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Chatting with Chaka Khan: The Empress of Funk, Rock, and Soul

Global music star Chaka Khan chatted about her forthcoming induction into the prestigious Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and her illustrious career in the music industry.

Chaka Khan
Chaka Khan. Photo Credit: Timothy Fielding
Chaka Khan. Photo Credit: Timothy Fielding

Global music star Chaka Khan chatted about her forthcoming induction into the prestigious Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and her illustrious career in the music industry.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” A woman that embodies this wise quote is Chaka Khan.

A global music icon

A prolific songwriter, storyteller, actor, author, philanthropist, entrepreneur and activist, Chaka Khan has influenced generations of recording artists.

With the rare ability to sing in seven different music genres, these include R&B/soul, pop, rock, gospel, country, world music and classical music.

A true star of funk, rock, jazz, dance, and disco, Chaka not only embodied all these diverse music genres, but she transcended them.

Chaka possesses a voice of seductive fire and sweet smoke. She came to prominence with the innovative funk and rock group Rufus back in the 1970s. Being equally ferocious and feminine, Chaka was Rufus’ secret weapon.

Chaka Khan
Chaka Khan. Photo Credit: Timothy Fielding

On her music and songwriting inspirations, she shared, “Life inspires my music. Love, breakups, and almost everything in life.”

At a time when audiences for rock and R&B/soul were splitting into different camps, Chaka’s voice and commanding presence represented the racial and social integration at the heart of rock and roll.   

After Rufus’ long run of hits, Chaka broke out on her own in 1978 with her debut solo single, “I’m Every Woman,” which encompassed elements of pop, rock, and disco.

Her seminal solo album, “I Feel for You,” which was released in October of 1984, featured the creative and exciting mix of funk, synth dance rhythms, and hip-hop of the Prince-penned title track “I Feel For You,” and the stunning adult contemporary ballad “Through the Fire.”

Entertaining for five decades

With her magnanimous vocal range, which spanned three octaves, and mastery of dynamics, Chaka has recorded long-lasting, powerful music for well over five decades.

Upon reflecting in a rearview mirror over the past five decades, she said, “I see a lot of change in a lot of things on this planet, in this world, and things that will keep changing. I feel like they are changing at a rapid pace. There is a lot going on right now in this world, and it is hard to keep up.”

On the title of the current chapter of her life, Chaka said with a sweet laugh, “Get Busy.”

Chaka Khan
Chaka Khan. Photo Credit: Timothy Fielding

Chaka Khan: The 10-time Grammy Award winner

Her mantel holds 10 Grammy Awards, she has sold millions of albums all over the world, and she is consistently listed as a musical influence for generations of young artists, especially women.

“It is lovely to be recognized by your peers, where they think you are doing a good enough job that you deserve a Grammy. It would be nice, however, if that would affect my pay grade,” she said with a sweet laugh.

Key to longevity in music

On the key to longevity in the music business all these decades, she responded, “I don’t think there is a key to longevity but there is longevity. Staying popular and staying in the spotlight. Staying relevant. I just love what I love, and that is music. I hope and pray that people will love it too.”

Regarding her career-defining moments, she shared, “Mine happened as a child. When I first listened to my mother, and my dad listened to a lot of jazz and opera such as Mario Lanza, Frank Sinatra, and Etta James. I think that set the tone for what I was going to be, and the types of music that I was going to love to sing.”

Chaka Khan
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Chaka Khan. Photo Courtesy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

The ‘Musical Excellence Award’

Chaka is finally getting her due this year, and she is headed to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Class of 2023 as an inductee, where she will be bestowed the “Musical Excellence Award.” “It’s a great honor. I am really honored,” she said, effusively.

The coveted “Musical Excellence Award” is bestowed to artists, musicians, songwriters, and producers whose originality and influence creating music have had a dramatic impact on music.

“The Musical Excellence Award means a lot to me,” she said. “This meant even more to me than getting in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, especially just to have the words ‘musical excellence’ attached to my name.”

Affectionately known all over the globe as “Chaka,” she is respected and well-loved by millions of fans as well as her peers for her timeless, classic, and unmatched signature music styles and versatile abilities. She was able to master the rhythms of every era.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit and recognition

Earlier this spring, on March 29, Chaka made a special appearance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as part of “Women’s History Month,” where she celebrated her golden anniversary in the music industry, and her 70th birthday. Five of her outfits from her career are displayed in the “Legends of Rock” exhibit.

“That was a beautiful thing,” she said. “I am also happy that I got inducted at a time with so many women, and black women too. It’s a wonderful time.”

Chaka Khan: An influence to countless artists

Her biggest musical heroes included the late but great powerhouse vocalists Aretha Franklin and Sarah Vaughan, as well as folk rock icon Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder.

Modern artists such as Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu, Janelle Monae, and Sam Smith have been influenced by Chaka. She continues to be one of the most prolific and eclectic singers around, where she is able to cover songbook standards and R&B/soul classics to equal acclaim.

Her most recent studio album, “Hello Happiness,” was released in 2019.

The “Queen of Funk” remains one of the mightiest and most influential voices in contemporary music. Her artistic work has endured for decades and continues to inspire fellow recording artists, musicians, and fans alike. 

Favorite songs in her catalog

On her favorite songs, she said, “There are 20 personal favorites, and some of them were never hits like ‘Roll Me Through the Rushes,’ ‘Hazels Hips,’ ‘Is That All There is?’ and ‘To Sir With Love’.”

“Also, ‘Ain’t Nobody’ has special magic to it, I don’t know what it is but I still actually enjoy singing that song,” she added.

Future plans

On her plans for the future, she said, “To stay alive, and to finish whichever endeavor I started, I want it to happen.”

“I am working towards living my life right now the way I want to live it, and in a way that makes me comfortable,” she said.

“I’ve worked hard for 50 years so now I want to do things that I really enjoy doing all the time,” she added.

Advice for hopefuls in music

For young and aspiring artists, she acknowledged, “It is so hard to give artists advice when it comes to this business, it’s a beast and there is so much competition, it’s very tough. It’s sad that people are not judged necessarily these days on the gift that God gave them.”

“A lot of kids get sidetracked and feel like they should put on some booty shorts, and do the song, and that’s sad. That’s one of the things that bothers me and makes me sad about this business. I always also remind kids to go to college because they are always hiring at the post office, and somebody has to work the computers,” she said.

Chaka Khan
Chaka Khan. Photo Credit: Timothy Fielding

The digital age

“I do like the aspect of the digital situation when it comes to not having to do entire albums of 13 songs, that’s a beautiful thing. Now, people can go in a hotel room and do an entire CD, and release it as a big hit, without a record company, and they can put things out there, and that’s wonderful.”

She acknowledged that the playing field is leveled in a sense, but now on the flip side of that, the industry is oversaturated since anybody can be an artist. “You just have to be careful about those things because there is too much out there,” she said.

“I think many people do have a divine calling and it’s sad when you see that situation because there is no room for them. It’s a very elite club right now,” she added.

Resurgence of vinyl

She expressed that she loves the recent resurgence of vinyl, and she “can’t wait” for 2-track machines in the studio. “I am waiting for those 2-track machines,” she admitted.

Chaka went on to praise “vinyl” for its sound and for the “musicians usually playing together and grooving off each other.” “It’s a beautiful thing,” she said.

If she weren’t in the entertainment and music business, she noted that she would be a “teacher” as her alternate career choice.

Success

On her definition of the word success, Chaka said, “I don’t know. I am still striving for success.”

Fans

For her fans, she expressed her appreciation and gratitude. “Thank you for hanging in there with me for all these years. I hope I brought somebody some joy, and also some truth, and some love.”

Chaka Khan: An open channel with her music

Eric Clapton once said about the late but great Stevie Ray Vaughan that he was an “open channel,” where the music just flowed through him, and it never seemed to dry up. The same quote holds true for Chaka Khan, as well as her singing, delivery, and execution.

Chaka Khan is a woman that never thought or planned what to do… the music just flowed through her in a divine, controlled, and inspired way. For Chaka to be that open and fluid as both a singer and a storyteller is quite impeccable.

To learn more about Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Chaka Khan, check out her official website, and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

Markos Papadatos
Written By

Markos Papadatos is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for Music News. Papadatos is a Greek-American journalist and educator that has authored over 21,000 original articles over the past 18 years. He has interviewed some of the biggest names in music, entertainment, lifestyle, magic, and sports. He is a 16-time "Best of Long Island" winner, where for three consecutive years (2020, 2021, and 2022), he was honored as the "Best Long Island Personality" in Arts & Entertainment, an honor that has gone to Billy Joel six times.

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