Neo-hippie singer/songwriters were a dime a dozen around the end of the ’60s. But as the ’80s neared an end, not so much. Which is part of what makes today’s birthday girl so special. Happy 58th, Tracy Chapman!
Not only did Tracy come along about two decades after her genre had peaked, she broke ground as well by being a Black artist in one of the more exclusively-white areas of music. She remembers being given a ukulele by her music-loving mom when she was just three, but wanting to play guitar when she saw Hee Haw on TV! Her mom again obliged, and by eight, young Tracy was learning that instrument. Although she grew up in a poor neighborhood in Cleveland, she was smart and hard-working and won a scholarship to a ritzy private Connecticut high school, which in turn led her to university in the ’80s, where she got a degree in anthropology. She told PBS’ Tavis Smiley that the contrast between the poor, largely Black neighborhood she grew up in and the wealthy and largely-White schools she attended later on had a major influence on how she saw life, and the music she listened to.
After university, she’d become a popular cafe performer in Boston when she got signed to Elektra Records, who went out on a bit of a limb. As journalist Siobhan O’Neill reminds us, in the late-’80s artists like Tiffany, Whitney and Roxette were the rage and “a young Black woman singing socially-aware folk tunes about poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence was the polar opposite of what was topping the charts.” Nonetheless, Elektra gave her room to do her thing, and it paid off. Her self-titled debut album hit #1 in a range of countries, including the U.S., where it’s 6X platinum, the UK, Canada and Germany, helped along greatly by the world-weary “Fast Car”, a top 10 hit throughout much of the world. The song about the struggling waitress with hope for a better tomorrow won her a Grammy for Best Female Pop Performance and helped her snag the Best New Artist one as well, while across the sea, she took home Brit Awards for Best International Female Artist and Breakthrough Artist of the Year. Around that time, she was involved in playing Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday party and concerts for Amnesty International. As VH1 point out, “along with 10 000 Maniacs and R.E.M., Chapman’s liberal politics proved enormously influential on American campuses.”
Although she failed to capture lightning in a jar again – none of her seven subsequent studio albums were chart-topping, although her next three or four still earned various platinum awards – she remained popular throughout the ’90s and as allmusic say, “helped restore singer-songwriters to the spotlight.” Fittingly, she was one of the headliners during the first Lilith Fair tour.
Chapman’s been pretty quiet for over a decade, save for a Greatest Hits CD in 2015, which included a popular live performance of “Stand By Me” she’d done on Letterman’s show. Since then the only time she’s been in music news was when she sued rapper Nicki Minaj for sampling her song “Baby Can I Hold You” on one of her records. Although a judge refused to block Minaj from releasing her own song, she did pay Chapman $450 000 to avoid a trial. However, the private Chapman (she says “I have a public life, that’s my work and my private life.”) is still involved in a number of human rights’ charities, advocating on behalf of her Cleveland’s public schools and even being a judge at the Sundance film Festival.