Iconic Chaka Khan Makes her Mark with Music and Philanthropy
Originally planning on a career in anthropology, the fabulous “Queen of Rock and Funk” Chaka Khan’s life took a different turn.
“I didn’t intend to be a singer; it just happened,” Chaka said.
Chaka grew up in Chicago with middle class beginnings, both parents working at the University of Chicago.
“I was exposed to a lot of international influence through the college, and my horizons were widened,” she said. “I felt that I could do anything. I didn’t feel stifled at all. And Midwesterners are achievers – I think that’s a beautiful trait.”
Growing up, she spent much of her time reading, but both of her parents were very musical, too. They sang and introduced her to music greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie.
“My dad was what they called a beatnik,” she said. “He was cool and liberal, and I had total artistic freedom.”
Chaka is not like a lot of singers who got their start in the church choir, instead, in sixth grade she and her sister and some friends formed The Crystalettes, singing top-20 hits by artists like Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson.
“My mom was supportive and made all of our outfits,” Chaka said. “We participated in competitions, and either we or another group – The Emotions – would always win.”
At 16, Chaka became involved with the Arthur Arts Theater where they put on African shows, and she began to explore her African roots. A shaman from West Africa held a naming ceremony where she was given the name Chaka. She later married Hassan Khan, and the name Chaka Khan was born – and stayed.
“It was definitely a better stage name than my given name, Yvette Marie Stevens,” she said while laughing.
“For a long time, I still thought I would go back to school with a scholarship at the Art Institute of Chicago,” Chaka said. “I wanted to be an anthropologist or a painter.”
But she had the opportunity to fly to Los Angeles to meet Ike Turner and try out to be an Ikette. That didn’t work out, but when she came back home, she started going to Chicago clubs and met Paulette McWilliams, a singer for the group, Rufus.
“I would listen and watch, and I knew then that’s what I wanted to do,” she said.
Paulette left the group, and before long, Chaka was front woman for the group and was signed to a record contract. That move catapulted her into stardom with songs like “Whoever’s Thrilling You (Is Killing Me)” and “Tell Me Something Good,” and Rufus went on tour with Stevie Wonder. Her career path was set.
She’s now been in the business for more than 40 years.
“The main reason I got married then was so I could sign the record contract because I was underage,” she said. “I told my mom I was pregnant (but I wasn’t at that time) so she would let me get married.”
The marriage didn’t last long, but she did have a daughter, Indira, who is now a singer in her own right.
Chaka’s life began to drastically change.
“I moved my family to L.A. and bought my mom a house,” she said.
As thrilling as that was, Chaka had a new baby, which made touring tough, but she enlisted the help of her mom and a nanny.
About that time, she decided she wanted to celebrate the American Indian side of her ethnicity. Designer Michael White made her stage costumes, working with leather and fur-covered bras that exposed her midriff, considered “risqué” at the time. Chaka said she was mostly going for comfort.
As a solo artist, hits include “I’m Every Woman” and her cover of Prince’s “I Feel For You,” with Melle Mel rapping her name again and again.
She has taken home 10 Grammy Awards.
And the concert stage isn’t the only place she has demonstrated her talents, playing Miss Sofia in “The Color Purple” on Broadway; appearing in a cameo in the iconic movie “The Blues Brothers,” and on “American Idol” and “Dancing With The Stars.”
A few years ago, Chaka, whose weight had fluctuated through the years, was told by her doctor that she was pre-diabetic and had high blood pressure.
“I knew I had to do something about it,” she said. “I lost about 75 pounds all together, but you have to learn to eat in a different way, and there’s no getting away from it, you’re going to be hungry sometimes.”
She stresses the importance of no eating too late in the day, protein at breakfast, eating vegetables, and cutting salt. Her home is full of stairs, which has helped her burn calories and stay fit.
But like everyone else, she needs a “cheat day” now and then – then goes back to her healthier lifestyle.
Chaka said there is no man in her life, but she’s adamant that if there was, she would insist on tests before intimacy.
“Nowadays, sex kills. You have to be careful, and I think we all deserve to be able to protect ourselves,” she said.
With all her fame, fortune and accolades, Chaka is down-to-earth, and said the reason we are all here on the planet is to be of assistance to one another.
“If you have money or not, you have something to give. You can give of yourself, whether that’s time, one kind word, a nickel or your old clothes,” she said.
In 1999, she founded the Chaka Khan Foundation in support of “women and children at risk,” particularly those with autism, a subject she became aware of after her nephew was diagnosed with the condition. Chaka is personally involved in the foundation with an active role in events and services.
She always has a few new irons in the fire, currently recording an album of Joni Mitchell songs, developing Chaka handbags, touring and helping others through many different outlets.
For more information on Chaka, visit chakakhan.com or chakakhanfoundation.org.