One of the most versatile, dynamic vocalists in American history, Chaka Khan returns to her native Chicago this week from her home in Los Angeles. She’ll headline the Chicago Theatre in a concert benefiting the Red Pump Project, a nonprofit that promotes awareness about the effects of HIV on women and girls.
Khan became a star fronting funk-rock band Rufus in the mid-70s, and she’s had a brilliant career since. She’s won an armful of Grammys and gold records, both with Rufus and as a solo artist, earning a permanent place in the hearts of listeners with such iconic hits as “Tell Me Something Good,” “Sweet Thing,” “I’m Every Woman,” “I Feel for You,” and “Through the Fire.” Growing up Yvette Marie Stevens in Hyde Park in the 50s and early 60s, Khan fell in love with rock, jazz, R&B, African music, and the progressive, experimental sounds she heard when she became part of the Affro-Arts Theater scene in her early teens. An active member of the Black Panther Party, she became a full-time professional musician after dropping out of high school, singing in a series of local bands, among them Lyfe, Lock and Chain, and the Babysitters (replacing the late Baby Huey). Since then she’s received practically every honor in the music industry, written an autobiography, and participated in numerous charitable endeavors. In 2013 the City of Chicago formally recognized her, naming a street after her and declaring an official Chaka Khan Day—it’s July 28, so you’ll have to wait to celebrate till next year.
Interviewing Chaka Khan for this week’s Artist on Artist is me, Jake Austen. You might know me as front man of the Goblins, but I’m also a puppeteer on the all-ages dance show Chic-a-Go-Go, which I founded and help produce; on top of that, I publish the magazine Roctober and do a lot of music writing (including for the Reader). My latest venture is working as room manager for the Promontory, a new Hyde Park nightclub launched by Bruce Finkelman (the Empty Bottle) and Craig Golden (SPACE), and it’s had me obsessing about Chaka Khan—and not just because she represents the neighborhood’s musical diversity and grew up grooving in the park at Promontory Point. —Jake Austen
I start every day thinking about you, because my new job is only a couple of blocks from your honorary street, Chaka Khan Way. So I see your name every morning.
So you grew up in Hyde Park?
I lived in, like, five addresses there.
Your sign is in front of Kenwood Academy. We both went to that school.
I went for a couple of years.
I was in the choir with Dr. Lena McLin. Did you study music with her?
No, I was not in choir—I was totally into my Black Panther-ism, and I was highly rebellious. I probably cut most of my classes. I wasn’t very successful; that was the point where I actually quit high school.
You weren’t doing any music at the school?
No, we considered that a counterrevolutionary activity at that time. [Laughter.]
Were you also doing activities at the Affro-Arts Theater at the time?
That was after the Affro-Arts Theater. I did that at like 14, 15.
When you were there you were performing with the Pharaohs, who started off as Phil Cohran‘s Artistic Heritage Ensemble, and later became the core members of Earth, Wind & Fire. Those were some brilliant, creative musicians.
It was amazing for me. Pete Cosey played guitar, [Louis] Satterfield was on bass—these were just great cats that had been playing on the jazz scene for years and years. And here we were, teenagers singing phonetically these Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela songs, stuff like that. It was like a revue.
Was this the kind of music you were expecting to be singing when you were growing up?
I didn’t have any expectations—my plans were not to be a singer. I was going to be an anthropologist. That’s what I really wanted to be.
Did you feel like you were engaged in a kind of anthropology when you were meeting and studying all these unusual characters?
Part of me might have been, actually, because I’ve been doing that most of my career.
There hasn’t been a nightclub in Hyde Park for a long time, but I’m meeting lots of people who have great memories of music they saw when they were young. Were there places you saw live music in Hyde Park when you were growing up?
Many places. There were lots of outdoor concerts going on where the Art Ensemble of Chicago would play, you know, Joseph Jarman and those guys. My dad used to take me out on the Point all the time; all night they’d be playing congas, drinking wine, and smoking weed. There would be sax players, a lot of kids running around—it was great. We were all on the Point. It was really cool.
Were there good record stores in Hyde Park?
There were lots of record stores. The first album I bought was a Led Zeppelin album, and after that I bought a Yusef Lateef album.
Hyde Park has such a diverse community. You seem like you’ve always had diverse tastes.
Oh yeah, I grew up listening to many genres of music through my parents, and I enjoyed all of it.
Did you feel like that was unusual in Hyde Park?
Not at all. Everyone around me seemed to be living the same way.
A lot of people think about Minnie Riperton singing in Rotary Connection as Chicago’s important R&B-and-rock-music experiment.
Yeah, they bridged.
Maybe it’s because you’re so charismatic, or have such a powerful, distinct voice, but it seems people ignore that early Rufus has a lot of rock in it—you were doing some bridging, too.
That’s right, I’m essentially a rock singer. Rock, jazz, and then R&B, they come in that order—those are essentially my favorite kinds of music. If I do put on music, that’s what I’m putting on. Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, or Sarah Vaughan.
How did audiences respond locally to what you did with Rufus?
Fabulous, great response. At the time, having a black girl in front of a white band was the thing—that was the winning combination. There were a lot of groups doing that.
With your Black Panther background, did you have concerns about this?
I made a conscious decision to get into music when I ran away from home at 16. And I had to make a living, so I joined a band called the Gypsies, and several other bands. And we worked at places like the Pumpkin Room. I did that to support myself.
Was that near Hyde Park?
The Pumpkin Room was in South Shore.
One thing I’ve always wanted to ask you: When Baby Huey from Baby Huey & the Babysitters died, you took over for him—
When he passed they asked me to be a lead singer. There were three of us. We traded off.
I know that led you toward joining Rufus, but I think you playing with that group confused some people, because I’ve heard a number of people swear that you got the gig because you worked as a babysitter for the kids of members of Rufus.
I never heard that one [Laughter]. They got that really wrong.
You’re playing this week at the Chicago Theatre, raising funds for the Red Pump Project. One of my best memories at Kenwood was when I was in the choir and got to sing behind Andy Williams at the Chicago Theatre, because I’d seen so many martial arts movies there as a kid. Did you go to the Chicago Theatre, growing up?
No, I remember going to the Tivoli in Hyde Park. But about the Red Pump Project: I’m all for any way that I can do service to people. That is our first calling in life as human beings. In the age when an act of loving people can kill you, it’s a really important thing.
Considering the honors Chicago gave you last year, can you speak to your connection to the city?
I have a very strong connection to Chicago; it’s where I cut my teeth. I think it’s a great training ground for any walk of life. There is a lot of culture there. It’s a lot of racism there, like any big city, but the good thing is the amount of culture—that was overwhelming and beautiful.
That’s what I think about every day now at work—that I want people to realize that you don’t have to leave the south side to get that culture.
I didn’t have to. It’s a great city to be from and to grow up in.