'Been There, Done That: when Angie Stone & Chaka Khan Discuss Exes, Excess Baggage and Life On The Edge, Get Ready For a Lesson On Living, Letting Go, and Learning To Love Yourself'
On this bright Manhattan afternoon, thirtysomething Angie Stone strides through a midtown New York hotel lobby, smiling at strangers, cell phone to her ear. After the success of her debut solo album, Black Diamond, in 1999, and Mahogany Soul in 2001, this neosoul queen--who's working on a new CD--just wrapped filming The Fighting Temptations with Cuba Gooding, Jr. Today she's making child-care arrangements for Michael, 6, the child she had with R&B singer D'Angelo, and she's currently working out the final details of her upcoming Coca-Cola commercials. In a few minutes she will sit down for a conversation with the legendary singer Chaka Khan, a friend of eight years and a beloved musical mentor. * The seventies wild child we once knew, now nearly 50, has not entirely vanished, though her edgy sex-kitten image seems tempered. Chaka's hardly living the quiet life--she travels several times a year between continents and still performs. But it's clear this seven-time Grammy winner has slowed down long enough to embrace a friend. * As Angie enters Chaka's hotel suite, the two women exchange joyous shouts and laughter and complaints that it's been too long. Then quiet falls over them, an extended moment in which they just hold on to each other. Soon they're sharing stories of struggle and heartbreak, stories of falling down and standing up again. And with everything going right for her these days, Angie tells Chaka about coming home to God. She knows that Chaka has been down some of the same roads. She knows that Chaka, her friend, will understand.
Chaka Khan: Remember when we first met, when you and D'Angelo visited me in London? It was 1995, and you two were there promoting his album Brown Sugar. I know you worked with him on parts of it, and it was a masterpiece. It was all I listened to. I had to hang out with you guys, had to have you over to my house.
Angie Stone: When we met you, it was such a high. D'Angelo and I were already feeling like kindred spirits, and then there you were, full of all that love. I was overwhelmed being at your house. It's something I can't even explain. It was magic.
Chaka: It was a special night.
Angie: But there's been so much between then and now. We're in an industry where success means that the media can take your character and bounce it up against a wall. After my son was born and his father and I broke up, the media called me everything from a baby mama to a drama queen. I didn't, I guess, fit the image that people thought a sex symbol like D'Angelo should have been with. And it hurts to read things about yourself that aren't true. Eventually I had to learn not to lend my emotions randomly to the world, because it's so painful when you're misunderstood and then misjudged because you've been misunderstood.
This is the first time in my life I've felt so spiritually grounded. I feel like the pieces of the puzzle are coming together. I'm not in love right now, but because everything else, from my kids to my career to my relationship with God, is in order, I can say that this is the happiest time in my life.
Chaka: I can't say that. I mean, I'm not unhappy, but there's still so much I want to do. I'm not where I want to be, but I can tell you I'm having a damn good time getting there. You know what I mean?
Angie: I know it takes so much self-love to get to the place you want to be. With me everyone and everything came before I did, be it a man or my career. But for the first time in my life, I'm loving myself the way I've loved others. I could never really do that before. It was so much about getting people to love what I had to offer, rather than just loving me, Angie? the woman. When I let that go and gave in to real self-love, the pieces of the puzzle started coming together. I see that in you too. You're glowing, Chaka.
Chaka: Well. I'm probably not loving myself like I should, but I'm really trying. It's hard. I've always struggled so much just to appreciate myself. What you were saying about putting everyone before yourself--I did that, too.
Angie: Friends. family, extended family--everybody! I felt that love and care and happiness were so unequally distributed in the world, that anytime I got anything, I felt guilty about it. I couldn't just accept the gifts. Now I'm at a point where I still ask people, what can I do for you? But even as I do that, I hold on to what I have. I hold on to it with one hand and extend the other. That's how you have to do it or else you deplete yourself, and then you're no good to anyone.
When I got to my thirties, I looked back on how I acted in my twenties. Then, I was spending as I went. I fell madly in love with a man coming out of the starting gate. For a time, I felt married to that man. But then I woke up one day and discovered I was all alone. I was so scared. It was only by the grace of God that I rose above losing one of the greatest loves of my life and found the courage to move on alone. I found courage looking into the eyes of my children: my beautiful daughter--she's 18 years old now--and my son. I look at them and know I have a reason to live. Now my son's father and I are friends. We're close. There's a lot of love between us and always will be. We know we're bound by God to do right by our child. And we will. But the breakup was hard, and there are no magic tricks for getting through the pain. Only time. And you have to do the time alone.
Chaka: I know. When I was in my twenties, it felt like I was riding wild horses, and I was hoping I didn't go over a cliff. I was getting high, my friends and I were together 24-7. In my thirties, I felt I had hold of one of the reins some of the time. Now I feel I'm guiding the horse, telling it where to go. That's what moving to England by myself taught me. I'd been in a vicious cycle and circle of people and couldn't see my way out. So I picked myself up one day about 15 years ago and moved where I didn't know anyone. I'd never been alone. I was scared as hell that first year. But I did it. I stayed there, and my apartment became like a Native American sweat lodge. And I sweated out a lot of emotional s---. I talked to myself, cussed myself out, ate too much. But in the end, I was cleansed. I was strong.
Angie: That's what that alone time gives you. It's a way to learn that you're bigger than your pain. I found out I was Angie Stone, a God-fearing woman, a woman whose mother had raised her to know when to be still. I learned to remove myself from the drama and be humble enough to hear the lessons God had for me in whatever the situation was. So no matter how many times people said it, I knew I was not a drama queen or a baby mama. I knew that I had been blessed because I'd shared in true love. And I'd rather have had true love for a moment than live with the wrong love for a lifetime. And I knew I wasn't going to succumb in the battle for myself. That's the pride people hear in my voice now. The pride of a woman.
Chaka: Getting to that place is hard, but once you do it, you wonder what took you so goddamn long, don't you?
Angie: Yes. And for me there came a point when I had to step away, even if it meant losing someone. Sometimes you love a person, but you may be keeping them away from their healing. Your kind of love may not be what they need at that time. They need a love from across the street. I think about Rodney, the father of my daughter, and how angry I was with him when our marriage ended. I was 21 with a new baby, and his life was really tumultuous. He didn't hold up his end as a father and I was so mad at him. But in the end I couldn't let my anger define life for my child. If Daddy didn't bring the milk home, I couldn't say to her there's no milk because Daddy didn't bring it. She wouldn't understand. She'd only understand that there was no milk. So you get the milk. You get the presents at Christmas and put his name on them. You stand in the gap for your children. And you have faith that God will handle the rest. And today Rodney is a different man than he was. He has changed and has apologized to me, and we've become great friends. Most of all, our daughter, Diamond, who's in college now, can call her father for anything. He's always there.
Chaka: Kids will make up the difference!
Angie: They will. It's about having patience, and it's about understanding that part of growing is trial and error.
Chaka: Walking through this life really is walking through fire. Sometimes the heat is more intense, but it's always there. As you get older, though, you realize there are fire extinguishers. You do have an ability to control the flames.
Angie: We have to understand that, as women, I mean. We have to understand our power as women and our rightful place as women.
Chaka: Which is at the head of things! But really, we also need to learn how to love one another as women. How to appreciate and respect each other. If we could just see how related we all are, how we're really all in the same place. The bickering and fighting and hating that women do with each other--it's going to kill us as a race of people.
Angie: I'll tell you what I learned in the third grade that taught me not to be jealous. I've held onto it all my life. The teacher used to call on a different child each day to collect papers at the end of the afternoon. One day it was this particular boy's turn, and after he handed the papers over to the teacher, she stood up and said, "In all my years of teaching, this is the first time I've ever seen a child hand in the class papers and put his at the bottom. Everybody always puts theirs on top." I got jealous and angry that day because I hadn't thought to do that before he did, and now he was getting the praise. But I learned something so valuable right then, too. It's a lesson that let me wait until I was in my thirties to step out on my own to do my work in a way I felt proud of--even if it meant waiting longer than I wanted to. And it's a lesson the Bible has been teaching all of us for so long: that the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.