Chaka Khan! Chaka Khan! It’s a name that just rolls off your tongue. The famous R & B and “funk” superstar has a voice that has mesmerized fans for decades with its range and flexibility. And who can forget the feathers and the hair! Chaka Khan takes the stage in Durham this weekend.
I was in the fourth grade when Chaka Khan belted out this groovy hit with the funk band “Rufus” back in 1974. Come on – admit it – it feels good to hear this DIVA screaming during Morning Edition. Yvette Marie Stevens is a native of Chicago. No! Her mama didn’t name her Chaka! She was given that name by a Yoruba priest during an African naming ceremony – she was a teenager. The “Khan” came from her ex-husband. Growing up in semi-conservative – tree-lined Tallahassee, Florida – to me, Chaka Khan meant strong, flashy, sexy – free! I was pleasantly surprised to find out she was still touring and would be performing at the Durham Performing Arts Center – walking distance from my house. I got the chance to speak with her this week – and I told everybody – even random people on the street – like Rocky Reed – who I bumped into on Main Street:
"I just always really liked Chaka Kahn’s voice," Reed told me. "When I was a kid and I was just starting to get into dance music, that “Feel For You” song was really big. I just remember, I remember like dancing in the living room with my brother and we would be like, Chaka Kahn, Chaka Kahn, I want to rock you Chaka Khan! And we had a lot of fun with that – Chaka Khan has a very big place in my heart to this day!
I’m telling you, me too! That song had all of us on our feet in the 1980s. It was written by Prince and probably was one of the first successful blends of hip- hop and R-and-B.
Christian Yancey: "Hi, my name is Christian Yancey and if I could ask Chaka Khan any question, it would be, how do you keep on living through the fire. Meaning, we all go through our ups and downs and you are the person that’s got all this talent, and I’m sure it’s not all about the music. People don’t see behind the music. But really how do you go through the pain and hurt when there ain’t nobody there?"
I also stopped Shalonda – who was wearing a law enforcement badge around her neck and didn’t give me her last name. Why is that your favorite song?
Shalonda: "Just because, it just makes me go back to everything I’ve been through, and that’s how I feel sometimes. And sometimes I just go put it on just when I’m having that kind of day."
You put it on now?
Shalonda: "Yes, I love Chaka Khan! I love you Chaka!"
Um, Um, Um. You know, I was kind of surprised Chaka’s name didn’t make N-P-R’s list of 50 Great Voices. I was led to NPR’s website that clearly says, their weekly series is NOT an attempt to catalog the so-called "greatest" singers, but instead, to discover and re-discover awe-inspiring vocalists from around the world and across time. Yeah, I know Chaka. In 2005 – a series of D-V-D’s were released featuring the “Great Women Singers of the 20th Century.” Of course there’s Sarah Vaughan and Abbey Lincoln – AND there’s Chaka Khan. The film shows Khan doing her thing in 1992 at the famous New York jazz club – The Blue Note:
Is this Chaka Khan?
Chaka Khan: "Yes. Is it Leoneda or Leonetta?"
Khan tells me – of all the songs she performs – “Through the Fire” is a favorite – one she still enjoys singing:
Khan: "That’s one thing we all have in common. We all have gone, or are going, or going to continue to go through some kind of fire. Be it a cleansing fire – some fires are cleansing, some fires are negative fires. Fires that are destructive."
Khan hasn’t shied away from her fires – including battles with drugs and alcohol. She says family got her through. She turned up in my life again when I started to raise a family. Thanks Chaka for taking me so many places.