Music

Tinashe’s cover of ‘I’m Every Woman’ brings the R&B anthem to a new generation

A new version of the song made famous by Chaka Khan and Whitney Houston embraces the fullness of Black humanity

With the world down bad and people closed in, R&B singer Tinashe wanted to show up artistically and give voice to the times.

She wanted something upbeat and joyful. Something smooth and sweet, with power vocals that celebrate everything special about being a woman. About being a Black woman, which everybody knows contains multitudes. She decided to bring a deep house vibe to a new rendition of the R&B classic “I’m Every Woman,” a song with a message for the ages, reinterpreted for the moment.

“Last year, there was just a lot of heaviness in the world,” said the 28-year-old Grammy-nominated songwriter and artist whose full name is Tinashe Jorgensen Kachingwe. “I’ve been dealing with a lot of emotional heaviness, and we’ve all been going through a lot.”

So she leaned into a song that felt energetic and free on the newly released EP, Black History Always – Music For the Movement Vol. 2, which is part of an ongoing project between The Undefeated and Hollywood Records. And with it, she became the latest artist to customize an R&B anthem first made famous by Chaka Khan more than four decades ago that keeps traveling the culture and expanding in meaning.

I’m every woman, it’s all in me
Anything you want done, baby
I’ll do it naturally

The 1978 debut of “I’m Every Woman” came in a post-civil rights movement, second-wave feminism moment marked by both unprecedented career possibilities and reproductive freedom. For Black women, it was an existentially different world from that of their mothers and grandmothers who came before them.

The song was “such a testament to the wide variety of what a Black woman was and could be,” said Mark Anthony Neal, chair of the department of African and African American studies at Duke University.

Tinashe on her cover of “I’m Every Woman”: “I try to give it my signature breath, vocal moments as well as giving like my best, like ’70s, diva energy.”

Alex Mayo

In the music video, Khan sports five looks – playful, sexy, smartly dressed, dressed up and around-the-way sistergirl destined to be your favorite auntie. The net effect cemented the singer’s reputation as accessibly beautiful with volcanic pipes. It represented Khan’s break from the funk band Rufus, and coined a new cultural vocabulary that Black women instantly internalized.

“In this video, Chaka’s like, ‘This is how I am during the day, this is how I am at night, this is how I am when I’m just chilling.’ And then I think it gave Black women license to not just reduce themselves to one particular role that either their male partner dictates, or their boss dictates, or the race dictates,” Neal said. “They could see themselves in a really multifaceted way, right? ‘I’m Every Woman’ gives Black women the license to think that way.”

She wears different uniforms to remind people of her other sides, “at a time when Black people had to wear uniforms in order to function in public,” Neal said. “There’s an element of the video telling Black women that you no longer have to wear that maid uniform.” Or that wife, that servant, that perpetually stoic, or careworn woman uniform. It adds to “this idea that Black women aren’t only this one singular thing,” Neal said. “It’s something that’s much more celebratory which, I think, fits into a kind of celebratory moment of Blackness.”

I can cast a spell
Of secrets you can’t tell
Mix a special brew
Put fire inside of you
But anytime you feel
Danger or fear
Instantly, I will appear …

Whitney Houston’s 1992 version of “I’m Every Woman” added a club feel to the original and became an even bigger hit, peaking at No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart (the original peaked at No. 21). The video features a pregnant Houston surrounded by exuberant dancers. It’s punctuated by Houston’s shout-outs to “Chaka Khan!” who, along with the song’s co-writer Valerie Simpson, become part of the joyful tableau. It is the second single off The Bodyguard, the bestselling soundtrack album in history and one of the high-water marks of Houston’s career.

“Music gets to mean so much more within the cultural social context in which it’s presented and represented,” said Dwandalyn Reece, curator of music and performing arts and associate director for curatorial affairs at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

The 1978 debut of “I’m Every Woman” by Chaka Khan came in a post-civil rights movement, second-wave feminism moment marked by both unprecedented career possibilities and reproductive freedom.

Globe Photos/MediaPunch/Getty Images

The original was part of Khan breaking away from Rufus, and as “part of the soundtrack of The Bodyguard, that’s a whole ’nother breaking out,” she said. “It was part of Houston’s evolution and power as an artist that goes beyond genres in impact.”

The song carries a message that we continually need to hear to uplift and empower ourselves, Reece said. There are people who knew Houston’s version and didn’t know Khan’s. “And the same thing will go on with this new version and the next new version.”

Part of the beauty and strength of Black cultural expression is “we’re never reinventing something totally new,” she said. “We’re building off the shoulders of someone else, but refiguring it from our own particular point of view and infusing it with new possibilities.

“What I can’t get away from is the joy. I can’t separate that it is just exuberant joy and that I’m every woman, it’s just such a powerful statement,” Reece said. “It captures that moment where you’re listening to a song that gets stronger as it goes, and the energy gets stronger, the voice gets louder and before you know it, I’m every woman!” Reece belted out. “Um, and that’s where the voice comes in. It gets embedded in your soul a little more.”

Anything you want done, baby
I’ll do it naturally

I grew up understanding Khan to be the most grown-ass woman, without being old, any of us Black girls ever saw. As a child, I loved her “I’m Every Woman.” But when the Houston version dropped, I saw my own life and career and belly, pregnant with possibilities. By the time I wrote my first book, in 2005, I had three kids, a mortgage and a byline, and I turned to both popular culture and my Black woman ancestors to help me work it all out. I titled my book I’m Every Woman, Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood, and Work, and It’s All In Me was Chapter 1. I braced myself with the story of the enslaved Sarah Gudger. I detailed how Virginia Woolf and my ribald Aunt Jackie helped with my philosophical underpinnings, and the New Yorker and LL Cool J shared space on my bookshelf. “I’m every woman and I’ve sampled heavily to come up with my sound,” I wrote.

I can make a rhyme
Of confusion in your mind
And when it comes down
To some good old-fashioned love
That’s what I’ve got plenty of …

The song is an anthem, regardless of who delivers it, said Olivia Fox, a digital content creator and a former nationally syndicated morning radio and television personality. “From the first time I heard it to the remix of it with Whitney and then all the other people that have attempted to sing it, and the remixes, when you hear it in the clubs, or whatever, it still has that same feeling for me. That it’s possible for me to be and do anything I want because of all the other women who have impacted my life.” Fox, 55, thinks of her mother and her grandmother and her great-great-grandmother, who was enslaved. “Every woman that they were has made me who I am.”

It has also allowed her “to pass all that knowledge and experience – pain, happiness, celebration – to my daughter and hopefully the goal being is everything she has gotten from these multigenerations, she will be able to pass on to her daughters,” Fox said. She talks with her 17-year-old daughter “about this multigenerational experience of being a woman of color and how we hope that each generation will move forward, and move Black women forward to where we rightfully belong.”

Michel Wright, who hosts a daily show called The Suite Spot on the SiriusXM Heart & Soul channel, calls it her go-to song, “with that motivation and affirmation that I need to fortify myself, you know. … It’s like a declaration of independence.”

It helps Wright, a longtime staple of Washington radio, access that hidden side of her personality she keeps tucked away professionally and in public. “You know, that bold side of myself I can uncork with that song,” Wright said.

She recalled a 2013 tribute to Khan at the Howard Theatre in Washington with Stephanie Mills and Simpson. The finale was, of course, “I’m Every Woman.”

“Every one of us, every woman onstage was singing that song. And because I love that song so much, because I need that song every now and then, I closed my eyes, I was just belting out that song and someone snapped a picture,” Wright recalled. “It’s one of my favorite pictures because you see Stephanie Mills gazing at me, like, ‘Get it in, sister!’ ”

I ain’t braggin
Cause I’m the one
Just ask me
Oooh and it shall be done
And don’t bother to compare
Cause I’ve got it
I’ve got it, I’ve got it, yeah …

The husband and wife team of Nick Ashford and Simpson, who wrote “I’m Every Woman,” were responsible for many songs that became anthems for Black life and love. They wrote “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell and “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” for Diana Ross. They wrote and performed “Solid (As a Rock).”

In a 2018 interview with Songwriter Universe magazine, Simpson says Ashford, who wrote 90% of their lyrics, also wrote the lyrics to “I’m Every Woman.”

“I started playing that music. And Nick just simply said … ‘I’m every woman.’ But he didn’t know yet what the rest of the song would be. So I told him, ‘Just put your hand on your hips and just tap into your feminine side and it’ll come to you.’ And that’s what he did.”

It’s like a piece of Afrofuturism from four decades ago built right into the song. It plants seeds that will open when the world is ready to hear something different.

“When we allow Black women to fully realize their multifaceted selves, we recognize a fuller Black humanity,” said Neal. Khan, Houston, Tinashe et al. are “not only giving license to Black women to fully see themselves. It’s a license for Black people on the range of gender spectrums.”

Tinashe heard the Khan version the most as a child, but “Whitney’s is so iconic as well,” she said. She decided to collaborate with a female producer, Tokimonsta, to make it a song for her as well.

A lot of songs feel wholly owned by the artists who made them famous, and that person can never be duplicated, Tinashe said. And while “obviously the original, iconic versions of the song are that,” she calls the message and feel of “I’m Every Woman” a celebration “of our growth. A celebration of the way we’re able to adapt. A celebration of that sense of community among us and being able to create our own versions, and continue the narrative as the decades go on.”

For Tinashe, there’s a new horizon to being a Black woman. We’ve moved into jobs typically reserved for men, she said, including the milestone for the culture to have Kamala Harris as the first female vice president and to see all the other Black women who helped make that happen.

“There’s such a beauty and such a power in being a woman, and our feminine power and our feminine nature,” she said. “I think we have a lot of things about us that make us really beautiful and magical, and I like to be able to embrace that as well. So I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become even more in love with my own femininity and more assured of how amazing it is to be a woman.

“I guess I’d like to say the gender norms have been a little bit more free in our generation,” she added. “It’s been talked about in terms of our sexuality, how we want to work, and not necessarily go by the same old model of just like, getting married and raising children, and like, what does it mean to be a woman in this day and age?

“I think the concept of womanhood is also outside of just a gender binary. And I think that’s really fun to be able to explore as well.”

Plus, to be able to put a house spin on all that female celebration is just the chef’s kiss. “I try to give it my signature breath, vocal moments as well as giving like my best, like ’70s, diva energy,” Tinashe said. “I can’t wait to see this in a club,” she said. “I’ll perform it as soon as I can.”

And Black women of all generations will once again see how far it takes us.

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at The Undefeated. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.