NEW YORK - So you're inside the dimly lighted bar of the Peninsula Hotel on a breezy afternoon in Manhattan, awaiting the arrival of Chaka Khan. As you sit in a deep, plush chair by the window, you take in the ornate gold, burgundy and mahogany decor, the crystal chandeliers, the snooty waiter. You can just smell the money in this joint.
You are here to chat with Chaka (yes, she's a first-name diva) about her just-published tell-all, Chaka!: Through the Fire. Thirty years have passed since the woman scored her first smash, "Tell Me Something Good," the Stevie Wonder-penned classic that snagged 2 million record buyers with its slow-grind funk and Chaka's volcanic pipes.
Back then, she was with Rufus, the airtight, multiracial band that backed her on many hits: "Once You Get Started," "Please Pardon Me (You Remind Me of a Friend)," "Stay," "Hollywood," "Sweet Thing" and others. Those were Chaka's infamous "Wild Child" days - the '70s, an adventurous period in pop music and the singer's life.
You saw her on Soul Train back in the day when Don Cornelius was the host. And there Chaka stood on stage with Rufus - a pint-sized dynamo in a buckskin midriff, bizarre platform shoes, her massive Afro adorned with feathers - sing-shouting: Love me right/What's the matter with you/Hold me tight/Why must I tell you what to do. She was an immediate sex symbol - tough and bawdy. She seemed so liberated. But according to her book, the longtime lover of poetry and philosophy felt trapped in the wild stage act, the leather, the feathers.
Booming, free, a marvel of style and technique, Chaka's voice is still an undeniable instrument, a truly original sound. Some of her solo hits have become anthems: "I'm Every Woman," "What Cha Gonna Do for Me," "I Feel for You." After Aretha Franklin, she is undoubtedly the most important and influential black female singer to emerge in the last century. Bette Midler calls Chaka "one of pop's greatest voices." Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, Rahsaan Patterson and Erykah Badu have covered the woman's music and copped a few of her signature vocal licks.
In the autobiography, the eight-time Grammy winner is refreshingly candid about her career, men, the industry and her abuse of all types of drugs: heroin, acid, weed, crack. It's amazing that the 50-year-old Chaka is still around and intact, circling the globe every year and thrilling millions with That Voice. These days, when she's not on the road, Chaka chills at her London pad or her Los Angeles home, enjoying herbal teas, old friends, her two granddaughters Raeven and Daija. You find out later that the fiery soul belter still wonders how and why she made it "through the fire."
'I've come a long way'
About half an hour late for your appointed time with her, Chaka steps off the elevator and enters the bar. You notice The Hair first: a thick shock of wine-colored curls framing an ageless face. Almond eyes and long fake lashes. High, blazing cheekbones. A sprinkling of freckles across the nose. Her full mouth instantly melts into a wide, girlish grin as she extends her hand with a bell-like, "Hello." She's a petite, busty woman - no more than 5 feet 2. Dressed in a smart black pantsuit and platform boots, Chaka is trailed by her entourage: the wardrobe girl, the makeup guy, the hair guy, her daughter Milini, her personal manager and baby sister Tammy, and, of course, a cool-faced bodyguard. The diva - oh, Chaka loathes that term - the "primal wailer," as she calls herself, is in the house.
As if on cue, Reggie the makeup guy stops the Chicago native before she sits.
"You need some lipstick," he says, digging into his bag. After a quick application of a bronzy shade, Chaka finally settles into an easy conversation about Through the Fire, her past, her artistry, her spirit.
"There was no, like, special landmark, age, occurrence or solar return that made this book happen," the singer says in her occasional faux Tina Turner-like British accent, which gives way to a 'round-the-way-homegirl tongue the more comfortable she gets.
"My sister Tammy and I had kicked the idea around about doing a book," Chaka says, "and I was like, 'No, I don't wanna do a book.' My life, you know, is already a fish bowl. I wanna keep some things private. It seemed so [difficult], writing a book. But my sister talked me into it. She said, 'There are some kids out there going through what you've been through. They may feel hopeless. You can help somebody. And that did it.' "
It took about a decade to get the book under way but just eight months to write it. Chaka did so much partying and drugging that she hardly remembered the '70s and '80s. She researched some things as she worked on issues that continued to haunt her, such as drugs, dead-end relationships, ragged management. Completing the book has brought her some peace. But the artist is still a "work in progress."
She tosses her hair. "I've come a long way. Yes, I would say I've been blessed."
Named after her 1985 hit, Through the Fire opens with Chaka backstage at the 2001 Essence Awards at Madison Square Garden. By this time, her legend had long been established. She was revered for her work with Rufus, had racked up gold and platinum records as a solo act. Yet at that moment as she waited to go on stage to perform a tribute to mothers of murdered children, Chaka felt naked. The fame, the Grammys, the hits, the hair all seemed so irrelevant. With tears in her eyes, Chaka listened to the stories of various women dealing with profound grief and loss. When she finally went out to sing, "I entered that zone, that merciful, boundless place of no walls, no glaring lights ... ," Chaka writes. "I became all voice. Voice became all my love, hopes, prayers, every sorrow, and all my sorrys ... I had my children still, and their children. I had my life still."
It wasn't long after the tribute performance that Chaka decided to get serious about telling her story.
"After the Essence Awards," she writes, "I finally felt truly ready to review my life: Things I've done and things I've undone. I also knew I'd have to take a good look at things I'd said over the years ... If nothing else, I thought, perhaps I owed it to my grandchildren to leave a real record of my life."
The darkest days
Chaka was born Yvette Marie Stevens in Great Lakes, Ill., on March 23, 1953. She and her four siblings grew up in Chicago with artistic, down-home parents. Mother Sandra, who worked various menial jobs to help make ends meet, was into dancing, painting and making clothes. Father Charles, who operated the printing machine at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, later introduced young Yvette to Eastern philosophy, beatnik poetry and be-bop. But her parents' union was too volatile, and the two divorced when the singer was still a girl.
Perhaps the most engrossing part of Through the Fire is Chaka's teen years. She was a firecracker, gave her mother pure hell with her quick, tart mouth and defiant attitude - two characteristics that are still alive today, Chaka will tell you, but have been tempered over the years. She immersed herself in the Windy City's vibrant black-arts scene, where legendary poets Haki Madhubuti and Gwendolyn Brooks flourished. Yvette and her sister Bonnie (also known as singer Taka Boom) were part of an Afrocentric quartet called the Shades of Black. The group regularly performed at Chi-Town's Affro-Arts Theater, a now-defunct cultural center. It was during this time, the late 1960s, that young Yvette met a Yoruba priest who gave her a new name - well, several new names - based on her orishas, or guiding spirits: Chaka ("woman of fire") Adunne ("loves to touch") Aduffe ("someone others love to touch") Yemoja ("mother of the waters") Hodarhi ("woman of nature") Karifi ("strength").
Chaka tosses her wild mane for the umpteenth time. "There are habits - good ones - that I acquired during those years," the singer says about her "black revolutionary" days. "Some of them have to do with nutrition and ethics. Some of them I still hold on to; they've become a part of my foundation."
She left high school after she decided singing was her thing. In the early '70s, she met and married an Afro-Indian bassist named Hassan Khan. In 1972, she joined Rufus and moved to California. The next year, after the group recorded Rags to Rufus, its first gold album, Chaka gave birth to Milini and divorced Khan.
In 1976, as her star ascended and she became a regular on the cover of Jet and Soul magazines, Chaka married a Mexican-Jewish man named Richard Holland. Their son, Damien, was born in '79. But the brighter days soon darkened as Chaka's second marriage crashed and burned three years later.
"Having to go through my life and writing this book was no joke," Chaka says with a loaded sigh. "I'm a 'Next!' kind of person: I grab life's lessons and move on. I'm not trying to carry baggage and [stuff]."
Through the '80s, as her drug dependency deepened and her behavior (public and private) became more erratic, Chaka couldn't escape her ghosts. For the most part, she had been an absent mom: skipping birthdays, holidays and other precious moments with her children, who were raised by nannies and Chaka's mother. When the guilt burdened her, the woman ran to liquor, crack, parties, Europe. After an inspired 1998 Prince-produced album, Come 2 My House, flopped, Chaka hit the proverbial bottom. In 1999, sister Tammy intervened and persuaded the singer to get help.
Chaka entered an exclusive detox program that year. After a few intensive months, the singer emerged revitalized. And, along with her sister, she reshaped her management, "cleaned house." The artist started her own production company, Earth Song. Next spring, she hopes to release a new album on her own label. In her typical fashion, Chaka has moved on.
She flashes that radiant smile. "This book was so cathartic, you know? There's still a lot left to do. There could be a part two, but I ain't trippin'," she says with a wicked laugh, slipping into homegirl mode. "It was good, though. You know what I mean? I had to control a lot of demons. I got rid of some. I'm still dealing with some. But I'm getting better and better at handling it all. I feel like I can give more."