After Aretha Franklin’s death, Chaka Khan is arguably the greatest living soul singer. Calling her only a soul singer, however, is an understatement: Khan is a jazz, rhythm and blues, pop and funk singer. Especially funk. “Funk is a percussive form of rhythm and blues that emphasizes groove,” writes critic Tony Bolden in his book Groove theory. “Listeners get in tune with the melody and rhythmic pulsation of the music. They remain enthralled or psychologically immersed, and express joy by dancing or with other forms of movement ”. The joy of funk, its evident sexual charge and its liberating force, Chaka Khan expresses them with his voice, one of the most unmistakable and powerful in the history of African American music. His voice rests on the groove, climbing higher and higher, he flies over it and, in the end, he uses it as an anchor to return to earth, or rather to the track.
Usually Chaka Khan is described as a force of nature, a natural and wild talent, as indomitable as her hair. His own stage name, Chaka, in the Yoruba language means “woman of fire”. And often it’s white critics and fans who love to describe her as this exotic, indomitable creature. It is a pity that they do not reckon with the awareness that Chaka Khan has always had of the historical and political context in which he worked and in which he created. Other than wild talent, other than instinct: Khan has been active in the Black Panther movement since she was a teenager, studied, marched, curated a free breakfast program for activists’ children, and has always been a rights activist civilians and a radical feminist. So radical that she soon moved away from the Black Panthers because, surprisingly, they marginalized her as a woman.
The militancy had given self-determination and strength to Chaka Khan, who decided to sing to encourage his community, to communicate an idea of strength and recovery. “My identity as a singer has helped me send a message of emancipation without even having to spell it out in the words of the songs,” she said in a 2007 interview with LaShonda critic and writer Katrice Barnett.
Since his debut with the multiethnic funk group Rufus, which soon became Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Khan has been activist even just by going out on stage, leading an all-male band, often dressed in a very skimpy and scandalous way even for the permissive seventies. Who, let us remember, were permissive only for certain categories of people and in certain socio-cultural contexts, certainly not for black women. In his songs Chaka Khan never spoke (if not very rarely) about the situation of blacks in America but he preferred to use joy, enjoyment, as the only criterion and poetic objective. The joy of a powerful song, capable of being crystal clear and in tune or free to improvise like a jazz soloist. Khan has repeatedly said that his real singing teachers were Miles Davis’ trumpet and Charlie Parker’s sax.
In 1979, when he began work on his second solo album, Naughty, Chaka Khan is a big star. And his producer, the Turkish-American Arif Mardin, is also a big star: he has already worked with Carly Simon, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield and had produced that gospel masterpiece that is Amazing grace by Aretha Franklin. It is not an easy time for Chaka: she has recently divorced and is addicted to alcohol and cocaine. That’s not much in itself: she is convinced that her home in California is haunted by the ghosts of fourteen Native American virgins sacrificed anciently on that land. Yet when it comes to walking into the studio and singing, she is perfectly lucid again. Arif Mardin guarantees her the best that the American music show business can offer: a first-rate band that sees among others a legendary bassist like Anthony Jackson and a champion drummer like Steve Ferrone. Luther Vandross arranges the choruses and among the choristers stands out the name of Cissy Houston who one day brings her sixteen-year-old daughter, Whitney, to the studio to make it harmonize with her. In Our love is in danger, a magnificent funk piece full of gospel inflections, the choirs are Luther Vandross, Cissy and Whitney Houston.
The quality of the pieces selected by Chaka Khan and Arif Mardin is very high and skilfully oriented on the most sophisticated pop: the album opens with Clouds, a torrential disco-funk piece that seems to anticipate house music and, soon after, Get ready, get set slow down to take us back to the funk roots of Chaka’s sound. One of the highlights of the album (and the only real hit) is Papillon (aka Hot butterfly), a piece written by pianist and songwriter Gregg Diamond, originally sung by Luther Vandross who had met him during the sessions of Young americans by David Bowie. Entrusted to Chaka Khan Hot butterfly it becomes an electrifying tour de force of variations and embellishments.
Naughty doesn’t really like it when it comes out, despite the mild success of Papillon (aka Hot butterfly) and despite Clouds is often played in discos. So often that in 1989 it was remixed in a deep house key by Robert Clivillés and David Cole (aka C + C Music Factory). For the criticism of the time Naughty it’s too pop and too little funky, everyone misses the explosive Chaka that ignited Rufus’ concerts and kicked the microphone to get on the drums. Yet it is precisely its lightness and its sophistication to make Naughty so special. The joy of singing, that joy of funk which was also the existential thrust of Chaka Khan’s music, warms every piece of this magnificent record that is really worth listening to again.
Warner Bros., 1980