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Is the Southbank ready for Chaka Khan?

Chaka Khan is about to Meltdown (Penske Media via Getty Images)
Chaka Khan is about to Meltdown (Penske Media via Getty Images)

Every year, a legend lands to take Southbank’s Meltdown festival to new heights. Following in the footsteps of David Bowie, Yoko Ono and Grace Jones, in 2024 Chaka Khan is taking the reins, promising to ‘funk it up, rock every crowd and touch every soul’ with ‘a feast for the senses’.

Which will mean not only headlining, but booking her favourite acts — an easy job for an icon who has recorded with some of the foremost talents of a generation. ‘I’m Every Woman’ with Stevie Wonder, ‘I Feel for You’ with Prince, ‘Do You Love What You Feel’ with her band Rufus, produced by Quincy Jones. She’s duetted with Mary J Blige and even teamed up with Bombay Bicycle Club for 2023’s ‘Tekken 2’. She doesn’t dwell on the legacy though. When we catch up with her, playing a live gig at Flipper’s Roller Boogie Palace, Khan confesses she’s a ‘forward person’.

‘Right now is all I have,’ she says. ‘I don’t own yesterday any more. I definitely don’t own tomorrow. I have stolen the fact that I’m still alive and I’m here this moment able to speak to you somewhat coherently.’ Thankfully, get her on stage and she’ll relive the years through her hit songs. So, which are her favourites to perform? ‘“Ain’t Nobody” still remains one of my faves. I’ve done so much music. I look at my catalogue and I say, “What else was I doing?” Nothing much! I was recording, working. That’s all I did. I wonder when I had time to have two kids. I was on tour pregnant. I had my stomach painted with the sun on it — it was beautiful.’

And she never lost momentum. With all those floorfillers, she was one of the hardest-working musicians around, really putting in the yards for her Queen of Funk tag and those 10 Grammys. Having been active on the music scene since she was 17 — following a spell in the ranks of the Black Panthers (‘I almost forgot about that!’) — she was asked to join funk band Rufus in 1972. At the time she was approached by Ike Turner to become an Ikette (a chance she turned down, but a decade later she spent time in his studio; ‘I loved Tina!’ she says). Despite a bumpy start, the band were helped out by a certain Mr Wonder who wrote a number of songs for Chaka, including the band’s breakthrough ‘Tell Me Something Good’ in 1974. By 1978, with in-band politics proving stormy and interest in the frontwoman who also proved a dab hand at drums and bass, she’d inked a solo deal. ‘We became friends,’ she says. ‘Rufus toured with Stevie for nearly two years. We also toured with the Rolling Stones.’

The crossover to mainstream chart success was complete when in 1984 she collaborated with Prince on her biggest song to date, ‘I Feel for You’, which he’d originally recorded five years previously. They holed up on their own to record at Paisley Park. Their working relationship became a good friendship in an industry of fleeting encounters. ‘This is not a way of life where it’s easy to make friends,’ she says. ‘We were close because we got to record together independently — we didn’t have a label or anybody’s timetable. So, we got to spend good quality time together. And that was a blessing.’ She remembers a beautiful soul. ‘He was brilliant. He was my brother. There was so much mutual love and respect.’

You sense that, at 70 and still working, this is still a hustle for Khan. ‘People romanticise this,’ she says, throwing her hands open to the green room. ‘It’s hard work. Travel is not fun. Flying everywhere is not a good look. This business is not easy. And it’s hard on your personal life, too, obviously.’

Recently, she’s struck up a friendship with Sia (someone who would make an excellent addition to the Meltdown line-up), helping her come out from behind the wig in confidence. ‘We’re doing some work together,’ she says of new music they’re recording for 2024. ‘She’s a lovely human being. I love her. I had her performing with me and she’s terrified. So we’re gonna fix that. I’m going to be her godmother; I’ll be having a ceremony.’

It feels as though Khan would never have had cause to question her own confidence, but she admits the industry has been tough. ‘I used to have a lot of people pulling my strings, the label I was with or whatever. I don’t remember the moment things changed. I am sure it is still happening.’

But with this new challenge, it’s going to be Khan finally pulling the strings.

Chaka Khan’s Meltdown, 14-23 Jun, at Southbank Centre (southbankcentre.co.uk)