With Black History Month upon us, we revisit this fascinating interview with a musical giant, first published in 2023.

Chaka Khan is celebrating 50 years in music―just ahead of her 70th birthday―on March 23.

The extraordinary five-decade arc of the vocal genius and native Chicagoan born Yvette Marie Stevens includes 10 Grammy Awards (and 22 nominations); fame and huge hits with the group Rufus; a stratospheric solo career marked by such smashes as “I’m Every Woman,” “Ain’t Nobody” and “I Feel for You”; projects with Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, Arif Mardin, Jam & Lewis and countless other influential music-makers; acclaimed forays into jazz including 1982’s Echoes of an Era (with greats like Chick Corea, Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson); and countless other highlights, all the way up to her most recent single, “Woman Like Me,” which made its way into the Top 15, and a new collaborative project to be announced later this year. Khan, who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, was recently honored with a proclamation from New York City and hailed on a billboard in Times Square. You know, icon stuff.

Our friend Dyana Williams, herself celebrating a golden anniversary in the business and anticipating her 70th trip around the sun, began playing Khan’s music when she was an on-air personality at WHUR Washington, D.C., working under the moniker Ebony Moonbeams, and has been a devoted fan ever since.

Given the incredible benchmarks they’re both reaching, they had a lot to discuss; what follows is a mere portion of that in-depth conversation.

You came up singing with a group in Chicago, The Crystalettes.
We did a lot of talent shows coming up. At The Burning Spear―they used to have a talent show every Sunday. There were a lot of talent shows going on around Chicago. Whenever we did talent shows we were up against The Emotions. It would always be they’d win or the Crystalettes―or The Shades of Black, as we were known later on―would win.

How would you describe the Chicago that you came up in, musically?
Rich! It was rich as hell, in every way. My father was a jazz aficionado, and he could sing; both my parents could sing. And every Saturday we’d be running around the house, cleaning up, and we’d be playing Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstine, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald… My mother loved Mario Lanza. And Yma Sumac! They used to call her “the bird woman”—she could sing like any bird in the forest. My father used to love Max Roach. All the greats—that’s all we heard around the house; we didn’t hear a lot of contemporary music. We’d hear that on the 4th of July and times like that. We’d see family and my cousins would be playing The Temptations, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, all those people. But around the house it was mostly jazz and opera.

And there are other talented musicians in your family.
My brother, Mark [Stevens], wrote the song “Da Butt” [for Spike Lee’s School Daze]. He and I have written a lot of good songs together, too.

And your sister Taka.
She was known as “Taka Boom.” She was married to a guy named John Broom. We used to call him “Boom,” so she became “Taka Boom.” Her biggest songs were “Night Dancin’” and “The Middle of the Night.” She was also with The Undisputed Truth [singing lead on the 1976 hit “You + Me = Love.”]

Did your parents live long enough to see you succeed?
Yes. My father died about eight, nine years ago. My mama is turning 90. I was so happy that my father lived to hear the album Echoes of an Era, hear me sing jazz. I’m a daddy’s girl, number one; number two, I was so over the moon that he got enjoyment from it. And he could say, “That’s my girl”—he could see his influence on me. I was very proud and happy that my father got to hear me sing with some of the people that he turned me on to when I was growing up. It was a really big thrill for me. And for my mother, too, though she wasn’t as flamboyant with it. Can you believe you’re the first person to ask that question?

In all these years?
Yeah. 50 years. So you did something really powerful right here.

You met some of the people who influenced you early on: Sarah Vaughan, Miles…
Oh, Miles Davis. I love Miles Davis. He wasn’t a singer, but… he actually was a singer. He had a fabulous voice.

And he described your voice as being like his horn.
That’s the biggest compliment I could have ever wished for in any life. That was, like, over the rainbow for me. But he lost his voice screaming at a promoter. He had polyps on his vocal chords. So he went and got the polyps removed. After you get them removed, you can’t say one word for at least two weeks; you gotta shut the fuck up the whole time. You can’t even whisper. Whispering is actually harder on your voice than talking. Miles was managing himself, so he had to talk to promoters himself. And what happened is that he got so mad at this one promoter… He was almost finished healing, maybe five days from being clear. Child, he yelled at the promoter one time and took everything away.

And his voice stayed like that forever.
His voice sounded [imitating Davis’ husky whisper] just like this for the rest of his life. So that was a life lesson for me. Because I had polyps removed from my vocal chords, too. And whenever I felt like I needed to talk, all I had to do was think about Miles’ voice. What I did was, I had my operation, and this schoolteacher I knew who lived down in the Village was going out of town; he was gonna get a housesitter. But I took the apartment. I stayed there for 14 days. There was a video-rental place across the street. Every two, three days I’d go over there, turn in the movies I’d watched and get a new set of movies. And when my mother called to see if I was okay, I would click the phone twice for “yes,” once for “no.”

You are no stranger to songs about women’s empowerment, especially that of Black women. Though I know when you talk about women’s empowerment, it is for all women.

You did “I’m Every Woman” and “A Woman in a Man’s World” and then “The Woman That I Am,” which you co-wrote with Dyan Cannon and Brenda Russell. And now we have “Woman Like Me,” in which you say, “You better respect her the same way that you want respect for yourself.”
“And for the record, ain’t shit getting done without her help.”

What was your reaction when you first heard the song [written by Gregg Pagani, Francesca Richard and Jeffrey Anderson]?
I was, like, finally. I could never have written that song like that, because the things that stand out for me, generationally, as a Black woman, were not the things that this song focused on. But if the things this song focused on weren’t there, it would have made a major difference―it has a deeper, more profound effect than it would if I’d written it. I wouldn’t have thought about the lace front [“More than her makeup, more than the lace front that she chose to wear”]. There are things I would’ve left out, little things, but profound nonetheless, that need to be said. And that women need to hear, especially Black women.

Read Part Two here

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