Chaka Khan on Entertaining in the Trump Era: "I'm Not Onstage to Make a Political Statement"

Chaka: She feels for you.
Chaka: She feels for you.
Photo by Timothy Fielding
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Some women make it look easy.

Businesswomen, artists, mothers, partners, friends. Sometimes all at once. A woman can inhabit many lives in just one day while traversing a minefield of societal expectations: Be soft but not weak. Strong but not emasculative. Sexy but chaste. Honest but not biting.

Throughout her five-decade career, Chaka Khan has made it all look easy. She even sang the theme song for the Everywoman.

So it came as a surprise last summer when Khan abruptly canceled scheduled tour dates and checked herself into rehab for opioid addiction, citing her friend Prince's shocking and sudden death as a wakeup call.

On the phone from Switzerland, where she's set to perform a few dates before heading back stateside, Khan has a rasp in her voice that betrays her exhaustion. "Hey, it's Chaka," she whispers, knowing she needs only one name for an introduction. The one-name wonders of today owe her that debt. Without Chaka, there would be no Whitney, no Alicia, no Janelle, no Beyoncé.

She resists framing her post-treatment concerts as anything resembling a comeback and paints her return to the stage as unremarkable. "I never left the stage, almost," she says. "It was for a short time. The reason I came back to the stage so soon is this is what I do for a living. It's my life."

Any artist who has enjoyed longevity like she has must adapt to ever-evolving and increasingly rapidly shifting media landscapes. The world of subscription streaming services and artists uploading their independently recorded music to Bandcamp and SoundCloud is a far cry from the music industry that once shelved one of her albums in the '90s.

Unlike many of her veteran peers who have resisted these changes, Khan sees the elimination of the caricatured, greedy industry middleman as a positive development. Though she relishes what she perceives to be growing artistic control in the hands of artists ("It's a little more pure," she says), she's suspicious of the rise of media personalities such as Kim Kardashian, whom she sees as an unfortunate byproduct of the internet's egalitarian, content-driven nature. Though she doesn't mention Kardashian by name, she bemoans that nowadays "everybody, their mother, and their grandmother is an entertainer for having absolutely no talent."

One way Khan has maintained relevancy in the shifting market in spite of her aversion to social media has been the younger hip-hop generation's reinventions of her songs as samples — most recently in Schoolboy Q's "Studio" and most famously in Kanye West's breakout hit "Through the Wire," which samples her classic ballad "Through the Fire."

As it turns out, Khan wasn't too fond of West's reinterpretation. Asked broadly about her reaction to being so heavily sampled by hip-hop artists, she searches unsuccessfully for West's name and admits, "That song particularly rather pissed me off a little bit. I didn't like sounding like Mickey Mouse on there. No, that wasn't one of my favorites."

Khan is similarly uncompromising when asked about the troubling state of global politics. Her level of distress at recent political developments is undercut by her belief that the current state of affairs is a slightly more dramatic iteration of the ills that have plagued society for decades.

"I feel like I am in it but not of it. I keep a healthy distance so I can keep my head on straight and continue to keep a healthy family. There's not a whole lot one can do. You can go out on the street and march. But when you look at it, the president is only a frontman; he's a mouthpiece. So you can't take it too seriously, but you have to take it seriously, somewhat."

As she works through the struggles of the past year, Khan hopes she can use her voice to treat the ailing hearts of her audiences.

"I just keep it pure, simple. I'm not up there onstage to make a political statement. I'm up there to soothe and heal."

Singer, actress, innovator, mother, and, now, healer. Just another role for the indomitable Chaka Khan.

Chaka Khan
8 p.m. Friday, February 17, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $45 to $125.

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