When Chaka Khan headed down to New Orleans in 2011 for the Essence Music Festival, it wasn't the city she remembered. "When I landed I sensed something was really, really wrong there," she tells Rolling Stone. "The infrastructure in that city was hit really hard, and they’re still reeling. It’s really sad, because it didn’t feel like the same New Orleans I’d been going to for most of my life."
Khan took time to interact with some of the locals, which had a profound effect on her. "I met some women and I asked them questions. 'What’s it like for you and did you lose anybody?' I heard horrific stories," she says. "Some of the women had lost, in one day, their mother, their aunts, their granddaughters. Some women were living in their car or living with friends. They had no hope of recovery. It was horrific. [And] the stories they were telling really changed me."
So she teamed with a group called IWES (Institute of Women & Ethnic Studies) and the Essence Music Festival to take on a transformation for 150 women. The year-long work of the Superlife Transformation Program, which targeted career, education and health goals, will culminate with a graduation ceremony at this year's Essence Festival next month. Khan went down recently to visit with the women and found amazing results.
"A hundred and fifty women were totally on the upward spiral to a better life, to a super life. They were closing on houses. One girl started an all-girl band, and I’m gonna be singing with her when I go down there for their graduation," she says. "The women will share some of their plans and talk about their future. Then they will take an oath to assist and foster and mentor a new crop of women. So it’s great. A little love goes a really, really long way."
For Khan, who will celebrate her 40th anniversary in music in 2013, she's taking that motto to her future recordings. "The base word for this whole movement would be 'empowerment,'" she says. "I’m gonna make empowering songs that will make you wanna dance. But if they don’t make you want to dance, you’ll be very interested in what the lyrics are saying and trying to get the message out of that."
Khan's last album of new material was in 2007, but she is in the studio now working on new songs. "I’m putting down lots of ideas with lots of people – two guys from Eric Clapton’s band, and Wendy and Lisa, who were with Prince. They’re doing amazingly well," she says.
It's early in the process, but Khan, who's worked with artists from Stevie Wonder to Miles Davis over her career, imagines the album will feature some high-profile guests, a mix of young guns and peers. "If I were to call out I’m sure some people would answer it," she says. "I just haven’t put the call out."