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I’m Every Woman: The Story Behind Chaka Khan’s Empowerment Anthem
Warner Music
In Depth

I’m Every Woman: The Story Behind Chaka Khan’s Empowerment Anthem

Chaka Khan has said she ‘grew into’ her signature song, I’m Every Woman. Here’s why it speaks to everyone – regardless of gender.

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“It took me a long time to feel some sort of comfort in singing something like I’m Every Woman,” Chaka Khan said in 2022, looking back at the song that shot her to stardom. “I was taking it literally, which was wrong! I was reading it from an insecure place.” Khan revealed that, at first, she doubted herself; who was she to say she was every woman a man could need? But, later on, she came to understand the song’s true meaning differently. “It’s many women,” she said. “It’s really talking about it in a plural way, in a collective way. We are all every woman, and it’s all in us.”

Like the lady herself says, I’m Every Woman is not an egotistical song. Its celebration of female dynamism is boisterous and joyful, inclusive and welcoming. One of the best LGBTQ+ Pride songs of all time, the song remains Khan’s signature tune and an enduring classic of 70s soul music. “I think it’s a great song and a wonderful intention,” Khan said in 2017. “The song really speaks for itself, doesn’t it? It speaks the truth.”

Listen to the best of Chaka Khan’s debut album here.

What was Chaka Khan’s first hit?

I’m Every Woman was Chaka Khan’s first solo hit, and the lead single from her 1978 debut album, Chaka. However, Khan was already an established artist who had made her name as part of the funk group Rufus. Their first chart hit came in 1974 – Tell Me Something Good, with Khan on vocals.

At first, Khan remained a member of Rufus and had a parallel solo career. Indeed, the same year that I’m Every Woman came out Rufus released the acclaimed Street Player album, and recorded Masterjam, again featuring Khan on lead vocals. “I like being on my own and calling the shots myself,” Khan said in 1980. “But there’s a special chemistry I’ve got with Rufus. It took us a long time to develop it. We have our ups and downs, we’re like a family.”

As Khan’s solo career took off there were tensions between the singer and the other members of Rufus, but they remained together for several more years, recording the classic Ain’t Nobody in 1983.

Who originally recorded I’m Every Woman?

Chaka Khan first recorded I’m Every Woman, and the track was specifically written for her by the married songwriting team Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. “I told him [Ashford] to dig into his feminine side,” Valerie Simpson said in 2021. “I knew immediately it was a great title, which he got from me playing the chord [on the piano]. It was one of those things that just all came together.”

The pair immediately saw it as a great fit for Khan’s solo debut album. “That song became very much a woman’s anthem,” Simpson said. “With Chaka, she just is like a dynamo, unstoppable, very sexy person. Her persona is just all woman, which is why she did I’m Every Woman so well.”

As for Khan, she did not see herself the same way as Valerie Simpson saw her. “I was scared,” she told Access Hollywood in 2020. “I was like, ‘I’m not gonna sing this friggin’ song.’ I liked it, but I said, ‘I’m not saying to anybody I’m every anything,’ you know? I just couldn’t relate to that, and I grew into the song. I had to live that life until I became worthy of that song.”

When did I’m Every Woman come out?

Released as a single on 26 September 1978, I’m Every Woman preceded the album Chaka by two weeks. The song came at a time when feminist energy was growing in wildly different genres: funk, punk, soul, folk, and hard rock. I’m Every Woman was disco-friendly, reflecting the dominant genre of the time, yet the strong lyrics meant it crossed over to a mainstream pop audience.

It was expertly produced by Arif Mardin, marking the beginning of a professional relationship that would last for several Chaka Khan albums. “He was everything to me. He still is, in a big way,” Khan said in 2023. “He was like an uncle, father, everything. He helped me. He said in an interview, ‘Chaka Khan’s voice, she has the instrument that I cannot play.’ That was, like, whoo, great.”

What was the chart performance of I’m Every Woman?

I’m Every Woman was a hit around the world. It reached the top spot of the US Hot Soul Singles chart and went to No.21 on the Billboard Hot 100. It got to No.11 in the UK and also charted in Australia, Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands and New Zealand.

The song’s chart performance was helped by its memorable promo video, made when investment in visual clips was a rarity. The video featured five Chakas, styled differently, all dancing slightly out of rhythm with one another; it’s a clip that absolutely reflects the song’s feeling of imperfect yet proud womanhood.

As the dominance of MTV and other video channels grew in the 80s, the clip remained a popular throwback, keeping the song high in people’s minds. Indeed, the song itself was remixed and reissued in 1989, now channelling house beats. The remix became a Top 10 success in the UK.

Did Whitney Houston sing backup on I’m Every Woman?

This is a widely held piece of pop-culture folklore, but it isn’t true. Whitney Houston did sing backup for Chaka Khan before finding her own fame, but this was on the 1980 album Naughty, not I’m Every Woman.

“I had been working with Cissy [Houston] for quite a while as a background singer and one day we were in the studio, and she said, ‘You know, I have a daughter who can sing,’” Chaka Khan said in 2021. Chaka told Cissy to bring her daughter to the studio. “[Whitney Houston] was amazing, just amazing,” she said. Khan and Whitney were friends for many years, and when Whitney released her own version of I’m Every Woman, in 1993, Khan was given a lyrical shout out; she also features in the video.

Who has covered I’m Every Woman?

Although Whitney Houston recorded the most famous cover version of I’m Every Woman, she hasn’t been the only singer to tackle it. The song was first covered by the singer Latisha in 1979, who relocated the song from its disco-funk landscape into a reggae groove. Many other singers and groups have tried their hand at the song over the years, with a notable version recorded by Aretha Franklin, who mashed it up in 2014 with a new version of her own hit Respect.

Ultimately, Khan herself would also return to I’m Every Woman, via a duet with Idina Menzel, issued to celebrate International Women’s Day in 2021. “I am honoured to lend my voice to celebrate and inspire women on this International Women’s Day,” Khan said. “I hope our rendition of I’m Every Woman sheds light on the incredible strength of empowered women – women who are changing the world by leading their communities.”

And it is this empowerment, this belief in the majesty of women’s strength, that has made I’m Every Woman such a classic song that gets discovered by each new generation – of whatever gender. “I see it more as a power song for everybody, not just women – any given audience,” said Khan. “The men are seeing it just like the women.”

Buy the ‘Chaka’ reissue on vinyl and CD.

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