Chaka Khan is one of the most recognizable names and voices in music history. The Queen of Funk is opening up about her unprecedented career her connection to jazz, her dedication to philanthropy, and her upcoming Mother's Day benefit show.
Khan has had an eventful and storied career, going back to the early 1970s, when she was front-woman for the funk band Rufus. But before all of that, there was jazz.
“My mother played all the singers — Ella, Sarah, Billie,” she says. “Every Saturday morning we’d all clean up and listen to these songs, and Frank Sinatra and on and on, and we’d all sing them together. I’d have to say that my first influences from childhood were jazz.”
And it wasn’t just the singers that captivated Khan at an early age.
“Max, Dizzy, Miles, Max Roach, who’s a drummer. Charlie Parker, you know, all the great horn players — those were my first influences. It’s the first thing I heard.”
Over a career spanning nearly five decades, Chaka Khan has dominated contemporary music, selling tens of millions of records worldwide. She has been a two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominee, but Khan says it is her status as a champion of women’s empowerment that is her greatest honor.
“Its hard to believe, you know for me, because I don’t think I’m any different from my mother, or all the other women I know. I think we all have the same stuff — the same assets, you know, we can all be what we want to be.”
Khan’s activism does not stop there. The queen of funk has also established The Chaka Khan Foundation to benefit children with autism, and the story behind it is personal. Khan says it was her own nephew’s struggle with a developmental disorder, along with a lack of resources, that ultimately led her to take action. The Chaka Khan Foundation has since become an outlet for her to bring awareness to the one in 68 children affected by autism in the United States.
“These kids, you know, there are different ways to look at autism,” she says. “Most of them are geniuses in some way or another. Every child is different, even in his autism; there are still personalities that need to be addressed, we just decided that we needed to share the information for other mothers that were looking for the same thing we were.”
While autism is the main focus of The Chaka Khan foundation, it is not the only one. Khan, having sacrificed her own formal education for her career, has also dedicated her philanthropic work to educational opportunities to at-risk youth.
“You should at least know how to read and understand what you're reading,” she says. “You can make your own life if you can read, you know what I’m saying? You don’t have to comply, you dig? If you need information, you know how to go and get it. You can become a scholar, on your own.”
Khan offers this advice to those who are touched by her work: “Find something that you are passionate about. If it pisses you off, go for it! Be a cell: If you have many cells working in one body toward one common goal, I think we could get a lot more done with our children.”
Chaka Khan performs a benefit show for The Chaka Khan Foundation Mothers Day weekend at the Brooklyn Performing Arts Center.