Chaka Khan: ‘All lives matter, let’s get that straight’

Enchantress of Soul: Chaka Khan
Enchantress of Soul: Chaka Khan
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“Don’t spread it about too much, but I hate most of the songs I have to sing,” confides Chaka Khan. At 71, the ‘Queen of Funk’ and ‘Enchantress of Soul’ particularly dreads performing “that rap song”: her Grammy-winning, million-selling 1984 smash “I Feel For you”.

Written by Prince (first featuring on his 1979 self-titled album) and featuring a harmonica solo by Stevie Wonder, Khan has always been left cringing by the track’s intro rap on which Melle Mel (of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five) repeats the singer’s name and today she tells me “anybody would be tired of singing the same f—ing song for so many years. People get pissed if I’m honest about that, so you might see some backlash if you print it. But I don’t give a f—. I want to stand on stage and tell people: if you want to hear that song then go home and put a CD on!” She laughs then observes: “There are some old songs I’m always happy to see on the set list like ‘Ain’t Nobody’ [1983]. Isn’t that interesting? I wonder what’s in that song that continues to light me up?”

To celebrate 50 years in the music business, this summer Khan will be appearing at both the Cambridge Folk Festival and the Southbank’s Meltdown – which she is also curating. On the phone from her 70 acre estate in Georgia, Khan explains that the artists she’s invited to appear at her soul and R&B themed Meltdown [including stars Mica Paris and Beverly Knight] was “to create community, to lift and educate young people in an enjoyable way.”

Now a great grandmother, Khan spends much of her time travelling around schools, talking to children aged from five to fourteen. “I’ll talk about  sex, drugs, life about anything, because that’s the job of a 71-year-old woman. To provide help and inspiration.” She’s been impressed by “how smart they are, how much they know about life. They’re little wise’uns. I call ‘em my ‘star babies’.”

But she worries that they are too glued to their phones, and has been saddened to notice an increase in the fear these kids seem to feel towards others. She thinks they’re absorbing it from their parents so “I’ve learned to keep the mothers and fathers out of my sessions. Without parental judgement in the room, kids are more free to tell me about their lives and I can tell them about mine, because I’ve had an interesting  life.”

Rufus featuring Chaka Khan in 1975
Rufus featuring Chaka Khan in 1975 - Soul Train via Getty Images

Born on Chicago’s South Side as Yvette Stevens in 1953 Khan’s bohemian father named her after a Stan Getz jazz song. She was an energetic kid who joined a girl group with her sister at the age of 11. Her father took her on civil rights marches in the 1960s which led to her later joining the Black Panthers. Although it’s widely believed she rebranded herself ‘Chaka’  (meaning woman of fire) during her time in the black power party, she was actually given the name by a Yoruba priest when she was 13.

“Growing up, I wanted to be a firefighter, a policewoman, a teacher, even a nun… anything to be of service,” she says. But she realised that her musical gifts were also a form of public service and joined the influential, multiracial funk band Rufus in 1970. At this point she caught the eye of Ike Turner who flew her out to audition as one of his “Ikettes”. But Khan was savvy about what would be required of her.

“I couldn’t have sung with Ike Turner then if I’d wanted to,” she says, explaining that “there were certain things you had to do to be an Ikette. One was to f— him. The other was to get in with Tina and do some wild sh-t. It was too wild for me. I was a wild person, but not like that. Absolutely f—ing not. I sensed that was all something I didn’t want to be a part of. I told him to check me out of that cheap hotel and fly me back home.”

'Anybody would be tired of singing the same old song': Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan in 1982
'Anybody would be tired of singing the same old song': Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan in 1982 - Ralph Dominguez/MediaPunch via Getty Images

She showed the same independence of spirit when Stevie Wonder offered her the song “Tell Me Something Good” to sing with Rufus, asking if he “had anything else”. In the end that 1974 recording became her first hit. Years later, Khan tells me, “I got to know Ike very well and found that he could be a sweet, loving person. But he was a tortured individual.”

Next she’d work with Prince, whom she describes as “a beautiful soul”. The late singer forged his relationship with her – as with most of his female collaborators – over the phone. “He would call and talk about deep sh-t, about books we were both reading,” she says. Khan and Prince co-wrote and co-produced her 1998 album, Come 2 My House. She recalls that “over the month we were recording I lost a lot of weight. We went out to an after party one night in a tight dress and I saw then that he was really into a woman’s body from the way he went on and on talking with me.” She took a moment to assess his evident admiration, then thought: “that’s OK, that’s alright.”

While Khan has been open about her struggles with addiction over the years, she’s said she had no idea that Prince was also battling a dependence on the prescription of synthetic opioid Fentanyl. But after his death in 2016, she and her sister Yvonne both checked themselves into rehab for addiction to the same drug, cancelling concerts and putting out a statement that she felt she had to “take action to save my life”. Today, she says that keeping busy keeps drugs off of her mind.

“If you’re lying around at home, you don’t have sh-t to do, that’s when it [taking drugs] might cross our mind.” she says. “Right now, you know, in the spring time there’s not a lot of gigs. So I’m happy that I’m out here in the country with stuff to do. I feed our ducks and plant trees…”

I’m surprised that a former Black Panther would move to the American South but she laughs off my concerns. “You mean slavery and all the f—ed up sh-t that went on down here?” she says. “Well, that happened. But I find the white people in the south to be some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I try to start a fight and I can’t!”

These days she has no interest in politics. She condemns it as “bullsh-t. A distraction. A sick, powerful thing that needs to be eliminated.” Although she has performed at both Republican and Democratic conventions in the past, she stresses that was only to raise money for her foundation to support autistic people. “One of my nephews is autistic, non verbal,” she says. “He’s 26 now and he loves old music videos. Stuff by The Temptations.” But she says she’d “never perform at a convention again” and won’t be drawn on the Black Lives Matter movement. “ALL lives matter, let’s get that straight,” she says. “After all the sh-t I’ve seen, when somebody comes along with a realisation that every life matters, I think: finally they realise that, even if it’s black lives.”

Khan has dealt with her share of racism in the music industry. She’s still angry that Island records removed her vocals from the 1986 duet ‘Addicted to Love’ that she recorded with Robert Palmer. “That was a totally racist decision,” she says. “We killed that song together. But they couldn’t see the greatness for the trees. We were both deeply hurt.” Palmer’s solo version went on to top the charts in the US and went to Number 5 in the UK, while the version featuring Khan is buried in the label’s vault. She wishes it would be released.

'There were certain things you had to do to be an Ikette. One was to f— [Ike Turner]'
'There were certain things you had to do to be an Ikette. One was to f— [Ike Turner]' - Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

We’re speaking just after Beyoncé released her country music album, ‘Cowboy Carter’ which was a response to her feeling ‘unwelcome’, as a black woman, at the Country Music Awards in 2016. Khan reminds me that  Beyoncé also sang country songs with Rufus back in the 1970s and is delighted by Beyoncé’s country success. “Beyoncé’s doing just what she should be doing,” says Khan. “Black people have been making country music from the beginning. I’ve been blown away by some of the great black country bands I’ve seen.”

That said, she admits that she was initially “pissed” when the rapper Kanye West sampled her vocals from “Through the Fire” (1984) and sped them up on “Through the Wire” (2004). She felt she’d been “insulted” and made to sound like a chipmunk. Now she tells me that “once my son explained to me that’s how rap works. Now I understand it, I’m all good with it. And it’s brought more young people into my music.”

Khan expects even more young people to discover her back catalogue when she releases the music she’s currently recording with her god-daughter Sia. “We both work instinctively and fast, we’re very alike,” she says of the platinum-selling Australian musician joined Khan onstage to sing her 1978 hit “I’m Every Woman” when she was inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of fame last November. Khan has also proved she’s in touch with the youth by inviting non-binary people to join the choir she’s putting together for Meltdown. Not everyone her age is on board with modern gender politics. Did it take her a while to catch on? Khan laughs. “Noooo, no.  I’ve always been OK with that kind of thing. I believe people are people. We’re all just frightened loving souls, looking for a harbour.”

Cambridge Club Festival runs 7-9 June; Meltdown runs 14-23 June

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