Chaka Khan has always had a lot going on in both her life and remarkable career. The Chicago native, who grew up in a musical family, formed her first singing group at age 11. By the time she was 22, in 1974, she had won a Grammy for her performance with the group Rufus, whose Stevie Wonder-penned “Tell Me Something Good” hit single remains heavily requested at her shows. Two of her 10 Grammy awards were earned in 2008 for her album Funk This and collaboration with Mary J. Blige on the tune “Disrespectful.” It stands as one of Khan’s many collaborations with some of the best in the business, including Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones and Prince.
Born Yvette Stevens, at age 16 she became Chaka Khan, a name given to her by a high priest during a “naming ceremony.” A social activist throughout her life, in the late ’60s she joined the Black Panther Party and remembers skipping the first two periods of school to participate in the Panthers’ Breakfast for Children program. Presently, she heads the Chaka Khan Foundation with its goals to educate, inspire and empower at-risk children. In coordination with Khan’s 2011 appearance at the Essence Festival, her foundation joined forces with Essence and the local Institute of Women & Ethnics (IWE) to establish the Super Life Transformation, a counseling and mentorship initiative.
Khan, 61, who kicked off her solo career in 1978, estimates that she has performed at Essence Festival some 10 times. Though she remembers playing on the Riverboat President during Jazz Fest, this year marks the first time she’ll take a stage at the Fair Grounds.
“I’ve always been drawn to Louisiana,” says Khan, who in the ’70s used to appear in New Orleans with Rufus. She mentions that her father is Creole and family members remain here, though she doesn’t know them. “I remember in the ’70s when I was flying into New Orleans and as soon as we’d get to Louisiana, the sky would turn a greenish color and I felt this pull. I’ve always felt an affinity with New Orleans that just goes deeper—that’s just in my blood.”
The legendary “Queen of Funk” Chaka Khan, credited with an estimated 200 million albums sold over a 40-year career, is a mover and a shaker. On May 19, 2011, her status was further recognized when she earned a star on the renowned Hollywood Walk of Fame.
You’ve performed and recorded in many different genres but it always seems that there’s been an element of funk in there. What do you think is the power of funk? What’s the reason for its longevity?
It’s honest music. Funk is honest. It’s from one heart to another heart. True funk, real good funk, is undeniable. I’m looking to branch out a little bit and add a little rock aspect to my funk. So I’m evolving a bit into some rock, too; some hard rock, some pretty rock—but with a funk foundation.
Musicians come and go but you have been like a Whirling Dervish for years now—you’re involved in so many things. Where do you get your energy?
I do Bible study everyday, just to keep me right—keep the foundation going. I think that longevity in any life’s calling has more to do with the fact that it is a calling. For me, it keeps my sanity. I have to love what I’m doing. I will not do anything that I can’t handle or that I don’t like. That helps keep it honest. That might be it.
Have you been in the studio lately, working on your own project? You haven’t had an album out since 2008’s Funk This. Have you done any more collaborations with other artists as you’ve so often done?
I was in the studio last week and hope to have some singles out before summer. I was also in the studio with [drummer] Sheila E. I haven’t teamed up with anybody lately but I’m looking to do some guest spots—coming and filling in on somebody’s CD—until I get my stuff finished. Collaborating is like two colors coming together and making a new color. I would like to do some rock stuff with Prince. We’ve been planning to do that for years. Maybe we can get together and do that.
As a leader, or in the studio with other artists, what are you like to work with?
I’m easy, girl, I’m easy. I know there’s this kinda thing out there that people say I’m a bitch. But I’m not a bitch. You know what I am? I’m just honest and a lot of people can’t take honesty. I just tell it like I see it. I try to be nice about it but what can you do? I’m not playin’. A lot of people don’t know how to take things seriously. Especially in California. There are a lot of unrealistic people here. [Kahn lives in Los Angles].
What do you have in mind for your Jazz Fest gig? Will the band configuration be the same, or similar, to the one at Essence Festival?
I’ll be bringing in my regular band, which is like nine musicians and three singers. We’ll be doing a damn good show and hopefully we’ll do a couple of songs that everybody will like—that there will be something in there that resonates. I try to do songs from Rufus and then just after Rufus and maybe a cover song or two. We’re still putting our set list together. I dare not try not to do “I’m Every Woman” and I usually slip in “Tell Me Something Good.’”
This is the first time you’ve performed the Jazz Fest at the Fair Grounds. So, do you do many outdoor festivals?
I do them all over the world. The last one I did was in Australia and I’m doing one here at Redondo Beach. I don’t do a lot of clubs. I do mostly private functions for corporations. Right now, I’ve been doing about four gigs a month. I’ll be putting a tour together after I get some product out there.
You’ve always been involved with numerous charitable activities. Are you politically active too?
I’m more socially active. Most of the social activities I do tie in with my charity foundation. However, I do lots of stuff like right now I’m getting ready to do some Habitat [Habitat for Humanity] work and that doesn’t tie into my charity. It just ties in with helping people. I am very service oriented. That is as strong a calling for me as my singing. I think one of the main reasons we are here is to be of service and to assist one another. That helps to balance me. I wonder who gets more of a kick out of it, the people who are helped or me, because I love to be of service.
When you were here for Essence Festival in 2011, your foundation was very involved in the collaborated charitable initiative, Super Life Transformation. Is it still involved?
It was designed to pay it forward. The women who started out with us, the idea was for them to get the help they needed and to pay it forward to the next group of women. I do keep in touch with the people there that are helping out and holding it together.
I’m going to check and make sure it’s going on and find out if they need anything. Many women have reached great heights and were totally changed after a year’s time.
You keep talking about keeping yourself balanced? Are there times you don’t feel balanced?
I have moments just like everybody else. Sometimes, I wake up and I wonder who am I? What am I? Where are my car keys; what do dogs think? I’m just a woman. I’m a mother; I’m a grandmother; I’m raising one of my granddaughters right now—she’s 12 and that’s a full-time job. It’s a job that I love. I wash dishes; I keep the house clean. I like to wash my own clothes and do my own hair. And sometimes, I get pissed off and don’t feel like talking to anybody and I’ll turn my phone off and watch TV and get some passive entertainment going.
What are your thoughts about coming back to New Orleans?
I was down in New Orleans in the ’70s and I used to have a whole lot of fun there—working or not. I always try to get me some red beans and rice and cornbread. Those are my favorite things. That does me right there—I’m happy. I’m really simple; I’m easy to please. I’m not complicated.
How do you have so much going without being complicated?
I’m going to readdress that: I am complicated, but I do like simple pleasures. Simple things make me happy.
Do you listen to music?
Yeah, but not a lot. I’ll put on some Joni Mitchell or some Miles Davis. I don’t listen to a lot of music because I want to keep my ears really clean. It’s weird; I don’t want to hear music so that, when I’m doing music, it’s fresher to me. My granddaughter is playing enough music. I hear ‘boom, boom, boom’ come out of her room. Sometimes, if I hear something interesting, I’ll go in and ask her, ‘Who’s that?’
Anything you want to say to New Orleans?
I’m comin’ down there to kick some behind and put a lot of love on ’em. And I’m looking forward to it. I truly am.