ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
Like Aretha, Cher, and Whitney, Chaka Khan is in that rare company of performers who can go just by their first names.
But unlike those performers, Chaka has a never gained a reputation as a diva among her fans. She is “everybody’s girl,” the kind of person that everyone wants to hang out with.
On the day of the interview, it was just announced that Maya Angelou had died. As tributes were rolling in worldwide, she talked about the impact the beloved poet had on her life.
“I have known her for many years. I remembered when I was a teenager, I was reading her book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. That book left an impression. She has always made a big impression on me. Her wisdom was just ...” she trails off. “She was one of the few people left that made any sense.”
Chaka speaks a lot about society, the people who “don’t have any sense” and the mess they make in this world with their ignorance. It might be said that her early upbringing contributed to her no-nonsense approach to life.
“I went to Catholic school. I was raised a Catholic. I wanted to be a nun. When I was young, my nuns were teachers — up close and personal.”
At 61, after 41 years in the music business, she seems to be at a point in her life where she doesn’t want to waste time on people and things that don’t make sense, but rather she wants to spend her time uplifting others through her music and charitable works. She recently was the headliner at Pride in the Street, billed as Pittsburgh’s largest dance party.
“My gay audience is my most endearing audience. They are the least fickle, always,” she said. “I love performing for them and have done so many, many times.”
The singer has not shied away from discussion about her struggle with addiction and the steps she had to take to get back to what she calls “my original life.” Years of abusing her body with substances and food took their toll. Three years ago she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and went on another quest.
“I had gained weight for 10 to 15 years; food became my friend,” she said.
She adopted a vegan lifestyle and used a VitaMix to shed 75 pounds. “It is good to be back to myself. It is very hard to maintain that lifestyle because I don’t have a cook on the road, but I do maintain clean eating and occasionally have some fish.”
She was painfully reminded of her own struggles when Whitney Houston died in February, 2012. They had a long personal and professional relationship. At the age of 15, Houston sang background vocals on Khan’s 1978 hit I’m Every Woman (written by Ashford & Simpson). Khan returned the favor in 1992 when Houston recorded the song for her Grammy-winning film soundtrack The Bodyguard. The legendary video features a joyfully pregnant Houston, singing and bouncing alongside her mother, Cissy Houston, and Khan. It was classic Whitney Houston at her peak.
Khan did a number of interviews deeply criticizing the music industry and the machinery of stardom that contributed to Houston’s death. She talked about the measures she takes to maintain her health and sobriety and said that Whitney — as fragile as she was — never should have been put in a situation where she was at risk.
She was pointedly critical of Clive Davis, head of Arista Records, and his decision to forge ahead with his Grammy pre-party in the same hotel hours after Houston died. She says she hasn’t seen any changes in the industry since Houston’s death.
“No. None. You can’t put a price on what we do. We speak the language of the angels.”
Is this saga doomed to repeat itself with this new crop of young stars borne out of shows such as American Idol and The Voice?
“There are a lot of shenanigans going on. The people that are in control are frustrated musicians and singers themselves. What can you do? You can educate, you can say, ‘I won’t be a part of it, because ...’ but young people are headstrong and have to run through their experience.”
After all of these years, she still marvels at the challenges of putting on a show. “What one has to go through to do 90 minutes of music.”
She is grateful that her success has allowed her to make an even more important mark on the world. “It is our duty as human beings to assist one another. We each owe that to one another to pay it forward and pay it beautifully. I am in a position in life to do that.”
She started the Chaka Khan Foundation to assist women and children at risk. She is a regular performer for the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans. Post-Katrina, she worked with the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies in hard-hit Crescent City, using her star power to corral the sponsors in attendance to get behind a women-centered project.
“I kick-started the project, an initiative where women could get jobs, education, and put their lives together after the flood. We would reconvene and within a year’s time, they were closing on new homes, opening new businesses and helping others. I check back with them yearly, and they write to me.”
Last year, she was named an ambassador for Dress for Success Worldwide, which provides suiting and job-hunting workshops for disadvantaged women. Her surprise appearance at the 2013 summit in Miami ignited the room. She has set up a scholarship program for the organization.
After years of collaborations and singing the songs of other musical legends including Stevie Wonder (Tell Me Something Good), Prince (I Feel for You), and David Foster, who wrote Through the Fire with her in mind, is there anyone she would like to work with?
“I would have loved to work with Marvin Gaye or Miles Davis. Prince and I are still kicking some ideas around, and I would love to work with Joe Walsh — the old rockers.”
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rosa Colucci is a writer for the Post-Gazette.