Power to the People
January 4, 2014
By Jack Cleland for The Sydney Morning Herald
On the day before Christmas Eve, Chaka Khan is already tired of the holidays. ''I'll be so glad when this shit is over with,'' she says with a laugh. But it's not all bad: ''I've got my favourite cousin coming out from Chicago. It's good to be queen''.
One can imagine there are plenty of perks to being the Queen of Funk, not least of which is the ability to choose which relatives to spend Christmas with.
Chaka Khan built her formidable career with a string of hits throughout the '70s and '80s, beginning with the band Rufus and singles such as You Got the Love and Once You Get Started. Khan quickly outgrew Rufus, her popularity causing tension within the band and, after signing a solo contract with Warner in 1978, she began to transcend them. Her debut solo hit I'm Every Woman became one of the all-time enduring pop songs, as did Ain't Nobody, recorded with a reunited Rufus in 1983. Younger listeners may be familiar with Through the Fire, sampled on Kanye West's breakthrough single Through the Wire, but that's just one example of her cultural impact; with a new record every other year through the '80s, Khan dominated the Billboard charts and swept up Grammys.
She was among the influential women who created a world in which contemporary, feminist music icons such as Beyonce can exist. She is cautiously optimistic about the modern divas. ''It's their choice whether they want to be role models or not. Some women are very self-involved and don't really give a damn. That's what I'm seeing from a lot of people today,'' she says. ''But I think it's a good thing if they can incorporate some kind of philosophy in life. If they can give some depth and some knowledge to people, it's a beautiful thing.''
That's not shallow talk. Khan herself is not only involved in empowering people through her music, but via the Chaka Khan Foundation. The Chaka Believes Initiative, for example, helps underprivileged children stay in school by supporting them with funding and tutoring. The Foundation also has an Autism Initiative, helping to raise awareness and support for autism research, a cause that has been close to Khan's heart ever since her nephew was diagnosed.
The focus for Khan has always been her music, though. The compulsion to make music, she says, is ''really not a choice. It's something I have to do. It's my highest form of self-expression, besides prayer. It's my sanity''.
But after the release of The Woman I Am in 1992, the albums started coming less frequently. Her previous two records had failed to make a comparable impact and sales began to dwindle, from more than a million for 1984's I Feel for You to just tens of thousands for Come 2 My House in 1998.
More recent records have met with mixed reviews, but she has continued to work and is frustrated that a lot of her music remains in the vaults of Warner Music. ''I felt enslaved, trapped, screwed. The whole nine,'' she says of her experience working with the major label. ''Some of the music is still locked away. I'm fighting for it as we speak. We have to do a lot of bureaucratic crap.''
Khan released a single at the start of last year, the chintzy but uplifting EDM jaunt It's Not Over. It was supposed to be the first taste of a new record slated for release in mid-2013, The iKhan Project, an ambitious idea spanning eight genres.
Health issues contributed to the delay and a release date is fuzzy. ''I'm looking to finish it off,'' Khan says, ''but I'm thinking I'm gonna start releasing singles every couple months instead of releasing a whole finished product.''
In an era when nobody has time to listen to a full album, instead constructing iTunes libraries piecemeal from digital singles, ''it just doesn't make any sense'' to put out a full album. ''I'm a free agent. I don't have to jump through hoops any more,'' Khan says, adding that she'd like to release another single this month and then ''one every two months … or something like that''.
Throughout our interview, Khan laughs warmly while offering concise but guarded answers. Only when she's asked about her home life does she open up.
''I shut the door, close the blinds, go into Netflix, get a good movie,'' she says. ''Maybe some hot chocolate. That's my life.''
Even for the Queen of Funk, after 40 years as one of the world's most renowned performers, there's nothing so good as coming home.