Grammy Award-winning singer Chaka Khan, formerly with the band Rufus, has an array of hit songs like "I'm Every Woman," "Ain't Nobody" and "Through the Fire."
Early Singing Career
Chaka Khan was born Yvette Marie Stevens on March 23, 1953, in Chicago, Illinois. Known for her powerful voice, her great volume of curly hair and her charismatic stage presence, Khan first exploded on to the music scene in the 1970s. She formed her first group, the Crystalettes, with her sister Yvonne when she was only 11 years old. Some of Khan’s early musical heroines include Billie Holiday and Gladys Knight. The sisters later became involved in the Afro-Arts Theater and started another musical group known as the Shades of Black.
In 1969, Khan became active in the black power movement, joining the Black Panther Party and working with the organization’s free breakfast program for children. Around this time, she took on a new name: Chaka Adunne Aduffe Yemoja Hodarhi Karifi. She also said goodbye to her formal education, dropping out from high school.
Big Hits With Rufus
In the early 1970s, after performing with a few other groups, Khan joined the band Rufus, which had a strong r&b and funk sound. The world got its first taste of Khan’s powerhouse vocals when the group released its debut album in 1973, which spawned such modest hits as “Whoever’s Thrilling You” and “Feel Good.” The follow-up album, Rags to Rufus (1974), was a smash commercially and critically. Stevie Wonder penned for the band the hit single “Tell Me Something Good,” which sold more than a million copies. The group also scored a Grammy Award for best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus for the song.
Rufus, which was renamed Rufus featuring Chaka Khan and then Rufus & Chaka Khan, continued to have a number of successes over the coming years. The band scored a top 10 pop hit with the zestful “Once You Get Started,” and Khan helped write the single “Sweet Thing,” which climbed to the top of the r&b charts and was also a top 5 pop hit. Later hits included the introspective ballad “Hollywood,” about the pitfalls of the famed locale, as well as the gleeful “Do You Love What You Feel” and no-nonsense “Ain’t Nobody.”
Success as a Solo Artist
While she recorded with Rufus until the early 1980s, Khan made an impressive debut as a solo artist in the late 1970s. In 1978 she released Chaka, which featured the No. 1 r&b hit and empowerment anthem “I’m Every Woman,” written by Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Khan’s second solo album, 1980’s Naughty, offered the popular singles “Clouds,” also penned by Ashford and Simpson, and “Papillon (aka Hot Butterfly).” And in a twist of synchronicity, she won two Grammy Awards as a solo artist and one as a member of Rufus in 1983.
The next year, however, Chaka the solo artist reigned supreme. Covering a Prince song, she made major moves on the charts with “I Feel for You,” a top 5 smash. Featuring one of the most famous rap cameos of all time by Melle Mel, the infectious track incorporated elements of rap, r&b and electronic dance music. It also won Khan another Grammy Award in 1984. Other hits from the album included “This Is My Night” and “Through the Fire.” During the ’80s and early ’90s, Khan established herself as a steady presence on the r&b charts with top 20 hits like “What Cha’ Gonna Do for Me,” “Got to Be There,” “(Krush Groove) Can’t Stop the Street,” “It’s My Party,” “Love You All My Lifetime” and “You Can Make the Story Right.”
Though the popularity of Khan’s albums eventually declined with shifting musical trends, she still put forth critically acclaimed music. She won another Grammy in 1990 for her duet with the legendary Ray Charles on “I’ll Be Good to You,” from Quincy Jones‘ 1989 Back on the Block album, and another one in 1992 for The Woman I Am. Khan also became known for her contributions to the soundtracks for the films Clockers and Waiting to Exhale, both from 1995. Later in the decade, she released the well-received Prince produced set Come 2 My House (1998).
Personal Life and the Theater
In the early 1990s, Khan left the United States for London to raise her two children. Her daughter Milini was born in 1973 and her son Damien was born in 1979. While there, she branched out into acting, appearing as Sister Carrie in the musical Mama, I Want to Sing. Near the end of the decade, she established the Chaka Khan Foundation, which provides education programs to at-risk children and helps low-income families with autistic children.
In 2002, Chaka Khan scored her eighth Grammy Award—this time for her cover of Marvin Gaye‘s “What’s Going On” with the Funk Brothers. The next year, she shared her life story with the world in her autobiography, Chaka! Through the Fire. In it, she detailed her career as well as her years of substance abuse. Chaka described the loneliness she felt while touring. She was often away from her two children, which only compounded her sadness and guilt. Chaka told JET magazine, “I think a big part of my drug thing was escaping from those feelings.” She also revealed that she had a history of bad luck when it came to relationships.
With her life on track, Khan experimented with different musical styles. She did an album of standards with the London Symphony Orchestra entitled ClassiKhan, released in 2004. That same year, Khan faced a personal tragedy. Her son Damien was arrested and charged with murder. He and a friend had been fighting in her home when Damien accidentally shot the other man. Rallying her family together, Khan attended the trial and testified on her son’s behalf. He was found not guilty in 2006.
In 2008, Chaka Khan made her Broadway debut and appeared as the character Sofia in the musical The Color Purple, based on the book by Alice Walker.
Album ‘Funk This’ and Rehab
Making her first original recording in years, Khan returned to the studio to create Funk This (2007), featuring a diverse mix of songs and guests. The ballad “Angel” came from a poem she wrote while high years earlier. The uptempo “Disrespectful” paired Khan with one of her musical protégées, Mary J. Blige. And on the cover of “You Belong to Me,” she sang with Michael McDonald, a former member of the rock group the Doobie Brothers. She also included a few more remakes on the album, including tracks by Prince, Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell.
Khan has only recorded occasionally in more recent years and has continued to perform live. She returned to the airwaves in 2016 with the single “I Love Myself,” with portions of sales going to the domestic abuse organization Face Forward as well as STOMP Out Bullying, and later sang with two of her siblings on the dance music track “House of Love,” by FOMO. In July 2016, Khan announced that she and her sister Yvonne (aka Taka Boom), would be entering rehab due to prescription drug addictions, having been moved to do so after the overdose-related death of Prince.
“The tragic death of Prince has had us both rethinking and reevaluating our lives and priorities,” Khan said in an official statement. “We knew it was time to take action to save our lives. My sister and I would like to thank everyone for their support, love and prayers.”