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Ain’t Nobody Like Sister Chaka

Over five decades in the music industry, Khan carved out her own sound and style that stood the test of time.

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photo collage of chaka khan by lyne lucien
Lyne Lucien
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Isn’t it funny how a chosen name can set the stage for an entire career? Well, Chaka, the name given to this artist by a Yoruba priest, means fire. And she ignited a one-of-a-kind star power. The smoldering woman who stepped on the scene with five fellas and unabashedly owned the spotlight as the fabulous frontwoman. The bohemian badass (and former Black Panther) who embodied the free-spirited sister of the ’70s and stayed socially conscious along the way. The diva who dared to declare she was “every woman,” giving us the confidence to proclaim the same for ourselves. Fast forward decades later, and we’re still drawn to the flame.

This is unequivocally the year of Chaka Khan. The songstress marks her 50th anniversary in the music industry and celebrated her 70th birthday earlier this year. This November, Khan will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist, and will also be recognized for her pivotal work with Rufus, with whom she helped usher in racial integration in rock ’n’ roll. She even released a new single last year, “Woman Like Me,” another gem to add to her remarkable repertoire of classics: “I’m Every Woman,” “Ain’t Nobody,” “Through the Fire,” “I Feel for You,” “Tell Me Something Good,” “Sweet Thing” and more.

Born Yvette Marie Stevens, she found nourishment for her creativity while growing up on Chicago’s South Side. Raised in an artistic household of devout Catholics, Khan explored a slew of sounds, from the Gregorian chants she sang in church, to opera and classical compositions. But jazz music moved her the most, noting singers and musicians like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Miles Davis as major influences. She made waves in the windy city as a member of The Crystalettes, a girl group she formed with her sister and two childhood friends. It wasn’t until she started playing at the Affro-Arts Theater with Afrocentric ensemble Shades of Black that she was christened “Chaka” by that Yoruba priest — and the rest is history.

By the time she joined Rufus as the band’s lead singer, superstardom had kindled in Khan. Funk, feathers and ferocity, she shook the world of show business with untamed talent and unprecedented power. Rather than sit pretty and allow her male counterparts to take full creative control, Khan was a key component of the band’s success with her compelling stage presence and ability to defy gender norms by cowriting, arranging and composing songs — slaying the drums like nobody’s business. But that distinctive voice of hers was her signature instrument. In a 2020 interview with VladTV, Khan described her voice as “multigenre, multifaceted,” and said, “I could sing anything except maybe Chinese folk music, and that’s only because I ain’t heard it yet.”

Twenty-two studio albums and 10 Grammy Awards later, Khan is still dazzling. It’s in my reflection of Khan’s musical impact that I’m reminded of how important it is to appreciate our legendary sisters while they’re still here. “I’m just a chick from Chicago … who God blessed with a voice, and I’m very humble about it and I’m very grateful that I’m still alive to receive a lot of my flowers that I’m getting now,” she said in a Windy City LIVE interview in 2021.

Through it all, Khan remains gracious, grateful and as glamorous as ever. She’s been an open book about everything, from her past struggle with addiction to her personal health journey. A source of strength and inspiration, the “woman of fire” is still sparking joy in us all. She also continues to blaze a trail for budding female artists who seek to follow in her mighty footsteps. But if they really want to take a page out of Khan’s book, they mustn’t sing solely for the accolades, but for the sheer love of music and people. She summed it up perfectly in an interview with ET earlier this year: “Just give me some people to sing to, give me some people to play for, give me some people to share, to love on is basically what it boils down to.”

Follow Article Topics: Music