When you joined Rufus you were very young at the time and the only female in the band. Was that difficult?
It was pretty daunting being the only female in the band and being so young in the fast-paced music industry. After shows, the guys would act like my big brothers and made sure I stayed in my hotel room by myself. It was also lonely not really having someone to talk to who could relate to my experience.
What was it like being mentored by Stevie Wonder?
He's always been one of my favourite artists and the cover of his song, Maybe Your Baby, on our first album is what caught his attention. He's been a constant friend and source of encouragement ever since.
Rufus broke a lot of barriers both culturally and in music didn't they?
I think we did our fair share of trailblazing being a multicultural band as well as fusing rock, funk, and R&B and incorporating string arrangements into our music. I feel our sound was unique with a broad appeal.
Chaka Khan and Rufus (Photo: Getty Images)
You broke big with Tell Me Something Good in '74. What was it like being thrust into fame at the time?
It all happened pretty quickly. As I mentioned earlier, we caught Stevie Wonder's attention with a cover on the first Rufus album and then Bob Monaco, who signed us to ABC/Dunhill, told us Stevie was coming to our recording session for the next album, Rags to Rufus. We really didn't believe him at first but Stevie came to the studio and ran a few songs by us. Believe it or not, I told him I didn't care for what he presented then he played these funky cords and I said, "This I like!" We put together the lyrics and that's how Tell Me Something Good was born into the musical universe. Winning a Grammy certainly helped things along where fame was concerned.
Even before the band you were involved with the civil rights movement. Has that stayed with you over the years?
I've always been outspoken when I see people, really anybody, being treated unfairly. It's one of my pet peeves. Growing up in Hyde Park in the 60s was a powder keg and showed me early on that there's a lot of injustice that goes on in the world. That's why I joined the Black Panthers and started a free breakfast programme for kids. Currently, I'm still very bothered by the brutal racism black people still face. When Trayvon Martin was killed, it broke my heart and I started the Fear Kills, Love Heals movement. I called on friends like Angela Bassett, Kelly Price, and Eric Benet for the music video, Super Life, a song I recorded back in 2007 on my Funk This album. It's pretty frustrating that things still haven't changed.
You went solo in '78 with I'm Every Woman, but you've said before you didn't feel comfortable with singing it at the time? Why was that?
The lyrics of that song are a pretty big pronouncement for anyone, let alone a 25-year-old! I thought it was a bit much to live up to. Time and life experience have helped me grow into being that type of woman and being comfortable singing it as an anthem.
Your solo career ever since has never stuck to one genre. Why is it important for you to diversify and does that reflect your personality too?
I grew up in a house where my mother listened to opera and show tunes and my dad was heavily into Jazz. I was named after a Max Roach song, Yvette. I loved listening Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Miles Davis, and Led Zeppelin. I've never been one to allow myself to be pigeonholed in music or anything else! I consider myself a fusion artist and love to create new sounds through blending unexpected or unorthodox elements. I'd say I'm a fairly multi-faceted person who is driven by various feelings and passions.
I Feel For You in '84 brought you to a whole new audience again. How do you feel about the song now? Do you think it gets more attention than it should compared to your other work? Do you still enjoy singing it?
I had no idea "I Feel For You" would have such a big impact on my career or music itself the way it did and still does. I guess in hindsight, it's a great song written by a brilliant artist and produced by one of the greatest, Arif Mardin. Incorporating rap into the song was a stroke of genius but a bit embarrassing back then. The song does get a lot of attention and singing it is pretty sentimental with the passing of Prince.
Speaking of that track, you were good friends with Prince. What was he like to know on both a personal and professional level?
Prince was my spiritual/musical soulmate. Knowing him enriched my life professionally and personally. Music was infused into every part of his being but so were his beliefs regarding his art and freedom. He had a big heart and did so much good for others anonymously. There will never be another like him.
How did your life change again after that track went global?
Other than people saying my name multiple times when they meet me? I think the track going global opened more doors for me on the international stage and it won me a Grammy which is always a good thing. I don't know that it changed my life in any profound way, though.
Is the Joni Mitchell album still in the pipeline?
Yes! I'm finishing it up as we speak. There's just two more songs to work on and some background vocal magic to add. I don't want to jinx things by giving a release date. Just know, this album is definitely a labor of love and worth waiting for!
I've seen you say Joni's music was the only thing that got you through some very dark times. What was it about her music that connected with you so much?
Joni Mitchell is a total badass and master when it comes to lyrics, storytelling and vocabulary. She talks about real shit in a very poetic and intellectual way that thrills me. There's so much to learn from her wisdom and perspective.
(Photo: NY Daily News via Getty Images)
You mentored Whitney Houston from an early age, did you see any of yourself in her? How quickly did you see her potential?
I saw so much of myself in Whitney and saw her potential right off! Have you heard the background vocals she did on my 1980 Naughty album? To be so young and be able to pull that off with the likes of her mom, Cissy Houston, and Luther Vandross was impressive. She was like a little sister to me and to think that she and her daughter are no longer with us is beyond tragic.
You've worked with some of the greatest talents in music over the years, but is there anyone you wish you had but didn't for some reason?
I would have loved to work with Marvin Gaye. I admired his artistry so much. I think it would have been monumental to record with him.
What's it like when artists come up and say what a huge inspiration you have been in their lives and music?
It's both humbling and inspiring. I've had a lot of great artists who sang background for me break out on their own like Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, Vesta Williams, Lisa Fischer, Meli'sa Morgan, and Sandra St. Victor. It's also been gratifying to receive love from the newer generation like Erykah Badu, Mary J. Blige, Maxwell, Jazmine Sullivan. I'm honored to have been a positive influence for so many talented people!
You performed on Broadway and London's West End in the Colour Purple. What drew you to the stage?
I think the thing that drew me to those productions was being able to relate to the characters I portrayed. I especially enjoyed playing Sofia in The Color Purple. Steven Spielberg wanted me to play Shug Avery in the movie but I just wasn't into it and was focusing on just being a singer. I felt I had more in common with Sofia's strength, independence and being outspoken.
How was the experience and is it something you'd like to do more of?
The experience of being in stage plays was challenging due to the level of discipline needed for long stretches of time. I get to switch things up at my concerts but in theatre, it's a bit more repetitive and I can only do that for so long. I LOVE variety but I might be up for another run depending on the production.
Is there anything you would have done differently with the benefit of hindsight?
No. What I've been through has made me the magnificent person I am!
Where would you like to see yourself going in the future? Do we have any new music to look forward to?
I see myself firmly taking the reins of my career and brand to expand and grow. I've started my indie record label and merchandise company, iKhan Sounds, and will be releasing the first single and music video, I Love Myself, later this month. We've currently got a social media campaign using #ILoveMyself and I really explore the various ways you can love yourself in the daily posts. We hit a few snags last year with releasing it but I feel it's an extremely important and needed message with all that's going on in the world. I'm also working on some contemporary, original music that is going to make EVERYONE get on the dance floor!