Tracy Chapman’s angry and touching debut album quickly climbed to No. 1 on the pop music charts in 1988, catapulting the 24-year-old folkie to international fame and celebrity—which she found disconcerting and uncomfortable. Chapman’s powerful narratives, sparsely arranged music, and smoky contralto were a revelation—both a throwback to the protest music of the civil rights era and unlike anything else on the radio at the time. “She may be shy and private and uneasy with some of the trappings of fame,” Stephen Pond wrote in Rolling Stone, “but this young black woman from work-ing-class Cleveland is THE new artist of the year, may be the new artist of several years. “Playboy described Chapman’s voice as “laced with equal parts bitterness and dignity.” Time said she was a “a cultural icon. Her short, spiky dreadlocks signaled a move away from pop glitter. Her music, pared down, almost willfully naive, was an antidote to the synthesized sound of the 1980s.”
In songs like the hit “Fast Car,” Chapman sang about poverty’s human toll, racial violence, domestic abuse, police indifference, and obsessive love. “Chapman
Born in Cleveland, OH, in 1964. Education: Attend ed Wooster School in Connecticut and Tufts University in Boston.
Released self-titled debut album, 1988; performed at Nelson Mandela’s Birthday Tribute at England’s Wembley Stadium, participated in Amnesty International’s 15-Nation Human Rights Now! tour, 1988; released New Beginning, 1995.
Awards: Self-titled debut album won three Grammys in 1989.
Addresses: Record company —Elektra Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY, 10019, and 345 North Maple Drive #123, Beverly Hills, CA, 90210.
hits emotional chords the way the best folk singers always have,” Pond wrote, “but whereas female folkies have traditionally been painted as vulnerable, fragile creatures singing about their love and fears, Chapman trashes that stereotype. While there’s a vulnerability in her best songs, there’s no fragility, just forthright dignity.”
Tracy Chapman sold millions of copies, spawned a ubiquitous video for “Fast Car,” and won three Grammy Awards. Chapman gained international fame in June of 1988, when she played for a crowd at England’s Wembley Stadium—and a television audience of millions—at Nelson Mandela’s Birthday Tribute. Subsequently, she opened concerts for Neil Young and Bob Dylan. In the fall of 1988, she shared the stage with Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Peter Gabriel during Amnesty International’s 15-nation Human Rights Now! tour.
Chapman was born in Cleveland, Ohio; her parents divorced when she was four years old. She and her older sister, Aneta, lived with their mother, who refused alimony and relied on low-paying jobs and welfare to raise her daughters. “There wasn’t much to work with,” Chapman told Pond. “We always had food to eat and a place to stay, but it was fairly bare-bones kind of things.” It also was a home filled with music. Chapman played ukelele, organ and clarinet as a kid. At age eight, she received a guitar and began writing songs. On the radio, she heard Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, Mahalia Jackson, and Aretha Franklin. “My parents listened to R&B, soul and gospel,” Chapman once said. “I didn’t hear contemporary folk singers until I was in high school. As far as singing’s concerned, my earliest influence was my mother. She’s not professionally trained, but there was always music around the house.”
Chapman earned a scholarship to Wooster School, an Episcopalian prep school in Danbury, Connecticut. There, she played basketball, softball and soccer, performed her songs in the campus “coffeehouse,” and heard the folk rock of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young for the first time. In the fall of 1982, she enrolled at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, near Boston. Chapman studied anthropology, continued writing songs, and played her music on the street in Harvard Square and in local folk clubs. Before graduation, she caught the attention of Elektra Records, which hired music industry veteran David Kershenbaum to produce her first record. “People really wanted what she had, and they weren’t getting it,” said Kershenbaum, who previously had worked with Joe Jackson, Joan Baez, and Cat Stevens, among other artists. “She got there at the right moment with stuff that was good.”
Unfortunately, the furor surrounding that first record faded. Chapman’s next two releases—Crossroads in 1989 and Matters of the Heart in 1992—shared themes and tone with the first album, but lacked its compelling characters and narratives. Sales slipped and critics chided Chapman’s lyrical lapse and legendary reticence—with one reviewer even taking exception to the fact that she “posed unsmiling with eyes facing away from the camera” on her album covers. “Chapman’s… voice, with its small but expressive dips and curves, enriches any material it touches, but her material has become a problem,” Gene Santoro wrote in The Nation. “[Her songs] are reduced to … political soundbites or cliches about love and need.” Howard Cohen, writing for Knight-Ridder Newspapers, suggested some of the trouble resulted from her subject matter. “Pop music by still was a pop record with something on its mind. The expiration date for political pop is never far off, however; the themes can prove stifling and dated.”
In 1995, eight years after her spectacular debut, Chapman was back on top on the strength of her fourth record, the aptly titled New Beginning, and its infectious single, “Give Me One Reason.” Ironically, Chapman had written the song a decade earlier, while still a senior at Tufts. In any event, her concerts were sold out, the album sold 100,000 albums a week, and she even smiled in the photos on the CD jacket. Time attributed Chapman’s resurgence to, well, being nice. “She’s always preferred to keep her distance from real-life record-buying people,” the magazine reported. “In concerts, even the most ardent acclaim left her stonefaced and unmoved. Much of her time was spent holed up in her San Francisco mansion. Fans eventually repaid the favor: Chapman’s last two albums sank with nary a trace. Well, the reality check has finally arrived: Chapman now reads fan mail aloud in concerts.”
Tracy Chapman, Elektra Records, 1988.
Crossroads, Elektra, 1989.
Matters of the Heart, Elektra, 1992.
New Beginning, Elektra, 1995.
Entertainment Weekly, May 1, 1992, p. 52; December 1, 1995. p. 74; April 26, 1996, p. 58.
Knight-Ridder News Service, August, 23, 1996.
MOJO, January 1996.
The Nation, July 6, 1992, p. 30.
Newsweek, July 1, 1996, p. 62.
People, October 16, 1989, p. 19; April 20, 1992, p. 27.
Playboy, February 1990, p. 16.
Rolling Stone, September 22, 1988.
Time, March 12, 1990, p. 70; May 13, 1996, p. 101.
"Chapman, Tracy." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/chapman-tracy-0
"Chapman, Tracy." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved July 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/chapman-tracy-0
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.
Genre: Folk, Pop
Best-selling album since 1990: New Beginning (1995)
Hit songs since 1990: "Give Me One Reason," "Telling Stories"
Tracy Chapman burst into the pop music scene in the late 1980s as a uniquely styled singer/songwriter whose straightforward songs chronicled diverse social problems. Chapman's rhythmic folk music features poetic lyrics framed in catchy, simple melodies while expressively sung in her rich alto. As her popularity dipped following her initial mega-success, Chapman's song topics became less about social crusades and more about love and personal issues. Chapman is a participating advocate in a variety of human rights causes.
Chapman was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and raised in lower-middle-class means by her mother. Her older sister, Aneta, gave her a guitar when she was eight and Chapman began writing songs soon after. Later, she won a scholarship to a private high school in Danbury, Connecticut, and went on to study anthropology and African culture at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts. Struggling financially at Tufts, Chapman was persuaded into playing her guitar and singing songs on the streets and later in coffeehouses around Boston. She earned a strong local following and recorded some demo tapes. After a series of rejections, she signed with Elektra Records and released the debut album, Tracy Chapman (1988), whose raw, acoustic sound contrasted greatly with the general radio fare of the 1980s.
Tracy Chapman was one of the most remarkable album debuts in music history. On the strength of her hit "Fast Car," the album sold more than 10 million copies, and Chapman immediately became a superstar and gained prominence as a voice for the voiceless. Her songs, tales about the hopelessness of growing up poor, racism, corporate greed, male dominance, and a plethora of other socially charged topics, struck a resonant chord with the burgeoning, upwardly mobile "yuppie" generation. Months after the release of her debut album, Chapman was in the forefront of social relevancy as she performed in a satellite-linked concert at London's Wembley Stadium in celebration of Nelson Mandela's seventieth birthday. Soon after, she headlined the Human Rights Now Tour with Sting, Bruce Springsteen, and Peter Gabriel. It was a long way from the coffeehouses of Boston.
Chapman's image as a social crusader was further enhanced with her following efforts, Crossroads (1990) and Matters of the Heart (1991). The songs on these two recordings continue in the honest, issue-conscious vein of the debut album. However, Chapman became a victim of her own success as critics, expecting her to build on her extraordinary first effort, were harsh over the sameness of Crossroads and Matters of the Heart. Sales fell dramatically as fans grew weary of the melancholy material. Exhausted and disenchanted with stardom, Chapman, reticent by nature, entered a reclusive period. Yet she continued performing for causes such as AIDS Awareness, Farm Aid, Nelson Mandela's Freedomfest, Neil Young's Bridge School concerts, civil liberties, minority rights, environmental causes, gender equity, sexual freedom, and many others. She also performed in 1992 at New York's Madison Square Garden with a lineup of stars in the thirtieth anniversary tribute concert for Bob Dylan. She performed his "The Times They Are a Changin'."
In late 1995 Chapman released her fourth album, New Beginning. As in her debut album, New Beginning was helped by a hit single. "Give Me One Reason," a chunky, twelve-bar pop-blues showcasing Chapman's honeyed belt, became her largest hit and won a Grammy Award. Unlike earlier albums, her attention to social issues was blunted in favor of songs focused more on personal issues and relationship intimacies. With more than 4 million in sales, New Beginning is her best commercial effort since the debut recording. Backed by a new band, the usually solo-performing Chapman promoted the album in a series of tours that took her all over the world. She also recorded a duet with blues legend B.B. King on his album Deuces Wild (1997). The album has King performing duets with a number of stars and Chapman sings his signature "The Thrill Is Gone."
Chapman waited almost five years to release her next album, Telling Stories (2000). The title song was released as a single, and its lyric, "there is fiction in the space between you and me," speaks to an uncommitted lover or possibly to a larger entity such as the media. Only one song on Telling Stories, an ode to the unimportance of materialism called "Paper and Ink," resembles the socially relevant songs of her earlier albums.
Folk music has never been regarded as a particularly commercial genre; nevertheless, Chapman raised the bar considerably. Although many fans feel that critics unfairly held her to the standards of her spectacular debut, Chapman is an uncompromising artist who resists trends and sets her own standards.
Tracy Chapman (Elektra, 1988); Crossroads (Elektra, 1989); Matters of the Heart (Elektra, 1992); New Beginning (Elektra, 1995); Telling Stories (Elektra, 2000); Let It Rain (Elektra, 2002).
"Chapman, Tracy." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/chapman-tracy
"Chapman, Tracy." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Retrieved July 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/chapman-tracy
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
Chapman, Tracy 1964–
Tracy Chapman 1964–
With a unique style that combined folk music with an African American sensibility, singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman took the pop-music world by storm in 1988. That year, her debut album was released. It sold upwards of ten million copies, and its lead single “Fast Car” became almost universally known among music fans. One of the few late twentieth-century musicians in any genre outside of hip-hop to succeed in delivering a political message to a wide audience, Chapman also helped pave the way for the resurgence of strong, independent female voices in the popular music of the late 1990s.
Chapman was born on March 30, 1964, in Cleveland, Ohio. Her parents divorced when she was four, and her mother found it extremely difficult to raise Chapman and her older sister Aneta. “Sometimes there was no electricity, or the gas would be shut off,” Chapman told Time. “I remember standing with my mother in the line to get food stamps. “Her mother was a music lover with a large record collection and a determination to nurture her daughter’s musical talents. Chapman played the ukulele in elementary school, and later studied clarinet and organ.
It might seem easy to assume that Chapman’s bent toward political folk music came about after she entered the elite educational institutions to which she later gained admission. In fact, both her interest in politics and her attraction to the guitar began while she was still in Cleveland. “As a child, I always had a sense of social conditions and political situations,” she told Rolling Stone. “I think it had to do with the fact that my mother was always discussing things with my sister and me—also because I read a lot.” Another influence, surprisingly enough, came from country music. “One of the things that made me want to learn how to play guitar was watching Buck Owens and Roy Clark and Minnie Pearl on Hee Haw when I was 8 years old,” she told Time. “The guitars they played were beautiful.”
Chapman won an ABC (A Better Chance) scholarship to the prestigious Wooster School, a prep school in Danbury, Connecticut. She honed her songwriting skills in the school’s coffeehouse, starred on its basketball and soccer teams, and was heavily recruited by several top colleges as she approached her graduation in 1982. Enrolling at Tufts University outside Boston,
At a Glance…
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, on March 30, 1964; Education: Graduated from Tufts University.
Career: Singer-songwriter; released debut album, Tracy Chapman, 1988; participated in 1-Nation Amnesty International tour, 1988; released Crossroads, 1989; released Matters of the Heart, 1992; released New Beginning, 1995; performed on Lilith Fair tour, 1996; released Telling Stories, 2000.
Awards: Three Grammy awards, including Best New Artist, for Tracy Chapman, 1988.
Addresses: Recording company— Elektra Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
Chapman began studying veterinary medicine, but later switched to anthropology and ethnomusicology—the study of music from outside Western traditions. She continued singing and, on one occasion, played for loose change in the busy public spaces of Harvard Square. Chapman gained a strong following in the numerous folk coffeehouses and clubs of Boston and nearby Cambridge. She numbered among her admirers a fellow Tufts student, Brian Koppelman, whose father Charles Koppelman was an executive at the large SBK music publishing firm. Chapman’s contact with the elder Koppelman, who was bowled over by her songs, led to others. She teamed with veteran manager Elliot Roberts, who had worked with folk-rock stars Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, and was signed to the Elektra record label.
Chapman began her career almost reluctantly, showing little interest in financial gain and, at one point, turning down an offer from an independent label so as not to interrupt her studies. Promising though her first steps might have seemed, neither Chapman nor anyone at Elektra could have been prepared for the success of her debut album Traci Chapman, which was released in 1988. The album reached the Number One position on Billboard magazine’s pop charts, a rare accomplishment for an unknown newcomer. “Fast Car,” a vivid, densely packed narrative of a young woman who dreams of a better future but is dragged down by a series of troubles, became one of the most widely heard songs of the late 1980s.
The album owed its success to a variety of virtues. Often compared with folk/jazz vocalist Joan Armatrading, Chapman also resembled 1960s folk icon Richie Havens in her ability to bring a distinctively African American sensibility to the predominantly white oriented genre of folk music. However musically distant her style might seem from those of the rap artists who were beginning to flourish in the late 1980s, Chapman shared with the rappers an ambitious way with words and a desire to tell the stories of the American underclass. Some of her songs had a vaguely Caribbean sound, and she drew on the heavily verbal qualities of genres from that part of the world. That aspect of Chapman’s music was reinforced visually by her trademark short dreadlocks.
Such songs as “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” espoused an uncompromising political message that was light-years away from the shiny dance pop that was the norm during the late 1980s. Chapman became the subject of intense publicity for some months after the release of her debut album. She won Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance Grammy awards, and several other major awards. Expectations ran high for Chapman’s sophomore release, Crossroads, which was released in 1989.
Crossroads sold four million copies, a smash hit by any standards except for those of an artist whose debut album had sold ten million. Sales slipped further with the release of Chapman’s third album, Matters of the Heart, in 1992. Some critics speculated that the public had grown tired of Chapman’s political themes. However, like many other folk-oriented artists, Chapman had been writing songs for many years before making her first recording. She had gradually exhausted her storehouse of material and, as she recorded subsequent albums, was unable to write new material under the glare of publicity and celebrity. Indeed, when Chapman’s New Beginning album put her back near the top of the charts in 1995, it was due to the success of a song, “Give Me One Reason,” that she had written a decade earlier while still in college. Fans still flocked to Chapman’s concerts, and public admiration of her music’s distinctiveness remained strong. She became a star attraction on the all-female Lilith Fair tour in 1996. After the release of the New Beginning album, Chapman took a leave of absence from the recording process. “I felt like my life was on this cycle that was beyond my control,” she told Time. “Making records and touring, making records and touring, and in that process not being at home and not being settled. They weren’t particularly happy times.”
Chapman re-emerged in 2000 with her fifth album, Telling Stories. Reviews were mixed, with Interview praising the album’s “intimate and personal” quality and noting approvingly that Chapman “doesn’t make an album until she’s got something to say.” Entertainment Weekly was less enthusiastic, remarking that “Chapman remains an enigma: an intelligent, levelheaded craftsperson unable to convey any emotion beyond resignation.” Whatever the future direction of her career, Chapman had already fulfilled the ambition of the woman she depicted in the song “Fast Car”: to “be someone, be someone.”
Tracy Chapman, Elektra, 1988.
Crossroads, Elektra, 1989.
Matters of the Heart, Elektra, 1992.
New Beginning, Elektra, 1995.
Telling Stories, Elektra/Asylum, 2000.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 4, Gale, 1991; volume 20, Gale, 1997.
Graff, Gary, ed., MusicHound Rock: The Essential Guide, Visible Ink, 1996.
Larkin, Colin, ed., The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK, 1998.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Women, Book II, Gale, 1996.
Billboard, February 12, 2000, p. 11.
Entertainment Weekly, February 18, 2000, p. 86.
Interview, March 2000, p. 88.
Life, August 1988, p. 60.
The Nation, July 6, 1992, p. 30.
Playboy, July 1988, p. 26.
Rolling Stone, September 22, 1998, p. 54.
Time, March 12, 1990, p. 70; February 28, 2000, p. 92.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from http://www.allmusic.com
—James M. Manheim
"Chapman, Tracy 1964–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/chapman-tracy-1964
"Chapman, Tracy 1964–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved July 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/chapman-tracy-1964
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
Singer, songwriter, guitarist
In an era when the label folksinger-songwriter does little to guarantee success, Tracy Chapman has seen her dreams come true. When Chapman takes the stage sporting short dreadlocks, blue jeans, and a turtleneck sweater, accompanied only by her acoustic guitar, listeners lean forward to hear her husky contralto pour forth poignant reflections on contemporary urban life. As Steve Pond of Rolling Stone noted, Chapman’s voice “is the sound of a smart black woman growing up in the city with her eyes wide open.”
Though she is a relative newcomer to the folk music circuit, Chapman has always made music an important part of her life. Chapman’s parents divorced when she was four years old, and she grew up with her mother and older sister in a largely black middle-class neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio. At an early age she learned to sing, play the clarinet and organ, and compose simple songs that she sang with her sister, Aneta. While still in grade school Chapman began to teach herself how to play the guitar. She told Washington Post writer Richard Harrington: “I’ve been singing ever since I was a child. My mother has a beautiful voice, as does my sister. At that point I wasn’t really listening to that much music at all, except what my parents were listening to, or my sister. I think I just picked up a guitar because my mother had played it at some point—started teaching myself things and writing my own songs.”
Wanting to make a better life for herself than those she witnessed about her, Chapman worked hard to earn A Better Chance (ABC) minority placement scholarship to the Wooster School, a small, progressive, private high school in Danbury, Connecticut. In contrast to the metal-detector-equipped public high school she had attended, at Wooster she was thoroughly immersed in an atmosphere of social and political discussion. At times she had difficulties with her sheltered classmates; she told Time that “students there just said very stupid things. They had never met a poor person before. In some ways they were curious, but in ways that were just insulting.” The school was a haven for musicians, however. She met other guitar players who introduced her to a variety of popular music, including the early protest works of Bob Dylan. Chapman’s teachers recognized her talent and gave her ample opportunities to perform. In a gesture of support, the school chaplain took up a collection among the faculty and students and bought the young singer a new guitar to replace her battered one.
Despite the strong support for her musical talent, Chapman did not seriously consider music as a career. When she enrolled at Tufts University, near Boston, she aspired to become a veterinarian. However, a short while later she changed her major to anthropology with
Born 1964, in Cleveland, Ohio. Education: Tufts University, B.A. in anthropology, 1986.
Played ukelele, organ, and clarinet as a young child; began playing guitar and singing original songs at the age of ten; during high school, performed at school functions and at local coffee houses in Connecticut; while in college, performed at church services, on street corners, and in coffee houses in Boston, Mass.; signed a recording contract, 1986; live performer at clubs, festivals, and in U.S. and international concerts, 1986—.
Awards: Grammy Award for best new artist, for best female pop vocal performance, and for best contemporary folk performance, all 1989.
Addresses: Home —Boston, Mass. Office —c/o Elektra Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, N.Y. 10019.
an emphasis on West African cultures, the field in which she eventually earned her bachelor’s degree. In college Chapman continued to perform her own compositions in coffee houses, on street corners, and at folk-oriented church services. She was offered a recording contract with an independent label but turned it down, not wanting to interrupt her education. Chapman’s decision proved to be fortuitous. One of her classmates, Brian Koppetman, approached her after hearing her play to suggest that his father might be able to help her singing career. The father in question was Charles Koppelman, the K in SBK, one of the world’s largest music publishing companies. At Brian’s suggestion, Charles Koppelman came to hear Chapman perform, and later he told Newsweek: “Her songs were wonderful melodies with important lyrics. That was enough. But when I saw her in front of an audience! When she smiled, everyone smiled. When she was serious, you could hear a pin drop.”
Chapman had considered working toward a master’s degree in ethnomusicology, the study of chiefly non-European music, especially in relation to the culture that produces it. But after graduating in 1986, she signed a management agreement with SBK, to be represented by Elliott Roberts, who also manages singers Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. A demonstration cassette taped by Chapman at the SBK studios eventually led to a recording contract with Elektra Records.
Chapman settled on producer David Kershenbaum and hired a backup band to contribute to the record for Elektra. Describing Chapman’s voice to Time, Kershenbaum said, “The timbre of it is rare to find. It instantly disarms you.” Because she is a prolific songwriter, there was no lack of music from which to select the pieces that make up her self-titled debut album. Tracy Chapman breaks all of the rules of popular music marketing. The melodies wander and are oddly phrased, and many of the songs explore serious subjects—racism, domestic violence, the failed American dream, material and emotional self-determination—and do not fit the format of commercial radio. The background instrumentals are limited, focusing attention on Chapman’s percussive use of the acoustic guitar, and one selection is even sung a cappella. In seeming defiance to trends, Chapman’s album rose to the number one position on Billboard’s best-seller chart without discernible airplay and engendered a music video, which alternates segments of Chapman singing in her usual concert attire and still photographs of gritty real-life scenes.
For just this sort of blunt realism, reviewers describe Tracy Chapman as downbeat, particularly the cuts “Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution” and “Why?” Yet Chapman remains hopeful that her music can reach a wide audience and deliver a message. As she told the New York Times: “On a certain level, I think something positive is going to happen, though I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be an actual revolution. Even though I’m a cynic, there’s still a part of me that believes people will get to a certain point where they can’t stand the way things are and have to change the way they think.”
The power of Chapman’s songs to motivate change lies in their psychological realism, their universal poignancy. With an eye for detail, Chapman uses just enough specifics to suggest events or situations known to listeners regardless of where they live. She chronicles in song the human condition. When asked about her songwriting ability, Chapman told Musician writer Kristine McKenna: “I don’t have structured writing habits. I’ve written hundreds of songs and have enough material for three albums so I don’t see writing as a problem. I play my guitar every day and always have fragments of ideas floating around my head, but I never force a song into being. My songs aren’t autobiographical, but they usually combine a variety of things I’ve seen, heard or read about. Occasionally it will be something that happened to me, but I’ll combine that with other things.”
Chapman has frequently been compared to folksingers Joan Armatrading, Joni Mitchell, and Phoebe Snow. Some reviewers see her as “a bridge between the folk music revival of the eighties and the socially conscious folk movement of the sixties,” a bridge girded by the efforts of another female folksinger—Suzanne Vega. Chapman balks at being labeled, whether the label is folksinger or black woman artist. As she told a Chicago Tribune writer: “I don’t just think of what I do as folk music, which I define as music rooted in an Anglo-European tradition, but as music that also reflects Afro-American black music. Personally, it wasn’t a matter of being drawn to a particular music; in a sense, the instrument you play defines what you play.”
Chapman’s performance schedule has no doubt been influenced by her social conscience: the Sisterfire festival in Washington, D.C.; Amnesty International’s worldwide Human Rights Now! tour; and a march to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King. Chapman takes to the stage with more ease than she wears her star status, however. Even as a young dreamer, Chapman never expected to sign with a major label, and when she did she didn’t foresee the popularity of Tracy Chapman, albums and person.
Her second record, Crossroads, was tremendously popular, selling 4 million copies in the first five months of its release. Because of her repeat success many critics believe that a resurgence in protest music is likely in the 1990s, thanks in part to Chapman. Not altogether comfortable with her celebrity, she admitted to McKenna, of Musician: “The idea of being famous doesn’t appeal to me because I hate parties and it seems like it might be one big party. I value my privacy and I’m not used to dealing with lots of people. The prospect of wealth is scary too. When you’re poor your first responsibility is to yourself, but when you have money you have to think about other people—and other people are definitely thinking about you!”
Tracy Chapman (includes “Fast Car,” “Baby Can I Hold You,” “Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution,” “She’s Got Her Ticket,” “Behind the Wall,” “For My Lover,” “If Not Now…,” “Why?” “Across the Lines,” “Mountains o’ Things,” and “For You”), Elektra, 1988.
Crossroads, Elektra, 1989.
Chicago Tribune, August 14, 1988.
Detroit News, September 4, 1988.
Musician, June 1988.
Newsweek, June 20, 1988.
New York Times, September 4, 1988.
Rolling Stone, June 2, 1988; June 30, 1988.
Time, August 15, 1988; March 12, 1990.
—Jeanne M. Lesinski
"Chapman, Tracy." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/chapman-tracy
"Chapman, Tracy." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved July 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/chapman-tracy