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Even Chaka Khan Had to Grow Into Her Most Powerful Songs

·6 min read
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Welcome to E!'s Tales From the Top, our series on women who are leaders in their fields and masters of their craft. Spanning industries and experiences, these powerhouse women answer all the questions you've ever had about how they got to where they are today—and what they overcame to get there. Read along as they bring their resumés to life.

Chaka Khan has a message for women—and, ideally, men too.

While scrolling online—yes, 10-time Grammy winners scroll just like the rest of us—she ended up watching one video after another, getting a taste of what some young women were putting out there. And Khan was shocked to find that so much of what she was hearing was, to put it frankly, "a lot of crap."

"I'm calling it crap," the mother of two explained to E! News of the less-than-uplifting content she consumed, but "that's a cop-out, because these girls really feel that way. And they didn't feel the self-worth that they should, the respect level they should be at. So, I said, 'I'm just going to do a song next time that speaks to that,' because it really affected me profoundly."

Musicians Performing Live on Stage

Enter Khan's meaty new single, "Woman Like Me," a soulful antidote to the absence of pride she found to be plaguing today's music. "It speaks to both sexes, and I think it speaks wisely," Khan said, noting that she hopes men listen just as closely to the lyrics, which remind one and all that a woman "is your sister, your mother, your daughter, your girl / Better remember / It was a woman who brought you in this world."

And while there's never a wrong time for that message, Khan felt instantly connected when the song was brought to her by her new label, SRG-ILS Group/UMG.

"It's a very timely song for right now," the 69-year-old said, also emphasizing that just because the word "woman" is the title, it bears no similarities to "I'm Every Woman," her 1978 solo debut single that became an empowerment anthem for the ages.

If "I'm Every Woman" is dessert, she added with a smile, "Woman Like Me" is dinner: "Meat and potatoes, straight up with hot sauce on it."

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At the same time, Khan noted, "It's not a joke. This is some real talk. We need to really love and respect each other—and ourselves first."

Which even after 70 million records sold is still a message worth repeating for her own benefit as well.

In fact, the Chicago-born artist, who was only 17 when she signed her first record contract—and married first husband Hassan Khan to avoid needing her mother's permission to make the deal—remains a work in progress.

Grateful for the opportunity to still be doing what she loves and for the fans who keep showing up, Khan talked to E! News about growing into her powerful music, advice for up-and-coming singers and the secrets of her enduring career:

Tales From The Top, Chaka Khan
Getty Images/E! Illustration

E! News: When you got married at 17, did you realize what a great name "Chaka Khan" would be?

Chaka Khan: It didn't occur to me—I never foresaw any of this. It's all been a big surprise to me—and still is—in many respects. I just knew that I needed my freedom, that's the kind of girl I am. I was not a home-girl, I was not a mommy's girl. I was a get-out and-do-my-life girl. And that's what I did.

E!: Can you tell me what happened on that momentous day in 1974 when you asked Stevie Wonder if he had anything else he was working on?

CK: He didn't know I was pregnant [with daughter Indira] and I was about to deliver. I'm true to the music, you know? The first song he played I didn't care for, so I told him, "No, what else you got?" He asked me for my birth sign [Aries] and came up with "Tell Me Something Good." That song, I knew, it worked for me, and we became lifelong friends because of that. We went on a more than two-year tour—and when we got back off the road, we both owed our labels two albums.

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E!: What were you feeling when you recorded "I'm Every Woman"?

CK: Actually, at that point in my life, I wasn't feeling like every woman, and it took me a minute—some years, actually—to grow into a comfort zone singing lyrics like "I'm every woman, it's all in me." That's a lot to take on. And I feel my songs, I have to sell them, I have to believe it. I'm now very comfortable with it—but only in the last, maybe, 10 years.

E!: Are you still having fun with your stage style?

CK: I did in the beginning of my career—and then the middle of my career I just said, "Whatever, I'll find something." Now I'm designing my own stuff again. I did it in the beginning for comfort, 'cause I was sweating a lot in the clubs. I would pay homage to the Blackfoot Indian in me. When I got ready to go back out on the road this time, I thought, Well, we can dress up like a Barbie doll, or like any kind of doll. So I got to my board and said, "Let me draw up some designs." And that's what I did. I'm not going to stand there for 90 minutes and perform in high heels anymore, that's just ridiculous.

Tales From The Top, Chaka Khan
Tales From The Top, Chaka Khan

E!: How do you re-center yourself after experiencing frustration or something didn't turn out the way you hoped?

CK: They just weren't meant to happen. [Laughing] That's how we do that.

E!: Drawing on your own experiences, what advice do you have for today's young artists?

CK: I think what singers and musicians need to hear today is, work hard and stand in your space—and not get turned around. If you are trying to give a certain message to people and it's important to you, stick with it. Don't let any amount of money, or persuasion of any kind, take you away from what you are truly about. Because at the end of the day, and at the end of your life, it's going to be just you—and you've got to live with yourself.

Chaka Khan, Woman Like Me
The SoNo Recording Group

E!: So much of your music has proved to be timeless. Why are people still coming back for more?

CK: God only knows, and I'm only thankful to God that people still are. I'm thankful that I can still do this and that people still love me and listen to me. Only by the grace of God could I be here today. I've had a tough life, but I've made it through—to this point. And I so love my people, the audiences that love me. I'm doing it for love of you, and this is the truth.

E!: And your new song, "Woman Like Me," is about the importance of loving and respecting each other.

CK: And loving one's self. I like myself a lot. I don't know if I love myself yet, but I'm working on it.

E!: You've called yourself a perennial, blooming when the times need you—is this the seed of what might be a new album, or are you taking it one song at a time?

CK: I may be blooming more than once a year—'cause I got to bloom fast—so I may just step it up a bit. There's more stuff coming, absolutely.

(This interview was edited for length and clarity.)

"Woman Like Me" is available to stream and download now.