Even if you think you don’t know Chaka Khan, you know Chaka Khan. Once the front woman of the iconic funk band Rufus and later a solo icon in her own right, hits like “Ain’t Nobody,” “I’m Every Woman,” and “Like Sugar” are instantly recognizable, even across generational lines. She was only a teenager when she signed her first record deal – then as a part of Rufus – but even by then, she’d already lived a lot of life.
Born Yvette Marie Stevens, Khan grew up in Chicago, Illinois during the fifties and sixties. Brought up in the Catholic Church, Khan’s first foray into music occurred when she sang in the choir. A few years later, at age 11, she, her sister, and a few neighbor girls formed a singing group called the Crystalettes. Though music remained a passion of hers, her first time in front of a crowd came after her step-mother, a civil rights activist, encouraged a fourteen-year-old Khan to speak at civil rights rallies. Her speeches caught the attention of the Black Panthers who quickly recruited her. Her tendency to cut class, coupled with her young age, made her a good candidate to sell newspapers to raise money for the Panthers, and to help with their various social programs, including the Free Breakfast for School Children Program which sought to provide a healthy breakfast before school to children who otherwise would not have access to one. However, as told to The Guardian, Khan’s time with the Panthers ended after they gave her a gun, which she hated keeping in the house.
She dropped out of high school completely in 1969 to revisit her passion for music by performing around Chicago with various groups until eventually Rufus brought Khan in as their lead vocalist after they saw her perform in 1972. With Khan as their front woman, Rufus’ popularity exploded. Over the course of their career, Rufus was nominated for three Grammys and won two, saw five albums go gold and one platinum, and released a documentary film, Stompin’ at the Savoy. Despite a constantly shifting lineup, Khan remained at the forefront of the band’s most successful work.
In the late 70s, Khan continued to collaborate with Rufus but also set out to release work under her own name, starting with 1978’s Chaka. The album’s lead single—and Khan’s debut solo single— “I’m Every Woman,” was a massive hit. The album went platinum and marked the beginning of what would become a wildly successful solo career, outshining the already-impressive success of Rufus.
1983 saw Khan’s last collaboration with Rufus. The group went out with a bang thanks to “Ain’t Nobody,” one of the group’s most beloved tracks today, which made it to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot R&B Chart and earned the group a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo Or Group with Vocal. Now free to focus entirely on her solo career, Khan’s success continued to grow throughout the 80s and 90s. She worked with the likes of producer Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, and Prince, whom not only penned her hit 1984 single, “I Feel For You,” but considered Khan a close friend. While remaining in the vein of R&B and funk, Khan broadened her genres, pulling sounds and styles from jazz, pop, and gospel into work.
An exhaustive list of Khan’s awards, accomplishments, and accolades could fill a book, but in summary she won ten Grammy Awards from 22 nominations, three American Music Awards from four nominations, and has been nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame four times with Rufus and three as a solo artist. However, the enduring appeal of Khan is not this list of achievements. Lots of award-winning, chart-topping musicians have faded into time’s oblivion. It’s Khan clear passion for what she does, which bleeds into every song she sings, that continues to move listeners.
Over a half-century since the start of her music career, the magic of making and performing music has not left her. 2019’s Hello Happiness, Khan’s latest release, captures the uplifting mood of her early work and proves the spark that first put her on the map is far from burning out. She tells us, “I love to connect with people. It’s still a gas. I love performing, I live to perform. Performing in smaller, more intimate settings is ideal. Music allows me to connect intimately with people, especially in playing smaller, off-the-beaten-path festivals like Roots N Blues Festival.”
Throughout each of Khan’s activist pursuits, musical ventures, and professional collaborations, there exists a recurring theme of authenticity. She’s not here to deliver watered-down pop hits, nor say what she thinks will win public favor. An ex-Black Panther, a high school drop-out, and a fifty-odd-year music veteran, Khan didn’t become the bonafide star she is today by chance. Beyond her astounding vocals, Khan’s ultimate talent lies in the spirit with which she approaches music. She tells us, “Music connects with people and is able to be used for messages of hope and self-worth more than other arts. Music is the communication of the angels. It’s angelic communication. That’s why I can go and sing. It’s the highest form of communication, in my opinion. It’s right-brain stimulation. It’s this thing with your heart.”
See the legend in action on Saturday night, October 8th, at Roots N Blues Festival in Columbia, MO. Get your pass here: https://rootsnbluesfestival.frontgatetickets.com/.