Interview: CHAKA KHAN

In 1999, Chaka Khan‘s socially responsible propensity compelled her to found an organisation in support of “women and children at risk”, particularly those with autism, due the sense of loss and confusion she experienced when her nephew was diagnosed with autism around that time.

So began the Chaka Khan Foundation.

“[Autism] was sort of new on the scene and was very misdiagnosed like attention deficient disorder and a bunch of other things.  So as we explored the whole ‘scene’ of autism we just kept everyone abreast of what was going on with research and what not and we also hosted some 5K walks in three major cities raising money for research and stuff like that,” she explains.

As dissatisfied with US healthcare as she is with the schools, Chaka describes the American educational system as “a joke” adding, “It’s like healthcare here – the quality of your healthcare depends on your paycheque, you know? Which is totally awful. It’s your birthright to be healthy and be educated.”

“So we went to a school in a low economic area and had the kids there write essays… then we pick the kids based on what they said in their essay, Fifth grade is around the time they choose whether they wanna stay in school or quit school. So we stick with the kids until they go to college and we assist them from Fifth Grade until college. We’re on our third group now.”
More than just a static figurehead, Chaka asserts that she plays an involved role in the Foundation alongside her team – “I have an active role, I get my hands dirty” – and it seems the active role has always been Chaka’s way. “One of our reasons for being is to be of service to each other.” This is Chaka’s fervent belief and a view inherited not from family values but from her own gut, she says.

At around the age of 14 Khan was “skipping classes and feeding kids breakfast”, pioneering a breakfast scheme for children in the Black Panther Party. “I was always that kind of person,” she says, “I was always a generous child. I’d give away anything…my toys… I got in trouble for giving things away to children who were less fortunate than we were.”

Her statement on the Chaka Khan Foundation’s website expresses concern that “so many children haven’t even had the opportunity to explore their own imaginations enough to know they have dreams. Their life experiences force them to grow up too fast and before they know it, their childhood is gone.”
In many respects, this sense of shrunken childhood is something Chaka relates to; a difficult relationship with her mother sparked her independence. “I ran away from home at 16 and I never really did experience first dates, first prom, sweet 16… all those rites of passage. I was out earning a buck – and doing what I love to do, mind, it’s not like I was sent off to the mines, I loved what I did.”

“I wanted to be an anthropologist actually. I became a singer because that’s what I turned out to be, that’s what happened to me. I was only going to sing until I could raise enough money to get my own place and then I was gonna do back and finish school; I wanted to study anthropology really badly. I get to do that now in my travels – I get to study culture and meet many people, learn other languages. And so it sorta worked out.”

“But my mother and I we just couldn’t get along – we both wanted to…-I wanted to run it too, you know. I’m sure many women can relate to that. Because we are… superior!” she laughs explosively. “Let’s be honest here: we’re the givers of life and we really have a big job… our job is non-stop.”

I can hear Chaka beaming down the phone as she points out that her relationship with her mother “has since improved greatly – and it took a while you know, because mothers don’t wanna let go of their child and she was reluctant for me to grow up and have my own voice. But you have to take it. You have to really take those things. We’re the best of friends now.”

Recovering from a cold at her place in LA [despite its enviably warm climes compared to the London snow-shower I’m writing from], Chaka looks forward to flying to London for her February 3rd concert. “It can get very lonely here [in LA], I don’t socialise at all. I just have me and my family, my grandkids and my kids and my sister and my mum,” she reveals, adding “I love London, I love the weather – I truly am [serious], everyone thinks I’m nuts when I say that but I love rain and moody weather.

“I love the British people [and] I feel an affinity with England, culturally and…I just feel very at home there and at peace, more so than here [in LA], you know? I took to [London] like a duck to water – I’ve maintained a residence there for the last 25 years. One of the best kept secrets, eh?”
On the phone, Chaka Khan exudes a warm sense of openness. “This business calls for, often, a lot of lying,” she proclaims. “You always having a good face forward; everyone has to see the best side of you and blah blah blah, when you maybe have cramps to death and diarrhoea or whatever, who knows! But you still have to come off like there’s nothing wrong in the world. And that’s tough; I’m not a liar.

“I’m so honest, almost to a fault. It’s really hard for me to lie about anything so I stay home a lot until I’m ready to go out and deal with people. And I love people!” She pauses, then enthuses, “I LOVE people, genuinely and honestly, so if I’m not in a people mood I stay my behind at home because all it takes is me to be rude to one person and then the word gets out that you’re a bitch, you know.”

On those off days, her answer is “to hibernate.” Indulging in the passive entertainment offered by the TV “where I don’t have to participate in the shit at all and it just does me so I can sit and recharge”, she opts to “isolate sometimes because that’s the only way I can recharge my batteries.”

Whilst the off days of celebrities trigger rabid salivation among media and consumer alike, Chaka Khan has a compassionate understanding for the likes of Amy Winehouse. “I think she was sharing her blues. Like, damn… and she was lonely. All those people around her and she was still lonely… and I know that feeling. I was very much like her in my 20s…” she laughs. “I remember one time having a bottle of Jack Daniels, rolling on the stage. I used to fall all the time, I was obviously…you know…high as hell!”

“When I was like that, I was pleading and crying and dying inside.  Was in great pain. In a way, its like I was asking for help. That’s what I get from Amy; she’s dealing with some pretty rough stuff, with the boyfriend and whatever, her life and that stuff. And she needs a friend. I didn’t have a friend either – I didn’t know any other girl who was doing anything similar to what I was doing at the time I was doing it. I didn’t have anyone that I could sit down and talk to and they’d understand exactly what I was saying, what I was talking about. But Amy does have the possibility of that, which is great.”
Though not encouraging irresponsible behaviour, Chaka has little regard for the judgemental hypocrisy with which those in the public eye are viewed. “[The critics] are doing it too. They’re hitting the pipe and writing a bad review…” she laughs. “You know what I’m saying! They’re demonising [Amy Winehouse] while they’re getting high too. Thing is, it’s tough. Life is tough.. It’s a new kind of madness on this planet, a new kind of crazy that we can’t even give a name to, I cant even name it. It’s just, anything goes and anything can happen.

“I’m 55 and when I was growing up there seemed to be boundaries and barriers. Most of them were [self-imposed] I’m sure, absolutely. But also our parents gave us more structure than parents do today. Well they can’t, both parents – most of them – are working. A lot of kids are left to their own devices and with the communication machine as it is now in the world nothing is sacred, everything is out there and these children are in great danger. There are many dangers from aspects of life we didn’t have to deal with, that I didn’t have to deal with. I’m very frightened and very concerned for a lot of these kids today who are raising themselves.”

“I’m not just an artist; I’m also a sister, a mother, an aunt, a grandmother… and I’m those things first. Those are my riches. I try to bring that into my musical experience. In fact it’s what my musical experience is based on – my life – as a mother, a mother with difficult kids, as a daughter, all the things women go through I go through the same things and maybe a little is magnified because I have a name. So I have to protect a great deal, there’s a lot at stake here.

“What I do means a great deal to me and I am very, very involved and invested from my heart and my being in what I do.”

Chaka Khan performs at Shepherd Bush Empire, London on February 3rd.

For information on the Chaka Khan Foundation Nvisit


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