R&B singer and soul survivor Karyn White has what Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Chaka Khan, and Whitney Houston have. They all can “sang,” but it’s something else. They have what’s called an “evergreen,” a signature anthem that echoes across generations.
Though she no longer resides with us in the physical realm, Aretha has “Respect.” Dionne has “Walk on By,” Chaka has “I’m Every Woman,” and Ms. White has “Superwoman,” a song that continues to resonate with working women everywhere from the time it was first recorded in 1988 up until now.
If you play Superwoman for a Gen-X Black woman, chances are she’ll throw her head back and belt out the chorus, full throat, just like White.
But there is so much more to this singer’s catalog than that timeless anthem. When White performs at the City Winery this Thursday, she will bring out all the hits, B-sides and jams she has created and performed over the years, having worked with some of the most influential producers in music history.
Chicago Defender: I read somewhere that you had worked in real estate and interior design. Can you talk a little bit about how you got into those fields?
Karyn White: Yes. That lights me up. I like talking about that. I started to build a house with my ex-husband, Terry Lewis in Minnesota, a very beautiful, large home on Lake Minnetonka. And so I got the bug then. It was a laborious project, but it was amazing.
When he and I divorced, I moved to the Bay Area, to Sacramento. I bought someone’s house who was an interior designer. And I loved everything that she did in it like the furnishings. So I wound up buying it, which we call a staged house.
At the time, I chose to take off from music. I was going through a tough time — my mom passed, a divorce. So I just wanted to step back and do something different for a season.
So I asked [Hoshall] would she help me, that I wanted to learn what she did. And so she taught me, and she took me under her wing. Then I started from that point, in distressed areas in these million dollar neighborhoods.
I went in and bought several homes and rehabbed them. It was very lucrative, I enjoyed it. The whole thing was to have an understanding of what to put in a home.
So I was very excited to give someone an experience when they walked into the home. I loved it. I didn’t have to have a band, a producer. It was all on me. I really love the fact that I could do this. I love the fact that I was able to, with a high school education, build a real estate empire and that it was doable. That was really cool. I felt empowered.
Chicago Defender: What year did you first get that urge, that nudge to go in this direction with real estate?
Karyn White: Oh, it was about ‘99.
Chicago Defender: You created this anthem for working women everywhere that still resonates in “Superwoman.” How does it feel to be associated with such a mega hit like that?
Karyn White: You know, it’s such a blessing. That’s what we call an “evergreen.” That’s what Dionne Warwick has, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Whitney Houston. To have an evergreen in your catalog is such a blessing.
And I have to definitely thank the great L.A. Reid and Babyface for even seeing me in that light. Because at that time, in the late 80s and 90s, they were very prominent producers. A lot of artists would have wanted that song. So, I just really feel like, “Why me?”
I can really say that I’m really resilient. And because to me, that’s what a super woman is. The song matched me, but I didn’t know I was there yet.
When I was younger, I sang from the point of view of my mother, being a single parent raising me, supporting me, being taken for granted in relationships. I really just saw her as that. But now, I can see myself. It was who I was destined to be.
That song was such a separator for me because it was bigger than dance. It was an anthem. And so I’m just thankful for that evergreen. It has blessed me all over the world, not just in the United States. Internationally, it’s huge too.
I want to be able to make people feel and provoke an emotion that’s good or that brings a memory and makes them happy.
Chicago Defender: It has been 35 years since the release of “Superwoman” and your self-titled debut. What strikes you about just the power of that record? And the fact that it still does resonate to this day?
Karyn White: I know how Dionne Warwick and Aretha and Chaka feel. I have so many artists, Tamar Braxton, Fantasia, Heather Headley, Latoya Luckett, I’m really honored that this generation is keeping the song alive.
When I go to one of my favorite countries, South Africa…I couldn’t go over there before apartheid, and after it was lifted, then I was able to go, but I wasn’t singing at that time.
In South Africa, [students] had to do reports on my music because it came out during a real specific time when women really were able to grab a hold, and the song became their strength. So, when I go over there, it’s like, they studied me in class.
You’ll see an eight-year-old who knows who I am because they had to recite these lyrics and write what it meant and do essays. That even blew me away, because this just happened. I went over there first in 2018, but it was 1988 over there.
I like to tell my partner that God, he’ll restore the years. When I was away from the [music] business, it was a lot of hurt and pain. But I feel like he restored that all when I went over to that country.
Sometimes I say, “Why did I leave Karen? You should have stayed in the business.” So all of that is restored, because the love is like it was 1988. So, it’s just been a blessing.
That’s probably some of my best memories of that song and how it’s changed their lives. A lot of women know what the song really means to them.
Chicago Defender: I read somewhere that your father played the trumpet and that your mother was a church choir director. When and how did it occur to you to be like, “You know what, I want to pursue music professionally?”
Karyn White: That’s my superpower right there, my focus, my drive. I knew at an early age that, even before church and during the intermission at family holiday gatherings, dressing up like Diana Ross and Donna Summer, Chaka Khan and Tina Turner, and performing in between commercials, and maybe not getting booed to where they would listen to me. I love the attention. And I knew that this was just what I wanted to do.
And choir. We went to my grandmother’s church, so she was Holiness Church. If you’ve ever been to a Holiness Church it’s unique in the fact that there are no rules there.
I didn’t play a lot. I took piano lessons for a little while, but she was like “play this, play that.” I really didn’t know what I was doing, honestly. But I guess that’s when I learned how to improvise. Right? The spirit. They thought it sounded good, and so that was the beginning. And then I moved on to a bigger choir.
It’s nothing like having to be just authentic and be all in. When I’m singing, I’m passionate about it. If there’s one thing I want you to do, it is believe a Karyn White song. I want you to feel me and not just, I think she’s just singing a song.
That’s why performing live is my favorite part of performing because I seem to have that gift to touch people spiritually, and that’s what it’s all about. That’s why I do this. I want to be able to make people feel and provoke an emotion that’s good or that brings a memory and makes them happy.
Chicago Defender: Over the years that you’ve been performing in Chicago, what is your impression of our city? And what can folks expect at the City Winery on September 14?
Karyn White: I’ve always thought it’s the most beautiful city in the world. And it has major swagger. I love the feeling of the city, the people. And this is my first time. I left the music business for 18 years. So I’ve never performed there. So for me, I’m excited to reconnect with my fan base.
It’s just going to be a beautiful time. I cannot wait and like I said, performing is what Karyn White does. I am a performer. It will be me just loving on you all night, having a good time.
That’s why I call it the Karyn White experience, going through a Jeff Lorber fusion, my jazz, my soul, my funk, my rock, my new jack, so it’s just my soul. I’m excited to just dig deep in this catalog because I have some of the most prolific songwriters in history that have written for me — L.A., Babyface, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, Michael Powell, Anita Baker’s producer.
I have a lot of great music that probably will be rediscovered and people will be like, “Wow, I didn’t know she had all that great music!” because my record label was trying to push me in a very Janet Jackson, pop Black Madonna way. And they left a lot of meat on the bone.
I got the hits. I got the music and we’re gonna give it to you all night. Like I said, be ready because I’m up. I’m funky. I’m soulful. I’m wild. I’m sensual. I’m sexy. I’m hot. And I’m excited, more than anything, to see you guys and perform. We’re just gonna have a good time.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.