Singer-songwriter and musician, Tracy Chapman is a multi-platinum and four-time Grammy Award-winning artist, probably best known for her hit singles “Give Me One Reason” and “Fast Car.” In fact, “Fast Car,” off her debut album, was even ranked 167th on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” (subsequently the highest-ranking song both written and performed by a female artist), a song she also performed at Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday tribute in London, 1988, while he was still in jail at the time. Her music has been highly influential since she emerged in the industry, striking a chord among college students especially, but really anyone seeking out the means and the motivation to push for social justice and more equitable communities.
Chapman always had an interest in music and songwriting, playing the guitar and writing songs since childhood, but became specifically interested in folk-rock music while studying as an undergrad at Tufts. While a student there she began recording her own songs at the campus radio station and also performing them at local coffee shops or on the street, exposure that eventually landed her a record deal. Her eponymous debut album, released in 1988, was both incredibly commercially successful and socially impactful. “Her album helped usher in the era of political correctness, and, along with 10,000 Maniacs and R.E.M., Chapman’s liberal politics proved enormously influential on American college campuses in the late ’80s.”
A long-time champion of human rights, Chapman has always been passionate about exposing and overcoming social injustices, a passion that often permeates her music, interspersed with themes of love, religion, family, and spirituality. Politicized from an early age by the intersectional struggles of poverty and racism while growing up in Cleveland during the 1960s and ’70s, she began “writing protest songs by her early teens.” By the time she emerged as a new, major artist in 1988 she “seemed to speak for a generation of would-be radicals who came of political age too late for Paris 1968 and too early for Seattle 1999.”
That same year she performed as part of Amnesty International’s worldwide concert tour to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, precipitating her decades-long support for the organization. It was “the first of many benefits she would play over the years to support causes as varied as Farm Aid, human rights in Tibet and Cambodia, and PEN America, which supports writers and literary freedom, not to mention a number of rallies celebrating Mandela’s release,” and the anti-war movement. Beyond Amnesty International, Chapman has worked with organizations like Make Poverty History, amfAR, and AIDS/LifeCycle, performing benefit concerts in support of their causes. In 2004, she received an honorary doctorate from her alma mater Tufts in recognition of her commitment to social justice.
A true artist, she continues to record new music, always following the creative path she sets for herself, regardless of the image others want her to embody, and still tours her albums in both Europe and the U.S. In November 2015 she even released a Greatest Hits album. Regardless of what you’re political stance is, her music, her lyrics, and her voice are all incredibly beautiful and definitely worth a listen.