• Sun. Jun 16th, 2024

The enduring legacy of Tracy Chapman

ByAnouk Menpes-Smith

Feb 28, 2023
A black and white image of Tracy Chapman playing the guitar

As the Soviet Union was about to collapse, Gorbachev’s glasnost gave my mother Tracy Chapman. So too did she gift her to me, tucked in CD collections stacked high in our living room, played on mixtapes during car journeys in my childhood. Chapman has been in my musical consciousness for as long as I can remember and her influence continues to mark my tastes, as well as my personal politics. 

Most of us will be familiar with her hits ‘Fast Car’ and ‘Give Me One Reason’, which shot her to fame, winning her notable awards and even more nominations. Although these songs are indelible features of her catalogue, it may come as a surprise to many that Chapman has written a total of eight albums, beginning her career in the late 80s, with her most recent release in 2008. Her sound straddles folk, soft rock, and soul; her voice is gentle but impassioned, with her songs so easily distinguished by their profoundly naturalistic quality. Her distinctive vocals are usually accompanied with acoustic guitar and a gentle beat, occasionally adopting calypso rhythms, such as in ‘Mountains O’ Things’. 

I reach for Chapman often and I find myself listening to her even more so in recent months, as the war in Ukraine continues to affect my family and millions of others, at the scene of the battle and within diasporic communities. Indeed, Chapman is primarily known for her protest songs, most notably ‘Talkin’ Bout a Revolution’, ‘Behind the Wall’ and ‘Freedom Now’, which contain anti-war, anti-capitalist and anti-corruption messages. The song ‘Why?’ on her debut album covers many features of the injustice that continue to overwhelm our society, ranging from starving children to domestic violence and the loneliness epidemic. The lyric “Why are the missiles called peacekeepers/When they’re aimed to kill?” is especially chilling in its relevance to current events.

As a Black woman growing up in the shadow of racial segregation in the United States, much of Chapman’s music deals with racial injustice and inequality, such as in the song ‘Across the Lines’. Here she also stresses the hypocrisy and damage of the American Dream myth: “On back streets of America/They kill the dream of America”. Although so much of her discography addresses structural oppression and violence, Chapman’s outlook is often optimistic. ‘Fast Car’, for example, is an essentially hopeful narrative, detailing the possibility of escaping a complex and inhibiting family dynamic in pursuit of social mobility. This idea of “feeling I could be someone” recurs throughout the song, with escaping hardship being portrayed as a reality. The core of ‘Fast Car’ is a love story, as Chapman’s pursuit of liberty is undertaken with the company of a partner. The song is an example of her craft at telling love stories that marry the personal and the political. 

Chapman is perhaps not the most obvious choice for LGBT history month; an especially private person, she has never spoken about her sexuality publicly. Rather, it came to be the subject of attention when distinguished author Alice Walker spoke about her relationship with her in the mid-1990s. Chapman has chosen not to comment on this, maintaining a strong separation between her private and public life. This is something that many contemporary and emerging artists struggle with in the face of social and other media pressure. This can also be especially true of queer musicians and those belonging to minority groups, as they feel urged to represent communities who are either voiceless or discriminated against. 

Beginning her career in an era that was firmly pre-Internet, perhaps Chapman’s generation was one of the last that did not rely on technology to generate a following. It is also striking how few interviews Chapman gave during the height of her fame and how this does not reflect on her achievements. Perhaps those trying to reach the top in today’s music scene can learn from the way Chapman effortlessly strikes the balance between authenticity and privacy, whilst remaining an inspiration and a comfort for those communities she represents. Arguably, the most Chapman elaborates on her sexuality is through the ballad, ‘For My Lover’, which deals with a clandestine relationship. The lyrics “Everyday I’m psychoanalysed/For my lover, for my lover/They dope me up and I tell them lies” seem to imply a need to keep the identity of this person hidden. 

In the few interviews that she did agree to, Chapman comes across as authentically as she does in her song writing, utterly self-effacing yet maintaining an understated vivacity. She speaks quietly and often gazes down; it is clear that she is shy but this does not compromise how utterly earnest she is. She smiles and laughs easily throughout, dodging questions about the subjects of her songs and personal life with good humour and charm. In an interview with the infamous Charlie Rose, she was asked whether she wanted to be a musician from an early age, replying: “I think I was a musician [then], it wasn’t about deciding that I would be. I was singing I think as soon as I could talk and started playing guitar when I was eight as well. I always knew I would be making music; I didn’t know that it would be my career and I would have success in it”. This is delivered with the same humility and grace as her recounting receiving a scholarship to a private school, giving her opportunities to excel academically and move onto university, which she otherwise would not have had access to. This scholarship also served as protection from race riots, which were widespread in her neighbourhood as a young girl. She calmly recounts somebody threatening her with a gun, telling her to run otherwise she would be shot, at just 14 years old. 

Chapman makes it clear that she is grateful for her success and the faith of her backers in the industry, but is ultimately wary of the music business, saying that it often deprioritises creativity in favour of its commercial interests. This completely chimes in with much of her scepticism towards capitalist structures that encourage the hoarding of wealth and the deification of material things. In this way, Chapman has never compromised her values, and has always managed to keep her politics and experiences as an LGBT woman of colour at the core of her music. 

“We all have an opportunity to recreate our lives, and recreate this world, hopefully in a better shape and form”. Chapman uttered these words in an interview in 1996, as though we would need to cling onto them for years to come. A year later, my mother would leave post-Soviet Russia for good in pursuit of democratic freedoms and prosperity in Great Britain. Listening to Chapman growing up has reflected my mother’s experiences back to me, as I know that I have been given advantages that neither of them had at birth. As we bear witness to widespread industrial action across the public sector and the ongoing atrocities in Ukraine, we must commit to defending our rights and dignity that characterises Chapman’s song writing.  

Image “Tracy Chapman” by pieter.morlion is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.