Image courtesy of Rhino.com
By Caroline Morris
By the late 1980s, the golden age of hip-hop was booming. Names like LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Queen Latifah, and Salt-n-Pepa still live in public memory. But there was another artist who topped the charts during this time, whom history left behind in many ways.
Tracy Chapman exploded onto the music scene barely out of college in 1988 with her self-titled album, Tracy chapman. The record was loved by audiences, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard 200 Chart and remaining on the list for 61 weeks.
But Chapman wasn’t a hip-hop artist or a rapper: she was a folk singer-songwriter. This genre choice may seem inconsequential after thirty years, but Chapman’s decision to write bluesy music is a symbol of his bravery and individuality.
The golden age of hip-hop that dominated the music industry for black Americans in the late ’80s and early’ 90s was more than just a trend. It was a cultural movement, linked to the black neo-nationalist movement of the time. Rap was the vehicle in which black Americans screamed against social injustice and sought allies in the “war on the black man.”
Chapman, as a black woman with incredible musical gifts, should have enveloped herself in this movement as a hip hop artist. Despite her desire for social change and her experience of injustice towards blacks in America, she created her music in a style that contrasted with the expectation of a black artist.
Tracy chapman is filled with many of the same messages as today’s hip-hop songs, which call out the reality of racism and injustice in America. Growing up in a black neighborhood in Cleveland, Chapman witnessed firsthand the unfair realities of life as a Black American and introduced these progressive themes into his music.
In his song “Across the Lines”, Chapman portrays in no uncertain terms the tensions that existed between different races in America. She sings: “A little black girl is assaulted / There is no reason / The newspaper prints the story / And racist temperaments fly / The next day a riot starts.”
These words bring to life a horrific picture of violence against blacks in America and the “that’s life” attitude that lets it go on unhindered.
Chapman also addresses the endemic poverty that plagues black neighborhoods and families that seems staple in his song “Talkin ‘Bout A Revolution”.
“As they stand in the lines of welfare / Weep at the gates of these armies of salvation,” Chapman sings.
Once again, Chapman draws from his testimony of poverty as a child in Cleveland to paint a heartbreaking picture of the suffering of black people as they cry out for salvation. It is not a call for war but a call for mercy, to help those people whom she has seen deprived of the necessities of life.
Her song “Behind the Wall” deals with issues of domestic violence and the police.
“The police always come late / If they arrive / And when they arrive / They say they can’t interfere / In domestic affairs / Between a man and his wife,” Chapman sings.
This song, made in a capella haunting, addresses the reality of black Americans: that the police do not really protect them. When they are called, they may not come. But it also speaks specifically of the plight of black women.
During this period, even the most influential and progressive black female figures were expected to follow the example of black men and be subordinate to them. But Chapman again broke with cultural norm expectations and addressed the inescapable reality of domestic violence that many black women have suffered.
Chapman is a master at incorporating these themes of social reform into his music in a way that seeks to understand. This company was helped by its choice of genre, because while the movement for rap and hip-hop was important and inspiring in itself, it attracted and was designed for a black audience.
A folk and blues style, however, was quintessentially and nostalgically American, and by choosing not to follow the lead of his black musical contemporaries, Chapman was able to reach a wider audience with his message.
In a Rolling stone As an article on Chapman, one of his concerts is described as “a sample of fans that vividly illustrates just how broad his appeal can be.”
Tracy Chapman broke barriers, stood as an individual, and didn’t let others define or control her. She had a huge success with her first album, and yet she is no longer one of the names that remain etched in memory or on playlists like those of the golden age.
But she should.
Chapman created beautiful music with inspiring messages about social change that remain relevant today. Black Americans still suffer from police brutality, racism and rising poverty rates, and 40% of black women experience domestic violence at some point in their life. The problems she highlights through her music unfortunately endure and still require social change.
Tracy Chapman’s name may have made history over time, but her music remains beautifully moving and socially relevant. So it’s time to give Chapman her due and honor the bravery, skill, individuality and justice she stood for through her music, and finally listen to what she told us.