Success as a Solo Artist
While she recorded with Rufus until the early 1980s, Chaka made an impressive debut as a solo artist in the late 1970s. In 1978, she released Chaka, which featured the hit “I’m Every Woman,” which was written by Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. In an odd twist of synchronicity, she won two Grammy Awards as a solo artist and one as a member of Rufus in 1983.
The following year, the solo artist reigned supreme. Covering a Prince song, she reached the top of the R&B, hip-hop and dance charts with “I Feel for You.” Featuring one of the most famous rap cameos of all time by Mel Melle, the infectious track incorporated elements of rap, R&B, and electronic dance music. It also won her another Grammy Award in 1984.
Though she continued to make music, Khan saw her popularity decline in the late 1980s and 1990s. Her albums may not have been selling as much as they had previously, she was still producing critically acclaimed music. She won a Grammy Award in 1990 for her duet with the legendary Ray Charles on “I’ll Be Good to You,” and another one in 1992 for “The Woman I Am.”
In the early 1990s, Khan left the United States for London to have a better environment 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 that “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 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 him. Rallying her family together, Khan attended the trial and testified on her son’s behalf. He was found not guilty in 2006.
Making her first original recording in years, Khan returned to the studio to make Funk This (2007). The album features a diverse mix of songs and guests. The ballad “Angel” came from a poem she wrote while high years earlier. The up-tempo “Disrespectful” paired Khan with one of her musical protégées, Mary J. Blige. On the cover of “You Belong to Me,” she sang with former member of the rock group the Doobie Brothers, Michael McDonald. She included a few more covers on the album, including tracks by Prince, Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell.
In 2008, Chaka Khan appeared as Sofia in the Broadway musical The Color Purple, based on the book by Alice Walker.