The Legends: Chaka Khan

The Legends: Chaka Khan

Giving credit to her influences and building on her legacy of empowerment.

Giving credit to her influences and building on her legacy of empowerment.

Photography: Justin Campbell

Text: Ilana Kaplan

Chaka Khan’s raspy, soaring vocals reveal a woman who’s lived more than one lifetime throughout her 64 years. It’s no secret that the recent months have seen a number of incomprehensible losses in the realm of music and film. For Khan, born Yvette Marie Stevens, these hit especially close to home, but she’s come to peace with the experience. “Girl, it’s not really that new of a thing for me,” she says. “I’ve lost a lot of people I’ve loved in my time on the earth. I’ve lost a lot of real special friends the past few years, though.” One of those friends was the incomparable Prince. As she speaks of the Purple One and their time working together, there’s pure awe in her voice: “When we were on tour together, I would time it so I’d be there for his next guitar solo,” Khan remembers. “I just loved his guitar playing. He was amazing. He was a pure genius, but his guitar just took me to another place.”

Prince’s death last April also forced Khan to confront her own demons. She had been battling addiction with fentanyl, the painkiller that caused Prince’s overdose. Last July, Khan and sister Yvonne Stevens (aka Taka Boom) went into a rehabilitation program together to kick the habit. “I have a real healthy fix on life and death,” she adds. “Life is part of death, and death is part of life.” Though Prince is gone, she can still feel his presence in his songs: “[Music is] an expression that transcends every other form of expression on Earth,” she meditates.

With that sentiment, Khan seems at ease. And right now, she’s turned her focus to her legacy, at the core of which is empowering others. From her 1978 dance pop entrance with “I’m Every Woman” to her body positive single “I Love Myself” released this year, Khan has been preaching self-acceptance for almost 40 years. “I was thinking about younger girls and body image, and [how they’re] not realizing, in my opinion, what true beauty is or true beauty emanates from, which is one’s character,” she says of her recent single. “It’s something from the inside out.” The song was born out of Khan wanting to see women thrive and be happy with who they are: “I just felt compelled to sing those words,” she explains tenderly.

Songwriting has been at the heart of Khan’s work throughout the years, something for which she gives credit to her love of folk singer Joni Mitchell. “She’s influenced me for a very long time,” notes Khan. “As I recall, I listened to her when I was still in high school, so she’s influenced me most of my life.” In fact, Khan remembers clearly how Mitchell’s album Hejira got her through a difficult tour she thought she might not be able to finish. “It’s lonely out here on the road sometimes,” she confesses. “I was going through some issues in my life. [Mitchell] really mellowed me out in a good way.”

Years later, Khan has become friends with Mitchell, to whom she refers as “one of the brightest people on the planet.” Mitchell has had such an effect on Khan that she’ll be releasing a record of all Mitchell covers. Though it may seem like an odd pairing, Khan thinks her style helps uncover aspects of Mitchell’s music that were there all along. “She makes the most conversational lyrics and there are so many amazing album cuts,” Khan says. “I’m still discovering stuff. She doesn’t know that she’s kind of funky too—she’s got an understanding of rhythm that’s remarkable.” With producer Eve Nelson, Khan went for deep cuts on her forthcoming cover record: songs that touched on love and life and resonated personally with Khan. Together, producer and legendary musician crafted a beautiful tribute.

But the Mitchell cover record isn’t the only thing Khan is plotting. In fact, it’s only one of the things she’s working on. Along with Raphael Saadiq, Khan is focused on a full-length of originals. “I’m working with a few remixers [and doing] some dance stuff,” she explains. She’s also set on memorializing Prince with her own tribute, alluding to something involving the record they made together, Come 2 My House. For Khan, Prince will always be a big part of her life and career. And Khan isn’t slowing down anytime soon—she’s having too much of a good time to even consider the possibility. “I’m a busy lady, I’m a creative,” attests Khan. “Creating is fun.” Good thing we’ll be along for the ride.

Credits: PHOTOGRAPHED BY JUSTIN R CAMPBELL. CHAKA'S HAIR AND MAKEUP BY George Robert Fuller.

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