by Abaki Beck
Our Feminist Hero Friday this week is musician and social activist Tracy Chapman. Her folksy songs are enthralling, poetic stories that explore issues ranging from love and tenderness to racial violence and poverty.
Chapman was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and was raised by a single mother. Her mother bought her a ukulele at the age of three, and she began writing songs and playing the guitar by age eight. She later graduated from from Tufts University with a degree in anthropology and African Studies. Tufts awarded her an honorary PhD in 2004 in recognition of her social activism. She performed at clubs and coffeehouses throughout the Boston area during college, which helped get here a record contract right after college. Her first album, Tracy Chapman, was soon released in 1988, which included Fast Car, one of her most well known songs. Fast Car rose in US charts and was ranked 167 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list in 2010. The album Tracy Chapman also won three Grammy awards. Her second album, Crossroads, earned her another Grammy nomination, and she has released six other popular albums since.
In addition to her success as a musician, Chapman has used her position of celebrity to advocate for issues she cares about, particularly issues impacting black people globally. Chapman has continued to support her hometown of Cleveland, and produced a music video that was used to in Cleveland public schools to educate students on African-American history and achievements. She has also performed at events to raise awareness or funds for AIDS prevention and treatment, alleviating poverty, and other humans rights issues. She performed at a 1998 Amnesty International event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She also played at Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Tribute event, which raised money for South Africa’s Anti-Apartheid movement. She has continued this support of anti-racist activism, and in 2008 she composed music for the American Conservatory Theater’s production of Athol Fugard's Blood Knot, which is about the South African Apartheid.
Beyond her direct work in raising awareness for issues, her social consciousness is seen in her lyrics as well.
Her song Talkin Bout a Revolution is perhaps the most obvious in exploring social justice issues. It is an uplifting and encouraging song that talks about the power of raising your voice and telling your story, no matter how “neglected” you may be by society:
While they're standing in the welfare lines / Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation / Wasting time in the unemployment lines / Sitting around waiting for a promotion
Don't you know / Talkin' 'bout a revolution / It sounds like a whisper / Poor people gonna rise up / And get their share / Poor people gonna rise up /And take what's theirs
Across the Lines is a beautiful song that poignantly explores issues of violence, racism, and segregation with lyrics that seem almost to have been written today, as activism on state/police violence against black communities is becoming stronger:
On the back streets of America / They kill the dream of America / Little black girl gets assaulted / Ain't no reason why / Newspaper prints the story / And racist tempers fly / Next day it starts a riot
Fast Car is almost like a poem, which, though slightly less explicit than other of her songs, explores themes of struggles with poverty:
I know things will get better / you’ll find work and I’ll get promoted / we’ll move out of the shelter / buy a bigger house and live in the suburbs
Art is an essential tool for social change and for giving voice to marginalized communities. Today, we celebrate Tracy Chapman as a changemaker who uses her music to express and raise awareness of social issues.