True Heart: unstoppable at 60, Chaka Khan celebrates four decades of success and emotional impact

Staying power. Artists either have it or they don't. After Chaka Khan defiantly belted her way to a hit--and a Grammy Award--on the Stevie Wonder-penned Rufus funk ditty "Tell Me Something Good," there was no question as to which category she would claim.

That R&B/pop success in 1974 was just the appetizer. The singer/songwriter has since become a living legend. "You Got the Love," "Sweet Love," "Ain't Nobody," "I'm Every Woman" and "I Feel for You" are just a few of the delectable classics she dished up as frontwoman for Rufus and as a solo artist.

Along the way, she has collaborated with a who's who of great talents--from Wonder, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Quincy Jones and Dizzy Gillespie to Arif Mardin, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Prince, George Benson, Ashford & Simpson, David Foster and the London Symphony Orchestra.

She has also racked up a host of awards and accolades, including 10 Grammys, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, BET's Lifetime Achievement Award and, earlier this year, the 2013 Trumpet Legend Award. A tribute/benefit concert takes place April 19 at Washington, D.C.'s Howard Theatre and a street-naming in her honor in Chicago's Hyde Park on July 27.

More importantly, however, Khan helped set the bar for raw yet sensuous vocal power and versatility. Equally at home singing jazz, rock or gospel, among other genres, she has influenced--and continues to inspire--talented female singers ranging from Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige and Brandy to Erykah Badu, Fantasia and Ledisi.

[Khan also is the first artist featured in a Billboard advertisement enhanced with "augmented reality," a technology that brings multimedia elements to a print ad. Those elements of Khan's cover wrap ad are due to be available to any reader who scans the ad using the Printergize app. "Chaka has always been an innovator as an artist," says Chaka Khan Management's Tammy McCrary, who's also Khan's sister. "In today's market, it is just as important to be innovative technologically. This is why we chose to partner with Printergize."]

Born Yvette Marie Stevens on March 23, 1953, Khan was the eldest of five siblings raised in Chicago. Forming vocal group the Crystalettes (which became Shades of Black) with her sister Bonnie and two school friends, she later adopted the fitting moniker Chaka--"woman of fire"--given to her by a Yoruba priest.

Married to musician Hassan Khan at 17, Khan sang with such groups as the Babysitters and Lock & Chain before friend and singer Paulette McWilliams recommended she take McWilliams' lead singer role with Ask Rufus in 1972. Changing its name to just Rufus, the multiracial sextet signed with ABC and clicked in 1974 with "Tell Me Something Good," which hit No. 3 on both Billboard's pop and R&B charts.

A spate of No. 1 and RIAA-certified gold and platinum albums followed into the late '70s, including "Rags to Rufus," "Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan," "Ask Rufus, Street Player" and "Masterjam."

While still with Rufus, Khan stepped out on her own in 1978 and right into a No. 1 R&B hit, the signature "I'm Every Woman." More hits ensued--"What Cha' Gonna Do for Me," "I Feel for You," "Through the Fire" and, most recently, "Angel"--as did a longtime battle with drugs and alcohol.

Now in her eighth year of sobriety, Khan has been paying it forward through her Chaka Khan Foundation for which she received the McDonald's Corp.'s 365 Black Award last year. In between, she's done theater in London ("Mama, I Want to Sing") and Broadway (Sofia in "The Color Purple") and penned the 2003 autobiography "Chaka! Through the Fire."

Now celebrating her 40th anniversary in music--plus her milestone 60th birthday on March 23--Khan isn't ready to kick back yet.

The singer/songwriter/entrepreneur/philanthropist is ramping up the 100 Days of Chaka Khan campaign, counting down to the July 2 release of a new album, "The iKhan Project: Alive!," which includes her recently released single "It's Not Over." Plans call for the album to be sold through Walmart, Best Buy and other major retailers as well as online. A label and distributor haven't yet been announced. The album, as well as additional projects and a summer world tour, are part of a yearlong celebration. Also on tap are two signature product lines: Chakalates gourmet candy and Khana Sutra candles and fragrances.

In the following interview, a frank and irreverent Khan takes a look back--and moves forward--on a career she says was motivated by a simple premise: "communicating from one heart to another."

 

What inspired 100 Days of Chaka Khan? It popped up toward the end of last year. My sister Tammy was looking at everything I'd done during my career and she said, "My God, you've been in the business for 40 years." And I'm like, "Oh hell, really?" [laughs]

But we decided to tie that in with several new projects. The 100 days stems from the synchronicity of my 60th birthday and the 40th anniversary of my very first album release with Rufus on July 1, 1973.

Those 100 days are the countdown to my next album. In between we'll be putting out two more singles and presenting a virtual diary of my life, including various events celebrating my birthday and career anniversary. All of that can be accessed exclusively through a new app downloadable to my website, ChakaKhan.com.

But music is just one element of what will be a yearlong iKhan Project celebration through 2014. In addition to releasing records in various genres, I am relaunching my website; reintroducing a gourmet chocolate line, Chakalates, and Khana Sutra candles and fragrances; and updating my memoir for reissue next year.

Your single "It's Not Over" was released digitally on Feb. 14. How did your collaboration with Lecrae come about? This whole yearlong project is about healing, about a lot of new things coming to fruition. The world is also going through changes, but for me it's not a doomsday, end of the world-type of thing. I wanted to relay those messages. I got together with producer Neffu [aka Theron Feemster] and did some tracks. He and I, as well as my brother Mark Stevens, wrote words to one track, which turned out to be "It's Not Over." And we're thinking, "Who can we get to rap on it in an uplifting way?" That's when my kids and grandkids told me about [Christian rapper] Lecrae.

I have my own spot at Henson Studios in Hollywood, Charlie Chaplin's old studios. What's been happening has been pretty magical, grace in action. Both Lecrae and Robert Glasper, whom I'm also working with, won Grammys this year. I must be going in the right direction.

 

So, "Over" and the two forthcoming singles will appear on your new album? Yes. It's an anniversary album called "The iKhan Project: Alive!" We're recording it live in the studio, featuring new songs and reinterpretations of some of my classic songs. It will be released on July 2 and accompanied by an exclusive film chronicling the sessions. "It's Not Over" will be a bonus track.

Any hints as to who else you're working with, such as other featured guests and/or the classics you're revisiting? I really want to keep that under wraps for a while. Let's just say it's going to be mind-boggling. A lot of the people I'm working with will be iconic artists.

 

And you're simultaneously working on a jazz album produced by Glasper? We've put down a couple of cuts already here in L.A. He's a great artist and a lot of fun.

 

Going back to "The iKhan Project: Alive!," that's an interesting title. That's the big thing: I'm still alive when so many of us have gone. I mean, every month it seems like I'm hearing someone is gone. When I was diagnosed with high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes, I said, "OK, that's it." That could have easily taken me out along with a lot of other things I was doing. There's really no honest physical reason why I should be here except by the grace of God.

You've got to know that when the universe slaps you in the face and says, "Get up," you've got to get busy. A lot of people don't know how to read those signs. I was able to read the writing on the wall for some reason. I said, "I'm not going out like this." I lost 75 pounds and am also celebrating eight years of sobriety. It's a constant, everyday battle just to stay on the right path. But that's what I'm doing: physically, emotionally, spiritually, I'm trying to stay balanced and living in the moment.

 

To what do you attribute your career longevity? Staying true to myself musically. I trust my instincts. As a singer and musician, I don't second-guess. If I fall in love with something musically, I follow my heart. You have to go with it and not be afraid. You can't be in it for the money, but you have to put in the work, because nothing comes from nothing. And your motivation has to be in the right place: communicating from one heart to another.

 

The upcoming Howard Theatre gala and other recent accolades--what do those mean to you? It's love, you know. I used to run from that kind of stuff. You would never see me sitting in an audience at anything. But patience started kicking in, and I became a little more open to being loved back. It's a good thing.

 

Another 2013 element of your iKhan Project rollout is the international I'm Every Woman tour. What details can you share? It's my version of the Lilith Fair for the 21st century. Happening this summer, it will be a multicultural lineup of established and new female artists that will be announced during the 100 Days campaign. I really want to make it a celebration of our mothers, children, sisters, aunts; everybody who does music.

 

With the bottom line being a lineup of female artists possessing real, not Auto-Tuned, voices? Please, come on, girl! We're going to make this as close to earth as possible.

 

Giving back remains a central focus for you. A portion of the tour proceeds will also be donated to the Chaka Khan Foundation, right? Yes. I started the foundation in 1999. Its first focus--raising public awareness about autism, particularly in communities of color--was inspired by my nephew. We've since expanded into three additional initiatives.

One of those is the Chaka Believes Educational Initiative. It began as a pilot program in South Central L.A., taking a group of fifth through eighth graders to [the University of Southern California] to be tutored and mentored by students there. We're taking these kids out of the situations they're living in--drugs, gangs, whatever--and inspiring them to reach their potential. They love it. It's become a very successful model. Now we're looking at a few partners to help take the program national.

We're also getting ready to partner with a well-known name--which I can't reveal right now--to take our No Excuses Initiative national. It's dedicated to preventing gang violence by bringing at-risk youth and youth offenders together through "day of dialogue" events and providing job training and support.

And our SuperLife Transformation Initiative--in partnership with the Essence Music Festival, the Institute of Women & Ethnic Studies, Verizon, New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu and others--kicked off in 2011. Fifty women from New Orleans aged 18-35 participated in the first group. When I went to their festival after [Hurricane] Katrina hit, I told the Essence people I can't just come here, sing and leave. There were women who'd lost entire families; some were living in cars with their kids, moving from pillar to post. It was insane.

Over a year's span, we gave these women the help they needed. We had a cap and gown graduation last summer at the Morial Convention Center. I didn't recognize these women. They had completely transformed, closing on homes and starting businesses. Now they are paying it forward. They will be the transformers/mentors for the next group.

 

Will this be one of the new chapters in the updated version of your autobiography, "Through the Fire"? Another whole life has kicked in since that book was first published in 2003. So, I would be remiss to leave that as a chronicle of my legacy. It wouldn't be an honest one. I went into rehab after that, which is a whole other book. So, I'm writing four to five new chapters.

 

Word is there's also a screenplay in the works. Who would you like to portray you? I could use some of my family members to play me at different ages. I've got a couple of granddaughters who would work. And my daughter would work. Then after that, I could pretty much kick in. I know at some point we will be using other great thespians in the presentation. I don't know really who yet. We're still trying to refine the written work. It probably won't happen this year, but soon.

 

Is more theater on the horizon? I would like to do more theater. But it has to be the right thing. I'm really, really picky. I'd want to do something that inspires and helps people; something that says something relevant. Not some silly love triangle.

 

Looking back, what memories immediately come to mind? I've worked with some great people who are no longer with us, from Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie to Whitney Houston and Luther Vandross. Luther sang background for me all through the '80s on my recordings. That will probably be in the new book. And God, yes, there's Arif Mardin. So many great people.

 

Mardin and Stevie Wonder are two people in particular who played significant roles in your career. Wonder wrote your first Rufus hit, and producer Mardin was a guiding force when you went solo. They're both amazing forces who came into my life, changed it and gave me direction in a very big way. Arif used to challenge me to sing anything. I was afraid, scared to death of jazz. But he got my feet really good and wet there. We did many great musical things together. There will never be another Arif. However, I'm working with some great people now.

Name a song you haven't tired of singing after 40 years. "Ain't Nobody." I'm still pretty cool when it comes to that song; it's timeless and people love it. I also still enjoy singing "Through the Fire."

 

What do you say to fans who keep asking about a Rufus reunion? Been there, done that. I think we've done everything we can do together.

 

Do you have any regrets? Well, there are some things I would change, but I have no regrets, to quote Phoebe Snow. There were times when people would try to put guilt trips on me. And I'd say, "No, forget that." I don't feel guilty because I did the best that I could with what I had to work with. If I'd had the knowledge, there are some things I would have done differently. But I can't do that, can I? It's too late. [laughs] So you just have to keep it moving.

 

What one thing might you have changed? I might have had more faith in myself, my strengths, and not given into some of the weaknesses I gave into. But I was afraid; I was young. I can give you good reasons for everything now. [laughs] But I would have taken better care of myself. And it's hard not to be so sensitive and unaffected. Things can upset me profoundly because I am sensitive. That's what makes me the artist that I am. So, it's a balance, a kind of juggling act that I'm just learning to perfect. I'm still a work in progress.