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Mitchell: Chaka Khan is a role model for community

ChakKhan performs Essence Music Festival New Orleans Sunday July 8 2012.  (Phoby Cheryl Gerber/Invision/AP)

Chaka Khan performs at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans on Sunday, July 8, 2012. (Photo by Cheryl Gerber/Invision/AP)

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Updated: August 31, 2013 6:29AM

I’m a Chaka Khan fan from back in the day.

In fact, I was so determined to see her perform at Millennium Park on Sunday, I went alone and stood with a throng of people who were pressed up against a metal barrier.

For those of you who missed it, on Saturday the city honored Khan with an honorary street sign at Blackstone Avenue and Hyde Park Boulevard. The 10-time Grammy award winner gave a free concert to say thank you.

Thousands showed up.

The crowds that filled the Jay Pritzker Pavilion and flowed across the lawn were as racially and as economically diverse as one would expect in a metropolitan city.

But sisters were especially giddy.

To those of us who grew up in Chicago’s gritty neighborhoods on the South and West Sides, Khan is what Derrick Rose is to the young basketball players still hooping in Englewood.

Khan’s the hometown girl whose talent propelled her across the boundaries that often trap black people in impoverished neighborhoods.

Because she grew up here, Khan knows our dirty secret.

“Chicago is a very progressive, artistic city; on the other hand, it is extremely racist,” Khan told Dave Hoekstra of the Chicago Sun-Times.

“Fragmented is a good word for Chicago, when it comes to social issues and boundary issues. I was very much affected by that.”

The last time I saw Khan in concert was probably about 20-plus years ago when she headlined a concert in Washington Park before a primarily black audience.

But Chicago has a way of putting “racism” away when it comes to downtown.

People of all races came out to enjoy Khan’s hits from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.

Frankly, the slimmed-down diva gives new meaning to the saying, “Good black don’t crack.”

The 60-year-old singer is celebrating 40 years in the music industry and she doesn’t look a day over 30. She credits a vegan diet for her youthful look, revealing in recent interviews that she has dropped 60 pounds.

But even if Khan has undergone the nips and tucks women in show business go through to keep them competitive, that wouldn’t account for Khan’s inner radiance.

She seemed to be genuinely happy with her life.

The fact that Khan has come through some rough times to get there shouldn’t be overlooked.

She may be a celebrity now, but Khan’s classmates probably wouldn’t have voted her the “most likely to succeed.”

As a teen, she dropped out of high school and started performing in local bands. She also joined the Black Panther Party and changed her name from “Yvette” to “Chaka,” a name given to her by an African shaman.

Still very much the activist, Khan canceled a July 20 concert in Miami after the not-guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman second-degree murder trial.

But growing up, Khan wasn’t a Miss Goody Two-Shoes. She made some bad choices and went through some rough times because of those choices.

In recent years, particularly after the death of Whitney Houston, she has spoken candidly about her abuse of drugs and alcohol.

She stopped using drugs in the 1990s and has been sober for eight years, she has told interviewers.

Her own son, Damien Holland, has also struggled with drug use, and Khan has custody of her 10-year-old granddaughter because her son’s girlfriend was heavily involved in drugs.

There’s a lesson in Khan’s life that goes beyond awards and tributes.

In the midst of belting out “Through the Fire” on Sunday night, Khan testified.

She told her fans that she used to be a “bad, bad girl” and would stay out all night partying. One night while out in the street, she answered her cellphone and it was her child crying, “Mama.” From that point on, she was determined to make a change.

“Thank you, Jesus,” she shouted throwing up her hand. “Hallelujah!”

I’m sure that wasn’t what some people expected.

But look at Kahn.

Her transformation is a miracle and our example.

Had she not made a detour, Khan was well on her way to an untimely death.

If we want our communities to change, more of us have to do the same thing Khan did.

We have to make that change.

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