Chaka Khan: 'Queen of Funk' reflects ahead of Southbank Centre's Meltdown festival

The ‘Queen of Funk’ reflects on her career and shares her advice with artists ahead of curating Southbank Centre’s Meltdown festival. Naomi Clarke met Chaka Khan.

If you are ever in a rut, a near surefire way to get back in the groove is to queue up a string of Chaka Khan’s empowering anthems. Her powerful vocals have enlivened many dancefloors, garnered her a legion of fans and earned her the title of the “Queen of Funk”.

The US singer superstar first rose to fame in the 1970s as a member of the American funk band Rufus, before she began to forge a successful career as a solo artist.

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It was undoubtedly a wise move as her debut solo single from her 1978 self-titled studio album was the R&B chart-topper I’m Every Woman, which captured the world and landed her a Grammy nomination.

Chaka Khan on stage during BBC Radio 2's 'Thank You For The Music, A Celebration of the Music of ABBA' show. Picture: : Yui MokChaka Khan on stage during BBC Radio 2's 'Thank You For The Music, A Celebration of the Music of ABBA' show. Picture: : Yui Mok
Chaka Khan on stage during BBC Radio 2's 'Thank You For The Music, A Celebration of the Music of ABBA' show. Picture: : Yui Mok

She supercharged her stardom a few years later with the platinum-selling single Ain’t Nobody, which she released with Rufus.

While the group dissolved in 1983, Khan carved out her own path, releasing a host of solo studio albums over the years which have branched across many genres including pop, R&B, hip hop, jazz, gospel, country and dance.

Over her five-decade career she has also worked with some of the world’s most influential artists – Prince, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder and Mary J. Blige to name a few – secured 10 Grammy awards and been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

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Even as she celebrates fifty years in the industry, Khan, 71, shows no signs of slowing down.

Chaka Khan performing at Electric Picnic festival. Picture: Niall CarsonChaka Khan performing at Electric Picnic festival. Picture: Niall Carson
Chaka Khan performing at Electric Picnic festival. Picture: Niall Carson

“I’m not nostalgic really, I’m a next girl,” she says over a video call with a chuckle. “I don’t live in the past, I don’t remember a lot. I mean, it’s a good thing, too, I think.

“The only thing I am really interested in is what’s happening in the moment, that’s all we own is this moment right now, and what’s going to happen next, how it’s going to affect what I do next, or what happens to me next.”

She feels this forward-thinking attitude has helped propel her career as she does not waste her energy on things beyond her control.

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“I can do nothing about what happened yesterday but I can have some influence as to what is happening right now and how it may affect tomorrow,” she adds.

Among her plans for this year, Khan is following in the footsteps of musical titans like David Bowie and Nile Rodgers by curating Southbank Centre’s Meltdown, the UK’s longest-running artist-curated music festival.

It will feature dozens of concerts across ten days in June, with Khan opening and closing the event with performances at the Royal Festival Hall. The singer had been rumoured for the coveted Glastonbury legends slot in the same month, which has now been filled by country superstar Shania Twain.

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Khan, real name Yvette Stevens, said she believes the music festival did approach her about the slot but says she had not given them an answer because she was being “really focused” on her work with Meltdown.

However, she kept hopes alive that she may one day take to the Pyramid Stage as she says she “would love” to perform at the festival. During her three-month stint in the UK this summer she will also squeeze in appearances at Cambridge Club Festival, Nocturne Live series at Blenheim Palace and Love Supreme Jazz Festival.

Her trip across the pond also marks a return to the country she previously called home, as she had a house in north London for about 30 years. She has also lived in Germany, Switzerland and cities throughout America.

And while she has achieved many impressive feats in her life, Khan believes her great achievement has been leaving city life behind to live now in the US state of Georgia with her family.

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“Getting out of the city, leaving LA – that’s the best thing, the biggest investing I’ve done, period,” she says. “I’m communing with nature. I’ve got all of this beautiful land and a lake. I truly get to rest here, I truly get silence. This sustains me. I’ve got my family out here with me and it’s lovely – my mother and my sisters and my nephews.”

Finding peace and staying true to herself is a central focus for Khan at this stage in her life, but she recognises this can be a difficult thing for younger people in a fast-paced, technology-fuelled world.

An area she feels has been particularly hit is the business side of the music industry, which she thinks has taken a “horrific, horrendous and wrong” shift since she started out.

“This whole thing of us competing with one another, there is no competition in self-expression and that is something that appears that these labels and these bigger businesses count on, is that we stay competitive,” she laments.

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While she does like to have her finger on the pulse by working with rising female artists such as US R&B star H.E.R. and Australian singer Sia, Khan admits she does not listen to much music outside work as she gets enough of it from her day job.

So what does she advise young artists who are coming up? “Honesty is the best policy, even if it hurts,” she says, evidently speaking from experience.

“And especially if it hurts, that means it’s probably meaningful. But to remain honest is the best thing you could do for yourself and everyone around you.”

“I’ve got lots of advice,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons that people grow to be old and that is because we have a lot of wisdom to impart to younger people. That is our main gig, I believe.

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“So I’ve been doing a lot of that, I go to schools, I speak to kids whenever humanly possible and interact with children as often as possible and we open the open floor and they can talk about anything and that is what it’s all about.

“I’m looking to start doing some podcasts for kids. Reading to the younger kids, and having conversations with young adults and stuff like that. That is half of my job right now as a human being, it has to be and that’s why I’m here.”

She adds: “I love the direction in which we are going – focusing on young people – because that is our future and their future so I think we really owe them a great deal of time, energy and respect.”

– Southbank Centre’s Meltdown festival, curated by Chaka Khan, will run from June 14 to June 23.

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