It’s American singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman’s birthday today; we wish her all the best and want to say how much we admire her work. Granted, Tracy’s never admitted to liking punk rock and her songs don’t sound anything like The Ramones, but as someone of a similar age to ourselves, we think her influence on music and social campaigning has been important.
There’s something admirable about how Tracy has been passionate about her music and pursued a huge, successful career without having to live in the media glare, or be forced to continually produce new albums. After five years of a quiet life, in November 2020, Tracy emerged to play ‘Talkin ‘Bout A Revolution’ on Late Night with Seth Myers, changing the last lines of the song to include the message ‘Go Vote’. Apparently many US citizens did just that.
The words to that song are poignant in this video as thousands at Wembley Stadium and millions of people across 60 countries watch Tracy play Talkin ‘Bout A Revolution at the Free South Africa Concert at Wembley Stadium in 1990. As Tracy sings, ‘finally the tables are starting to turn’, so the end of the apartheid era is negotiated in the early 90s. The cultural boycott and the impact of writers like Tracy played a significant part. Released from prison after 27 years, Nelson Mandela gave a 45 minute speech at the concert. He later said that he was really excited when Tracy Chapman came on stage since he’d ‘always been intrigued’ by her. Unfortunately Mandela missed Tracy’s performance, as Neil Kinnock called by and so Nelson Mandela had to leave his box to go and talk with him. Looking back, the power of one person on that global stage is incredible, and this moment in Tracy Chapman’s life should never be forgotten.
Tracy is a good example of how being given a helping hand can make a massive impact on a person’s life. She grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, with one sister and a mother who was not well off financially after divorce. Racism, bullying and traumatic physical assaults were part of Tracy’s early school life, but she escaped by being selected to take part in an educational program away from Cleveland. A Better Chance (ABC) is a non-profit program going back to the 1960s which sponsors ‘talented young people of color’ to attend high-achieving boarding prep schools prior to university. The aim is to give the individuals better life chances but also to ensure that a greater number of people of color assume positions of leadership in the future. Tracy went to Connecticut to study as part of ABC and subsequently gained a degree in Anthropology and African studies.
Tracy started playing ukulele and then guitar at a young age and was already composing songs in her teens. She played student coffee bars and folk clubs and then was offered a publishing contract soon after her first significant gig in Boston. A fellow student alerted his music-publisher father, who signed Tracy and negotiated a deal with Elektra once she’d graduated. It sounds like a dream come true, but contracts in those days were very restrictive for artists. Talking to NPR’s Michael Martin in 2009, Chapman talks about being at last free of that 20-year deal:
MARTIN: Well, as I mentioned, and I almost can’t believe it myself, you’ve been in the industry for two decades. I don’t know if you started out you thought that you’d still be doing this. You won four Grammys, sold millions of albums. What’s next? What else do you want to do?
Ms. CHAPMAN: That’s a good question. Well, you know, it’s interesting that this 20-year-anniversary marks the end of the contract that I signed when I was in my 20s. So I am now free to decide what I want to do.
MARTIN: I didn’t know contracts went so long.
Ms. CHAPMAN: They don’t normally but, yeah, this one did.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CHAPMAN: And so I’m going to take some time and figure out my options. You know, the record business has changed quite a bit in that time and I think I have a lot more options than I did even 10 years ago.
Twenty years is a stupidly long time to be tied into working for one company. Although the opportunity to record and the success that followed must have been amazing, we bet Tracy felt constricted by that deal as time went on. In the digital era where song rights have now become investment fodder, and major songwriters are cashing in their legacy, Tracy is a rare breed – an independent publisher and solo songwriter who wants to protect her work, and isn’t seeking blanket synch deals. In fact, she successfully sued rapper/singer Nicki Minaj in 2018 for sampling Baby Can I Hold You, in a song called ‘Sorry’ that was unreleased, but then leaked via social media.
“I was asked in this situation numerous times for permission to use my song; in each instance, politely and in a timely manner, I unequivocally said no. Apparently, Ms. Minaj chose not to hear and used my composition despite my clear and express intentions.”
At any time in history, record companies are looking for something that sounds and looks exactly like the other new acts that the other companies have. In the late eighties, it was all lush swirling synthesisers and pretty-boy melodic rockers. Tracy Chapman didn’t fit that vibe; the folk-singer image seemed old-fashioned and it was hard to find a producer who’d agree to Tracy’s demand for a stripped down, close sound. David Kershenbaum was eventually found and the first album was recorded in eight weeks.
‘Tracy Chapman’, released in April 1988 sold thirteen million copies and Tracy Chapman won the Grammy for Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, among countless other accolades. Its success hangs on the honesty, integrity and pure musical sound of Chapman’s songs, which reference her experiences and optimism for a better future. There are not many debut songwriter albums of this quality, with several songs that endure and are covered by other singers years later. 65 people have recorded cover versions of Fast Car, there are 51 cover versions of Baby Can I hold You, and 17 recordings of Talking ‘Bout A Revolution by other artists to date.
Tracy also gained masses of fans following her 1988 performance at the Nelson Mandela 70th birthday tribute concert. She had to fill a gap in prime time when Stevie Wonder experienced a technical problem and could not go on. Again, the simplicity of Tracy’s guitar and voice, and her earnest, dignified performance attracted praise around the world and a boost in record sales as a result. Of course, this level of success leads to the media whirlwind, the invitations to play further benefit gigs for Amnesty International and other good causes, which kept Tracy Chapman busy for many years.
Her second album, Crossroads in 1989 also went platinum, with further songs that explored political and personal themes of struggle and justice. Tracy had a wide range of musicians she’d met on the Amnesty tour play on her third album, Matters Of The Heart, in 1992, including Patti Smith and Tom Petty. Three years later, Tracy Chapman co-produced her fourth album, New Beginning which enjoyed renewed success. In 2000, Telling Stories was released, produced by David Kershenbaum once again. We like this track Spring from Chapman’s 2008 album Our Bright Futures.
Shyness and the desire for privacy have always been part of Tracy’s life alongside the initial drive to communicate through her songs:
“It certainly gave me more attention than I’d ever received before, and I wasn’t that comfortable about it. And I m not super-comfortable with it now, but I think I’ve started to find a way to . . . mainly it was a good thing. I was an anthropology major, so it wasn’t like there were many jobs waiting for me! I d gone to school on scholarships, I d worked and struggled all through school, had no money, so of course, that was a real welcome change. I was able to help my family, pay off my school loans, help my sister go to school, those were among the best things.” interviewed by Peter Murphy 1999 Hot Press
Now free to do what she chooses, retaining control of her own songs and living privately, we guess that Tracy is probably happy in her own self and glad not to be pestered by fans, journalists and photographers the whole time. We hope that Tracy has a really happy birthday today. We’re not the kind of fans who keep pleading for more appearances, more news, more new songs. We say, you’ve done enough – the world is impacted – enjoy your time. But also thanks for that ‘Go Vote’ thing.