The Vault of Soul: Chaka Khan

A light pink background with Chaka Khan lyrics in a lighter pink. On top, in large bold font, reads "Chaka Khan." There is a silhouette of a woman with an afro and hoop earrings.
Graphics by Riley Vecchione

By Annie Sarlin, Staff Writer

Each week of Black Music Month, we open the 88.9 Vault of Soul with profiles of iconic soul pioneers. Continue reading to take a deep dive into Chaka Khan’s incredible legacy.




Chaka Khan was born on March 23rd, 1953 as Yvette Marie Stevens. The singer grew up in Chicago, Illinois, where she began performing at an early age. At only eleven years old, she started a girl band called the Crystalettes with her sister, Yvonne, and two of their friends. 

Three years later, Stevens joined the Black Panther Party, where she was given the name Chaka Adunne Aduffe Yemoja Hodarhi Karifi. She ultimately dropped out of the party in 1969 but kept the given first name. Around this time, Stevens was singing with various bands in her hometown, through which she met bassist Hassan Khan, who she married in 1970. The singer took her new spouse’s last name and became what fans know her as today— Chaka Khan. 



In 1972, Chaka Khan joined the funk band Rufus as a replacement for their former singer Paulette McWilliams. The band signed with ABC Records and released their debut, self-titled album in 1973, to little commercial success. The following year, however, the band released their second album, Rags to Rufus, which achieved great popularity, ultimately reaching Platinum status. Their song “Tell Me Something Good,” written by Stevie Wonder, won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group, or Chorus. 

Khan’s powerful vocals were such a stand out to fans that the band renamed themselves “Rufus and Chaka Khan” to spotlight their singer. In addition to her talents as a vocalist, Khan contributed to the album as a songwriter. She co-wrote the track “You Got the Love,” which hit #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Following Rags to Rufus, the band created five more gold or platinum-selling records in less than ten years. 



While still performing with Rufus, Khan began to record music on her own. She released her debut album Chaka in 1978 and achieved success with the upbeat, anthemic forceful salute to women with, “I’m Every Woman.” Khan ultimately became a full-time solo artist and released several more albums where she experimented with a variety of genres including funk, disco, jazz and rock. In 1984, Chaka Khan achieved new popularity for her album I Feel for You, which featured a title track written by Prince a Stevie Wonder harmonica solo, and a cameo from rap pioneer,  Melle Mel. In addition to Mel, Khan has famously released collaborations with several other talented artists throughout her career, including Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Mary J. Blige, De La Soul and the Funk Brothers. Many of these collaborations earned her Grammy Awards. 

Over 40 years after the release of her debut album, Khan has continued to make music. In 2019, she released her 14th studio album, Hello Happiness. Recently, in 2023 at the young age of 70, Chaka Khan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Trending new R&B singer, Jazmine Sullivan who has been inspired by Khan introduced her at the ceremony. And to further her music legacy with a new demographic of listeners, Chaka performed a concert at
NPR’s Tiny Desk.

Her lasting legacy, expansive discography, and brilliant musicianship earned her the nickname “The Queen of Funk.” 



As if her many accomplishments in the music industry were not enough, Khan has also brought her talents as a performer to acting. She has made appearances in films and TV shows such as Blues Brothers and Empire but also spent time on the stage. Her powerhouse vocals lent themselves to multiple stints in musical theater, including playing Sofia in The Color Purple on Broadway.







Chaka Khan has won 10 Grammys and been nominated 22 times. 

  • Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group, or Chorus for “Tell Me Something Good” (Grammys, 1975)
  • Best Vocal Arrangement for Two or more Voices, Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals for “Ain’t Nobody,” Best R&B Female Vocal Performance (Grammys, 1984)
  • Best R&B Female Vocal Performance for “I Feel For You” (Grammys, 1985)
  • Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals for “I’ll Be Good to You” (Grammys, 1991)
  • Best R&B Female Vocal Performance for “The Woman I am” (Grammys, 1993)
  • Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance for “What’s Going On” (Grammys, 2003)
  • Best R&B Album for Funk This, Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals for “Disrespectful” (Grammys, 2008)
  • Black Entertainment Television (BET) Lifetime Achievement Award
  • Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee (2023)
  • World Music Awards Lifetime Achievement Award
  • United Negro College Fund Award of Excellence




Learning this song was written by Stevie Wonder was no surprise— the song has everything that makes his own work so incredible: a funky bass line, interesting rhythms and incredible vocals. This early Rufus hit demonstrates Chaka Khan’s immense talent as a singer; she hits both low and high notes easily and shows off her strong vibrato and powerful belt. As if her amazing performance was not enough, each instrumental part of this song is extremely intricate and well done. The band flawlessly performs a catchy, syncopated bass riff underlaid with unusual rhythms on the drums and guitar. 



In addition to Khan, “I Feel For You” had two other musical greats contributing to it: Prince, Stevie Wonder and Melle Mel. With four incredibly talented artists in the mix, it's no wonder how much of a hit it was. The song masterfully combines two popular sounds of the era: disco and rap. Synthesizers combine with Khan’s beautiful, high-pitched vocals and a groovy bass line, making it impossible not to dance along with Stevie’s great harmonica solo. Mel’s spoken interludes are catchy and fun and bring a unique spin to the disco song.  His role on the track has become iconic, as he was the one to deliver the famous chant of “Chaka Khan, Chaka Khan.” 



“I’m Every Woman” is disco at its finest: rich beautiful vocals, a catchy bass line, and a beat you can dance to. Khan’s higher vocal range shines in this song, and she makes somewhat repetitive lyrics dynamic and fascinating with her many incredible riffs and runs. The hit also features incredible harmonies in the chorus that were recorded by another powerhouse singer, Whitney Houston, who sang backups for Khan. This remarkable vocal talent makes the song worth listening to, but don’t be surprised to find your feet tapping to the beat while you do so.


You can revisit past Vault of Soul articles here, featuring artists such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and more. 

Interested in exploring the soul genre beyond the vault? Be sure to tune into 88.9 every night between 10 pm and 2 am for The Secret Spot. Or, take a deep dive into R&B, hip-hop and the legendary voices of soul alongside new and pioneering MCs by streaming ERS+.

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