With a legendary voice that easily blends jazz, R&B and soul music, Chaka Khan, 52, is still selling out arenas and theaters worldwide after 30 years in the music business. As she promotes her new album of standards entitled “ClassiKhan,” she spoke to NBC News’ Terry Wynn.
You were honored recently at Oprah Winfrey’s Legends Ball. What did that moment mean to you?
It was pretty amazing. It was like a major purging. We laughed and we cried, and we just all came together without our bodyguards and things like that. It was like, as Cicely Tyson put it, “Where the mothers met their daughters.”
You were born and raised in Chicago. Take me back to your roots and help me understand how you think your childhood informed your music and your politics.
Well it affected my politics greatly, as I was a Black Panther. I just put empowerment in my music. As to what kind and how, well, that’s up to you. I just believe everyone should be empowered and have their own. And be able to live as close to a state of freedom as possible. And I still believe there is a genocide machine at work.
Growing up you definitely weren’t one to back down from a fight. Has your ability to stand your ground and defend yourself hindered you in the music industry?
Well, it’s only helped me in life, my being able to stand my own ground. It’s a good thing. I am not wishy-washy, and in the music industry that is good because people know what they can expect from me.
Throughout your career you have written and sung some world-renowned love songs as well as heart-wrenching torch ballads. Up to this point in your life, what would you say you have learned about love and romance?
Nothing. You can never learn enough about love, ’cause it just stays nuts. But I have learned that a relationship is a lot of work.
When you are at home, with your grandchildren or just in the midst of your personal quiet time, what are three albums you put on?
Joni Mitchell. I like to put on “Ladies of the Canyon,” “Hejira” and “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.”
In the industry, you have won many awards and accolades, but you have also had a few downs, mainly during your fights for artistic freedom. How do you feel about the music industry and the way it treats artists in terms of music ownership and creative freedom?
I’ve had problems with every record label I have been on. They don’t give any creative freedom to the artists. To get freedom you have to start your own label or get with an indie label. That’s about it. That is the only way to own your own masters and have creative freedom. And it affects you as an artist in a big way. You feel like a slave.
As we enter Black Music Month, I’d like you to tell me your thoughts on the future of soul and R&B music.
Our music is coming full circle. We are getting back to real music, and I am happy to see that. There are lots of good artists out there.