When we invited the all-around icon Chaka Khan to be featured as The Original in our annual music issue, she said she only wanted to be interviewed by one person: Jazmine Sullivan, the R&B singer-songwriter whose confessional EP Heaux Tales lit the internet on fire when it was released earlier this year. Here, the two musicians discuss the challenges of working in a male-dominated industry, prioritizing love and family, and keeping it together in a challenging time.
Jazmine Sullivan: For me, you have always represented confidence and fire and owning who you are. Did confidence come easily for you, or was it something you had to work at?
Chaka Khan: Okay. Well, surprise, surprise—I am actually shy. I still dry-heave sometimes when I go onstage. Yes, I’m scared to death. Are they going to like me? Am I going to fuck up? Will I remember the words? I think that the moment I become confident for real is the time that I will probably need to do something else. Because as long as I have these feelings of inadequacy, I will always strive. You know what I’m saying? I’ll always have something to work on.
In what ways do you think the music industry has evolved—or not—since your career started?
It’s still evolving, but the fact that it is a very racist industry has not changed. That’s something that is still with us.
Being in a male-dominated industry, do you remember any specific time when you felt overlooked or underestimated? Maybe even taken advantage of because you were a woman?
Yes, I did all the time, and still do. I’d have to take my power. I have to remind everybody who pays the checks. That’s ongoing with men, especially, and with the label people who want to come in and offer you pittances for your hard work. I’m so happy that today we can make decisions as to what we want to do, what we want to charge, and what we think our worth is. I think that’s a beautiful thing, and it’s not going back. It is going to just move forward in this direction.
I’m not really good with multitasking. So in the past, if I’ve been in love, that took up all my focus, or if I was working, that took up all my focus. And it wasn’t until I got into my 30s that I was able to find a balance. How have you balanced your love life and your career? And have you ever had to choose?
There comes a time in your life when you have to make a decision. What means more to me at this time? Am I going to love the people from the stage? Or am I going to give all my love and all my time to this person? As you get older, it does become easier. I used to struggle with it, but my struggles, thankfully, were very short-lived, because once I started having children, that’s when it became very easy for me to make a decision. Because ain’t nobody in my bed with me.
Speaking of children, I heard that you are working on a biopic, and that you want your daughter, Indira, to play you. What qualities does she share with you that make her perfect for the role?
For one, she’s a mini me. She’s my daughter, and Stevie Wonder could see it. She can sang. And she’s a fine thespian. She can act her butt off.
Did she have an interest in the arts early on?
Yeah, she was always interested in the arts. When she was about 2, her favorite artist was Natalie Cole. I was very hurt.
Do you have a style icon?
I’m not style driven; I’m about comfort. It’s too much to do up there. Either you want me to walk a catwalk, or you want me to perform. Make up your mind. Because it’s one or the other.
So listen, you got body-ody. How do you stay healthy? How do you keep it together?
Well, first, as far as the pandemic, I stayed my ass at home. I’m not jogging. I ain’t exercising. What I do is I take my butt to bed. Sleep is so important. Sleep is a magical place where your body can heal.
As an artist, I feel like when people look from the outside, they look at your big accomplishments and they assume that those are your proudest moments, but that’s not always the case. What are you most proud of?
My longevity. I’m most thankful that God has given me so much time and the ability to see so many changes take place on this planet. And he has put some beautiful people around me who truly care and truly love me. I’m very thankful for all my children and my grandchildren and my great-grandbabies. It just makes my life so rich. And it gives me a reason for being and a reason for excelling. Because I definitely ain’t doing this for no damn award.
Hair by Ken Rich; makeup by Tinaya Weems; photo assistants: Jordan Zuppa, Jimmy Kim, Scott Turner; digital technician: Jordan Zuppa; fashion assistant: Stephanie McGee; tailor: Irina Tshartaryan at Susie’s Custom Design, Inc.; Production: Folabi Quadri at The Quadri Group; Set design: Winston Studios.