The Quiet Radicalism of Tracy Chapman

by Dec 28, 2016Music

Featured image by Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 4.0

In 1993, Toni Morrison, the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, delivered her acceptance speech at the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm. “For our sake and yours,” she implored her audience, “forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light.” Five years earlier, a twenty-three-year-old woman had done just that when she released a debut album under her own name. That album, Tracy Chapman, went multi-platinum and garnered the woman Tracy Chapman widespread critical praise and six Grammy nominations, of which she won three. And though often denied that kind of critical worship lavished on other politically minded singer-songwriters, Tracy Chapman the woman and Tracy Chapman the album are more revolutionary than they’ve ever been.

If Tracy Chapman’s life were a movie, one could easily accuse the screenwriters of hacky work–Glitter with a twist. After a few years of busking and performing in Cambridge coffee houses, Chapman was discovered by a Tufts University classmate who helped facilitate a contract with his father, who conveniently owned a music publishing firm. She was then signed to Elektra Records, released her album and was swiftly catapulted to the highest stratum of musical success. Through almost thirty years of waxing and waning fame, Chapman has released eight original albums, a greatest hits compilation has continued touring and social justice work.

Tracy Chapman is composed of eleven songs. Two are love songs, one is about seizing the day, and the rest are about what can be vaguely defined as social issues. Of all the songs on the album, “Fast Car” is easily the most well-known. It has become one of the “great songs” whose ubiquity has almost destroyed our collective ability to appreciate them. Which is a shame, because it’s a damn good song.

“Fast Car” is ostensibly a song about the cycle of poverty and abuse suffered by many of the working poor, but more specifically it explores the human cost of these cycles and the tragedy of hope. The narrator of “Fast Car” is down-and-out, working at a convenience store and caring for her alcoholic father. She pleads with a lover to drive away with her and start over somewhere else, and eventually they relent but ultimately the narrator is left alone to manage a household, stuck in the life she’d hoped to outrun. Chapman delivers the verses sensitively but with restraint. During the chorus she swells and overflows: “Speed so fast I felt like I was drunk/ city lights laid out before us/ and your arm felt nice wrapped around my shoulder.” But always, she subsides. Dreams will yield before the bitter cold of reality, particularly for the most vulnerable.

But “Fast Car” is only the beginning. “Across the Lines” is a mournful examination of racially motivated violence, “Talking ‘Bout a Revolution” prophesies a working-class uprising, and “For My Lover” explores the demonization of queer love. This is the quiet radicalism of Tracy Chapman. Chapman never rages, but stands modestly and steadfastly as a witness. She, as Morrison would later implore, tells what the world is in the dark and the light.

For many years, Tracy Chapman meant cleaning. My mother, preparing for her weekend cleaning routine would pull the jewel case from off the shelf and insert the CD into her stereo system. As she vacuumed and mopped our house into a sparkling oblivion, Chapman’s syrupy alto would fill the house. I remember feeling a connection to her through our shared last name, and because I found her strange, androgynous voice comforting. Sometimes I would sit and stare at the album cover, a sepia portrait of the artist as a young woman. In the picture she seems contemplative and sad, much older than the twenty-three year old she was at the time. I remember staring at the cover once and wondering who this woman was, what she was thinking. In many ways I’m still wondering.

That Tracy Chapman managed to become such an integral part of the fabric of a middle-class, white home in Spokane, Washington is telling. In hindsight, the fact that a queer, black woman who wrote folk songs about racism and domestic abuse managed to achieve a level of ubiquity that landed her in my mother’s CD player is nothing short of amazing.

I can’t help but think of Tracy Chapman when I examine this moment in history. We stand on the brink of an administration which seems poised to actively diminish the quality of life for many Americans. Due to our species’ greed and willful ignorance, our planet is fast approaching an ecological threshold past which lies oblivion. There is always power in rage, but maybe we can learn something from Tracy Chapman. If any kind of successful resistance to this administration is to be mounted, it will happen not only in the grand gestures of political theatre (which have rarely proven immediately helpful) but in the small, quiet actions of regular people, in our collective willingness to witness the dark and the light of the world and offer to help where we can. Perhaps, if we forget our individual names in the streets and speak truth to power as Toni Morrison asked and Tracy Chapman demonstrated, perhaps then we can create a world with more light than dark.