Through the Fire
10/29/2007 at 01:00 AM EDT
Her name was immortalized in song on her 1984 hit "I Feel for You," but Chaka Khan had to be reminded of exactly who she was while recording her new CD, Funk This. "I sort of lost my studio legs—I hadn't done it for a very long time," she says. "Every night I'd come in and [coproducer Terry Lewis] would ask me, 'What's your name?' And I'd tell him, 'Chaka Khan.' And he'd say, 'Okay, now go in there and sing.' It's not that I forgot who I was, but I forgot a lot of things...." But recording her first disc with original material since 1998, the eight-time Grammy winner has found her voice again and is battling back from years of drug abuse, weight struggles and, most difficult of all, watching her son stand trial for murder in 2006. "Singing for me has changed," says Khan, 54. "I didn't have the calling I have now."
With a voice that erupted like a force of nature, she burst onto the R&B-funk scene in 1973 as the powerhouse pipes behind the group Rufus and went on to influence a generation of singers from Mary J. Blige to Erykah Badu. ("Everybody tries to sing like Chaka—and I say try—but they can't do it," says Funk This coproducer James "Jimmy Jam" Harris.) But fame came at a cost. "It's no secret I've been getting high since I started singing," she says. "And a lot of my self-medication had to do with [wanting to] hibernate and be alone. I felt like I was in a fishbowl. I contemplated suicide a lot in those days." The album's first single, "Angel," is a deeply personal ballad based on a poem Khan wrote when she was using drugs ("Troubled little angel/Inconsistent flying blind most of the time/Don't know who to be"). "Look, man, it was a miracle that I had the wherewithal to even put two words together," says Khan. After years of substance abuse, she began three months of rehab in 2005. "Nov. 8 will make it two years [sober]," says Khan. "Obviously, God had something planned for me because, for all intents and purposes, I should be dead, shouldn't even be here."
Khan's recovery couldn't have come at a more important time. Her son, aspiring music producer Damien Holland (dad is Khan's ex-husband Richard Holland), was arrested and charged with the murder of his friend Christopher Bailey, 17, at Khan's L.A. home in 2004. While the two reportedly argued over Holland's then-girlfriend, Holland pointed a loaded rifle at Bailey and it went off. At the trial last year, Khan testified that she believed it was an accident and Holland, now 28, was found not guilty. "One of the reasons I was able to go into court every day and do that trial is because I was sober," says Khan, her voice growing quiet. "I can't imagine what it'd be like to lose my son, and my heart and prayers are with Chris's family every day. Every day."
The trial put Khan's focus on her own family. And it's her two children—she also has a 33-year-old daughter, singer Indira Milini Khan—and two grandkids who have helped inspire her to live a healthier lifestyle "so I can see them get married or whatever they're gon' do." Khan says she has never stepped on a scale but has gone down "maybe three" sizes, with the help of a personal trainer. The singer has also changed her diet ("I allow myself one day a week to carb out") and avoids eating late at night. "When I was getting high, I would eat damn near anything," she says. "I used to be an emotional eater too. Food was my boyfriend at one time."
Now her boyfriend is music producer Ira Schickman, 44, with whom she has had an on-again, off-again relationship for years. "We've threatened to get married," says Khan, who recently set a date (Jan. 9) to join the cast of Broadway's The Color Purple in the role of Sofia. For now, however, Khan—who was born Yvette Marie Stevens—is happy to have found her way back to being Yvette. "That was my journey," she says. "Now when I'm not working, I'm not singing, I'm Yvette. When it's time to be Chaka, I just let Chaka come to the fore."