1990 – Singing for herself

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By Richard Stengel, Time, March 12, 1990

Armed only with her voice, her guitar and her conscience, TRACY CHAPMAN has helped make protest music fashionable again

Tracy Chapman is serious about her smile. She does not bestow it lightly. Laughter, the same story. She covers her mouth when she laughs, as though to hide the fact that she is tickled about something. “If there is some major misconception about me,” she says very seriously, “it is that I’m always serious.” And then, a brief smile.

Be careful of my heart
I just lost a little faith
When you broke my heart

She is smaller and more delicate than she appears in pictures, her voice higher and more nasal than on her records. There is a solidity about her, a muscular spirituality. Her element is earth, not air. A master of silence, she does not talk about what she doesn’t know. Mostly, she is wary, skeptical.

All you folks think you run my life
Say I should be willing to compromise
I’m trying to protect what I keep inside

No one imagined that Chapman would be so big a success so soon. In 1988 Elektra Records released Tracy Chapman, eleven spare, well-crafted folk songs by a 24-year-old Tufts University graduate. Some were about unrequited love, yes, but others spoke of homelessness, racism and revolution. The album became Billboard’s No. 1 pop album and sold 10 million copies. Chapman won three Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist. Last year, on the Amnesty International tour, she crisscrossed the globe with Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Peter Gabriel, performing before stadiums of cheering fans on five continents. In May she will begin an American tour.

Some have found her popularity mystifying. An earnest black folk singer in jeans and a T shirt? Yet it was really very simple, according to saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who has played with Chapman. “People were so used to hearing imperfection,” he says, “they were bowled over by perfection. People were ready to hear music again.” And there is that voice, a rich contralto that seemed to come from a hundred miles away. A sweet, sad, wise voice that haunted almost all who heard it. A voice that seemed to know things that they didn’t. A record to be played alone and late at night.

Chapman quickly became 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 an age when pop singers seemed more like musical M.B.A.s than recording artists, she seemed genuine. Her politics were mushy headed and self-righteous, yet she was an urban folk singer without the fragility of the genre.

Crossroads, Chapman’s second album, has been out for five months and has sold 4 million copies. Again there are songs about poverty and the underclass, but Crossroads is darker, more self-involved than the first album. It is less concerned with the political battles of the world than the emotional conflicts within herself. We hear the voice of a young woman who gives more than she gets to lovers who take more than they give.

I’d save a little love for myself
Enough for my heart to mend

Turn on the radio these days, and you are more likely to hear a pop singer railing against homelessness than one urging you to get down and party. Protest music has made a comeback, and Chapman is partly responsible. Her first album showed that social concern sold. Now singers known more for their commitment to sequins than their dedication to social policy are decrying acid rain.

Chapman does not criticize others for a trendy embrace of social concern. “I don’t know that it’s fair to question people’s motives,” she says, choosing her words carefully. “Even if people are doing it simply because they think it’s commercial, I don’t know that that’s a bad thing. It can encourage action. If music can do anything, I would hope that it might make people more compassionate.

Hunger only for a taste of justice
Hunger only for a world of truth

She sang not long after she could talk. Chapman grew up with her mother and one sister in a mostly black, working-class neighborhood in Cleveland. Her father and mother divorced when Tracy was four. Her mother always listened to the radio when she was home: Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, Mahalia Jackson, mostly rhythm and blues.

Chapman was a quiet child and liked to be by herself. On her way to school, she made up songs for her sister and their friends. Her first ambition was to play the drums, but her mother feared that they would be too noisy and bought her a tinny $20 guitar. The instrument harmonized with her soul. School and the neighborhood, she says, were rough. The local high school had a metal detector at the door. “At times, it was a terrifying place to be.” To say she wanted to get away is an understatement. “No desire to stay,” she says. “And no desire to go back.

She won a scholarship for gifted minority students and went off to the Wooster School in Connecticut. It was her first glimpse of white, upper- middle-class life, and she found aspects of it dismaying. “It was difficult because a lot of students there just said very stupid things,” she recalls. “They had never met a poor person before. In some ways, they were curious, but in ways that were just insulting. How many times as a black person are you asked to explain to a white person what racism is or what it means to be black?

She was a fine athlete, star of the basketball team and captain of the varsity soccer team. But it was music that moved her. She wrote songs all the time. Friends remember her singing Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution during her junior year. Her 1982 yearbook from Wooster predicts, “Tracy Chapman will marry her guitar and live happily ever after.”

During her freshman year at Tufts, she won a talent contest by singing Baby Can I Hold You?, which appears on her first album. She majored in anthropology, but her real discipline was being a troubadour. She played in coffee shops, churches, sang in Harvard Square and developed an ardent following. In those days, she talked when she performed, telling stories, explaining the genesis of certain songs. Chapman went from college student to recording artist after a classmate persuaded his father, Charles Koppelman, co-founder of SBK, a major music-publishing company, to listen to her music. Chapman needed a producer; many heard her tape and passed, thinking it too uncommercial. But music producer David Kershenbaum fell in love with her voice. “The timbre of it,” he says, “is rare to find. It instantly disarms you. She’s able to sit there and produce an almost flawless performance. Normally today’s producers take tracks and build them and then put in the voice. We wrapped the tracks around the voice.”

Today Chapman is less than thrilled about fame. “I guess if there were some way to choose what I wanted or didn’t want from what my success has brought me,” she says, “I would choose not to have the celebrity. I don’t think I’m very good at it.” She isn’t. She doesn’t like getting fussed over. When strangers approach her, she is often cool to the point of brusqueness. All she divulges about her private life is that she recently moved to San Francisco and lives there in a rented house with her sister.

They’re tryin’ to dig into my soul
And take away the spirit of my god

Her performance style reflects her reticence. There is no chatter, no dancing, no fireworks. Yet she is capable of creating an intimacy with the audience that more gregarious performers cannot duplicate. At an outdoor concert for the homeless in Washington this fall, she stood atop a six-story platform facing 40,000 people. When she played the first few bars of Fast Car, the fidgety audience grew quiet, as though she were singing a lullaby to a baby.

Chapman is one of a handful of black recording artists whose music directly addresses blacks’ concerns. Yet her audience, the people who buy her records, are by and large white, upper-middle-class baby boomers. She says she is speaking to and for the disenfranchised, but they do not listen to her.

Urban contemporary radio stations, or what people in the record business call “black stations,” rarely play her music. A Chapman tune on an urban contemporary station is about as common as a rap song on classical radio. This is primarily because it does not fit into the dance-and-funk formula of those stations. But Chuck D., a member of the controversial rap group Public Enemy, says the reasons have less to do with genre than with soul. “Black people cannot feel Tracy Chapman, even if they got beat over the head with it 35,000 times,” he told Rolling Stone. The implication is that her music is too precious, too bland, too white.

But Salim Muwakkil, an editor for the Chicago biweekly In These Times, who has written about Chapman, says blacks are uncomfortable with her not because she’s too white, but because she’s too black. “There’s a reverse prejudice in the black community,” he says. “The Michael Jackson syndrome is strong. She refuses to disguise her racial characteristics. Blacks are uncomfortable with the lack of glitter.” At the same time, critics have suggested that Chapman is merely penance music for yuppies; listening to her songs on their CDs is a way of assuaging guilt about their own materialism.

This kind of talk hurts Chapman, though she tries to conceal it. “There are people who have gone as far as to say that I’m not black or not part of the black musical tradition,” she says. “I don’t have a problem with so-called black music as it is today, which is mostly dance music, R. and B., and rap music. But I don’t think things are that way because that’s the only music that black people can respond to. I think the reason I don’t get played on black radio stations is because I don’t fit into their present format. And they’re not willing to make a space for me. I’m upset by what has been said because it doesn’t speak well of black people. You know, it basically says black people don’t respond in a cerebral manner to music, and that’s just not true.

Chapman belongs to the tradition of black intellectuals caught between the mainstream black audience that ignores them and an elite white audience that supports them. Writers and artists of the Harlem renaissance in the 1920s and black poets from Langston Hughes to Amiri Baraka have often complained that their principal audience and patrons were white liberals. “It hurts you when your own people don’t appreciate what you’re doing,” says Henry Louis Gates, a Cornell University professor of English. “John Coltrane heard that. Charlie Parker heard that. I think that’s the most painful feeling for a black artist.”

She is trying to protect what she keeps inside. She wants the music to speak for itself, while her manager and record company would like her to be more outgoing. “I think I write songs better than I give interviews,” she says. She’s right.

Chapman has written hundreds of songs, more than she cares to acknowledge. She keeps the lyrics and a chord chart in a notebook, and often makes a cassette. “There are lots of things that you never show anyone else. But they’re basically exercises that teach you something about writing.

I’ll save my soul, save myself.

When I was a kid and I’d listen to records,” she recalls, “I used not to be able to understand what they were saying. I thought they had done that purposely. So when I would play my songs, I would sing so you couldn’t necessarily understand the lyrics.” She laughs. “When I was playing for my sister and mother, they would say, ‘I couldn’t understand what you are saying.’ Then I explained to them that I thought it was supposed to be that way. But I realized at that point that if I felt that what I was saying was important, then it should be clear.

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