and other greats.
Chaka Khan is also a complex individual. As I always say, you generally can’t escape trials and tribulations when you are blessed with so much talent. For some odd reason, it appears to come with the territory. It’s almost like a trade off. After several marriages and failed relationships, Chaka would move back and forth between The United States and Europe. Chaka Khan also struggled with Cocaine and Alcohol for years. Chaka stated that she is an alcoholic but has been sober over a decade. Chaka has been transparent over the years in interviews stating that Cocaine Addiction was a constant struggle at one point. It was also rumored that Chaka and Whitney Houston partied a lot together with Drugs and Alcohol in the early 90’s. Chaka Khan also dealt with a murder case her son was involved in (testifying on his behalf). He was eventually found not guilty in a homicide but rumors circulated that he had a drug addiction as well. There is no individual on this earth who hasn’t faced internal struggles to some degree. The struggle comes in different forms. Chaka Khan’s therapy in some cases came from recording music. Chaka loves to sing and she loves to perform. Even though she has struggled with personal issues, the passion for music never dissipated.
After all is said and done, Chaka Khan's career has lasted almost 50 years with 10 Grammy Awards and international fame. Chaka Khan has a complex background from being raised in Hyde Park (South Side Chicago), becoming a member of the Black Panthers, alliance with Fred Hampton, battling Addiction and going head to head with several of the most legendary musicians in American History. Her story is truly compelling and I can only provide you with somewhat of an overview. Chaka Khan has so many layers to her legend. I tell you what, I love Chaka Khan. I always admired her voice, smile, flavor and beauty. Chaka Khan has stood the test of time and remains relevant. Chaka Khan continues to perform at National Conventions (Political) and tours. I hope Chaka is in a happy and healthy place in her life. I have been a fan since 1984 and remain completely satisfied with her discography. At the end of the day, the great ones leave a legacy. Chaka Khan will remain one of our queens for generations to come.
Ain't Nobody - Chaka Khan