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Through the Fire

After her son stood trial for murder and was acquitted last May, R & B legend Chaka Khan thought she had survived her lowest point. But subsequent death threats caused the singer to look inside herself to overcome her own troubles by helping others.

“What could I have possibly done differently?”

That’s the question Chaka Khan has been asking herself ever since her son’s troubles became her own. Last year, Khan’s 27-year-old son, Damien Holland, was arrested and charged with the murder of a teenager whom he reportedly argued with in the singer’s Los Angeles home in 2004. The two allegedly were exchanging heated words over a woman Holland was then dating, when he pointed a loaded rifle at the teenager and it accidentally went off.

Holland’s arrest and the ensuing court battle became the ultimate nightmare for his mother, who felt torn between her public persona and her private pain. “I’m like any other mother when it comes to protecting her children,” Khan says. “My son had a certain kind of life growing up. It’s normal to second-guess yourself about what you should have or shouldn’t have done. I think every mother has those thoughts when her child is in trouble.”


In the midst of her meteoric rise to the top of the music charts, Khan raised two children, a daughter, Milini, and son Damien, providing them both with a life of privilege that only her celebrity status could bring. As it is for many working parents, the constant demands of her job—world tours, studio sessions, personal appearances—pulled her away from her family for extended periods. Still, Khan and her son forged a special bond, so special that Holland worked for her on music tours and business ventures. “Damien and I have a lot in common,” Khan says. “We have the same sense of humor and share the same attitudes toward life. Of course, children come into this world with their own personalities, but parents do a lot to shape them into the children they turn out to be.”

Unfortunately, their closeness wasn’t enough to keep her son from trouble. When Holland went to trial earlier this year in Los Angeles, Khan was in court almost every day and even testified on her son’s behalf. It was a harrowing experience for the 53-year-old singer, who struggled not to let him see her fear that he would be found guilty. “It was particularly hard because I was naturally feeling bad for the young man who died and for my son, who never meant for any of this to happen,” says Khan. “But that’s where my faith in God came in. Believing in Him gave me peace and assurance that all would be okay in the end. I needed that because I had to stay up for my son. I couldn’t afford to be down or give up, for his sake.”

But Khan’s peace was short-lived. First the location of her home was reported in the local news during the ordeal, then Khan and her son started receiving menacing threats of real concern, according to Milton Grimes, one of the attorneys who represented Holland during his civil trial. Grimes recalls that tense time: “I heard about a threat to Damien from a bodyguard and family members, and there were some statements I had heard about as well that said ‘Chaka could get hers, too.'”  According to Grimes, Khan and those close to her felt she was at risk. Khan moved from her home as a safety precaution. “Everybody felt Chaka was in a fishbowl,” says Grimes. “She needed some security and that’s expensive, so she thought it was best to move out.”

Khan’s life changed, but she feels that everyone lost something in this situation. “It was tough because there was a lot of anger at Damien, and at me because he’s my son. It was an emotional situation, and many people felt he got special treatment. I did what I had to do to feel safe for myself and for my family.”

In the end, Holland was found not guilty of voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter and murder. He now resides outside the state, where Khan is hoping he’ll find his own way, along with his own identity. “It was a blessing—and one I thank God for every day—because the court’s decision gave my son another chance at a life,” says Khan.