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Classy, sultry Chaka

29th June 2011   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
The Louisiana Weekly

For the first time in several years, regular attendees of the annual Essence Music Festival will have the opportunity to experience both explosive headliners like Usher, Kanya West, Jill Scott and more in the Superdome as well as fireworks in the sky. That’s because the Fourth of July falls on a Monday and the multi-faceted “Party with a Purpose,” which celebrates its 16th anniversary, kicks off on Friday, July 1, and wraps up on Sunday, July 3. The result is akin to having your strawberry shortcake and eating it too – three nights under the Dome, one night under the stars.

Considering her tremendous performance at last year’s Essence Festival, it comes as no surprise that the stunning Mary J. Blige was selected to hold the honored spot of closing out the event on Sunday night. Beyond her huge vocal talent, Blige is an artist who is emotionally and musically in touch with a crowd. These traits are essential for an artist to capture an often somewhat bleary-eyed audience who have given their all for three days and nights. She’s got what it takes to elevate the Dome.

The only unfortunate aspect of Blige’s Sunday slot is that it eliminates the possibility of she and the legendary vocalist/composer Chaka Khan, who performs on Saturday, July 2, sharing the main stage for a tune. Blige joined Khan on the Grammy-winning single, “Disres­pectful,” off of Khan’s 2008 Grammy-winning album, Funk This.

“Oh that’s too bad, because we’ve never performed it together live,” says Khan, who’s far from being a stranger to either the Essence Music Festival or New Orleans. She ventures that she’s performed at the festival about 10 times and made her first trips down here in the 1970s when she was just a teenager fronting the band Rufus.

“I’ve always been drawn to Louisiana,” says the Chicago native and now Los Angeles resident. “My dad is Creole and I have family there who I do not know – the Dennises. I remember in the ’70s when I was flying into New Orleans and as soon as we’d get to Louisiana the sky would turn a greenish color and I felt this pull. I’ve always felt an affinity with New Orleans that just goes deeper — that’s just in my blood.”

Khan, who has won a remarkable 10 Grammys starting in 1975 with her performance with Rufus on the Stevie Wonder-penned “Tell Me Something Good” to Funk This, particularly recalls her Essence Festival appearance following Katrina.

“I thought I was going to feel pain and misery – a lot went on in that place,” Khan remembers. “As soon as I got up there (on stage), the whole vibe that was going on and the moment swept me away. I think that place now is a spiritual monument to a struggle that hit that city in a unique way. It changed a lot of lives.”

In part, the experience made Khan, who heads her own Chaka Khan Foundation with its goals to educate, inspire and empower at risk children, eager to try to help New Orleans during this visit.

“I said, ‘Let’s do something special this year that would empower women in that community,’” says Khan whose Foundation has joined forces with Essence and the local Institute of Women & Ethics (IWE) to establish the Super Life Transformation initiative. It will benefit 50 women from the greater New Orleans area who will receive year-long counseling and mentorships to reach educational and employment goals.

“I don’t know really know how it came together – it was a God moment,” Khan says. “All I know is that I had the idea. So I went into the studio and wrote new words to the song “Super Life” (from Funk This) to make it applicable to what’s going on with the women of New Orleans.

Proceeds from the song, which Khan recently premiered on the television show “The View” and will perform at the festival, will benefit the Super Life Transformation project. Signifi­cant, she says, is that IWE and Essence Festival have a great number of sponsors. “With the people they know and the people I know we can pull it together.”

Born Yvette Stevens on March 23, 1953, Khan has been a social activist and vocalist throughout her life. She grew up in a musical family and formed her first singing group at age 11. At age 16, she became Chaka, a name given to her by a high priest during a naming ceremony. In the late 1960s she joined the Black Panther Party and remembers skipping the first two periods of school to participate in the Panthers’ Breakfast for Children program.

“I’ve been service-minded all my life. I believe that’s why we are here — to help one another. That’s our first job and our most important one.”

Chaka Khan has enjoyed a remarkable career first finding success and establishing her reputation with Rufus. She then launched herself as a solo artist in 1978 and is noted for collaborating with the best in the business including Blige, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Prince and others. She promises more such teamings on her next project. On May 19, 2011 Khan was honored with a star in the renowned Hollywood Walk of Fame.

At the Essence Festival, Khan’s powerful, soulful vocals and commanding stage presence for which she’s renowned will be backed by a six-piece band plus three back-up singers.

“I dare not try not to do ‘I’m Every Woman,’” Khan offers, “and I usually slip in ‘Tell Me Something Good.’”

“Life is my inspiration,” says Khan by phone while packing her bags for another of thousands of shows she’s performed. “I’m inspired by anybody and everybody who is moving and shaking and making noise and doing the right thing. That’s that and that’s a fact.”

This article originally published in the June 27, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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