Chaka Khan Tells Us Something. Good!

The 2023 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee opens up about her musical influences, radical Black Panther past, and what it’s like to be best friends with Miles Davis

CHAKA KHAN has always been a free spirit. The multi-Grammy-winning R & B singer—and just-named 2023 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee—recalls that as a teen she proved her mettle to the Black Panthers by scuffling with police. In a heated fight with second husband Richard Holland, she fired at him with a shotgun. She missed. Her musical career has proved just as outlandish. When Kanye West sampled her 1984 hit “Through the Fire,” she complained that the sped-up track made her sound like a chipmunk. Khan said Mary J. Blige “fucked up” the ’70s classic “Sweet Thing,” which Khan originally sang with her band, Rufus. In this interview, excerpted from Los Angeles’s Originals podcast, Khan, 70, is outspoken in assessing the ranking of artists who made Rolling Stone’s 200 Greatest Singers of All Time list. Her candid thoughts did not play well with fans of Adele and Blige. The ensuing backlash led Khan to issue an apology on Instagram, insisting it was not her “intention to cause pain or upset  anyone.”

Khan may have broken an uneasy truce with Blige and burned a few other bridges, but the icon’s honesty also makes her the undisputed queen of candor.

I’m going to start this interview with a bit of a quiz. Tell me, what do Debbie Harry, Bono, Roy Orbison, Brian Wilson, Stevie Nicks, Diana Ross, Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, and Tina Turner have in  common?


Oh, yes, they do. They are considered by Rolling Stone magazine to be inferior singers to Chaka Khan. They are all lower on the list.

What list is that?

On January 1, 2023, Rolling Stone published a list of the 200 Greatest Singers of All Time. Chaka Khan is No. 29, far above all of those people I just mentioned. Do you want to make an acceptance  speech?

OK, let’s get one thing straight here, first off. These are somebody’s opinions,  correct?


Then that’s all I have to say.

I want to take you back to your childhood. I very much enjoyed your 2003 memoir, Chaka! Through the Fire. You grew up in Chicago and, as a teenager, you became a Black Panther. Was this something that lots of teenage girls were doing?

No, not at all. You had to prove yourself. You had to really prove your sincerity and your honesty and your interest in a better world for all people—it wasn’t just for the Black people. You get excited about the fact that only just this past Easter did lynching become a [federal] crime. That tells you, quite frankly, what kind of country we’re living in and what kind of mindsets run this country. It’s insane.

Do you think that everybody felt both scared and angry back then?

Everybody? What do you mean by “everybody”?

Like everybody you grew up with. People were radicalized in different ways in the ’60s.

Yeah, that was the beauty of that time. We weren’t anywhere clearer on anything than we are today. We were just trying to do anything we possibly could to change things, to make some noise. And when we looked at our future, the dream was so intact and the lie was so intact that we actually thought we had a bright future. I grew up thinking, no matter what happens, my life is going to count for something at the end of the day. And I was lying to myself. I don’t know why I felt that way, but I felt that I had a future. All my friends did. But the longer I’ve lived, I sense the malcontent that young people have today in a most profound way—much more profoundly than I did back then, when I was growing up in it.

What do you attribute that to?

I think that children, especially children of color, on this planet are seeing how racism, the color of skin, is such a big deal, and it actually does dictate how far in life you’re going to go. That’s so sick and so sad.

Going back to that time, you actually had a weapon—a .38, is that right?

That’s the one I stole off the policeman. Since then, I have legal weapons of my own.

Wait, you stole it? How does one steal a .38 off a policeman? That sounds difficult.

Well, yeah, it was, a little. We scuffled a little bit, but we were kids, and I scuttled under there, and I stole the gun.

It sounds like you could be described as a handful.

Well, that was one of the ways I proved that I was worthy of the Panther movement to other Panthers around me.

Did you have any plans for it?

Yeah, I planned to fight for the fight—whatever it took, by any means necessary. But when I got that gun, I started going to the rifle range. I learned how to use it, and I saw what a big deal that was. I was dedicating my life to something and ready to die for something, and that scared the fuck out of me. I had ulcers—I was developing fucking ulcers.

Growing up, were there artists whom you were absolutely obsessed with?

There were quite a few. Miles Davis—I was obsessed with him. Billie Holiday—I’m still obsessed with her. Brook Benton—my grandmother used to play him a lot, and Billie Holiday as well. My father was a jazz aficionado; so was my mother. But my mother also loved opera and a lot of the female vocalists were around. So I had a multifaceted offering of music in my household growing up.

You got to work with Miles, right?

Absolutely. We were best friends.

But was he at all frightening initially?

Well, he surprised me, but he didn’t scare me. I was a bit put off, actually, when I first met him.

Didn’t he put his face in your lap or something?

In my crotch, yes, he did. He saw me, and he came over. He dropped to his knees and put his head in my crotch. So I knocked him out—I tried to knock him out.

Yeah, well, that’s not very polite.

I said, “Either this guy and I are going to be really great friends after we clean this mess up, or I’m going to hate him.” But it’s funny how a lot of my best people—the people I’ve turned out to know the longest and love the most—we’ve had rocky beginnings.

All right, I don’t believe that you haven’t read the Rolling Stone piece that called you the 29th greatest singer who ever lived.

I like you, actually. You took me out of one frame of mind right into another.

You don’t want to hear who is above you on the list, do you?

Yeah, I do. Go ahead.

All right. Aretha was No. 1.

As she fucking should be.

Whitney Houston, 2.


Sam Cooke, 3.

Whitney Houston, she would’ve gotten there later. I’m the one who introduced her to Clive [Davis], introduced her to the business. I made her mother bring her down to the studio and sing in back of me. Her and Luther Vandross.

Billie Holiday, No. 4. This one I believe is going to be controversial with you—I can predict this. Mariah Carey, No. 5.

Fuck, yeah. That must be payola or something.

Wait, so you’re good with Mariah Carey?

No, I’m not.



Ray Charles, 6. Can we agree with Ray Charles, 6?

Yeah, why not?

Stevie Wonder, 7. Beyoncé, 8. Hello?

No comment on her. I don’t have anything to say about Beyoncé. She’s a great singer. She really has the opportunity to be a great singer. She has what it takes. She’s got the chops.

I’m not going to go through everybody, but just ahead of you . . .


Adele at 22.

OK, I quit.

Oh, it’s too much? Did I bring it down? We were like a house on fire.


I’m sorry.

Wait, do it.

What do you want me to do? Do you want me to tell you more?

Tell me something else. Give me somebody else.

Mary J. Blige, No. 25.

Wait, wait. I’m 22, and she’s 25?

No, you’re 29, and she’s 25.

Oh, you know what? That’s why I feel the way I do.

I shouldn’t have done that.

These are blind bitches. These are blind as a motherfucking bat. They need hearing aids. They don’t have hearing.

Why did I not stop while I was ahead?

These must be the children of Helen Keller.

Hey, did I mention that you were ahead of Tina Turner? Like, way ahead of her.

That’s crazy. That’s insane.

Joan Baez—you kicked Joan Baez’s ass.

Where is she at?

Way the fuck back. Joan Baez is at 189; you’re at 29.

Wait, wait, let’s be honest: The bitch cannot sing. Now, she was a good writer.

Debbie Harry, 168.

OK, because she can’t sing either.

Christina Aguilera, 141.

Whatever. A lot of Black people like Christina Aguilera. She’s all right.

Stevie Nicks, 93—you’re way ahead of Stevie Nicks. Diana Ross, 87. Michael Jackson, 86. You buried both Diana Ross and Michael Jackson on this particular list.

That’s fine. Like I said, Helen Keller’s children.