Why I’m Still Thinking About Tracy Chapman’s Grammy Performance: A Deep Dive into her Career, Legacy, and Timeless Message

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Image Description:  Album cover of “Tracy Chapman,” featuring a portrait of Chapman wearing a black shirt and looking downwards. 

Tracy Chapman, legendary Black folk artist and creator of hits such as “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution” and “Baby Can I Hold You,” ended a nearly two-decades-long performing hiatus and took to the Grammys stage on Sunday, Feb. 4. Chapman and country artist Luke Combs brought the house down with their rendition of Chapman’s 1988 hit “Fast Car.” Sporting graying locks and a glowing, solemn smile, Chapman and her guitar reminded us of the eternal beauty of her universal lyricism, as her timeless voice echoed throughout the transfixed audience and onto the internet. While this piece does not concern the countless memes born of the performance, many are using the phrase “[tracy chapman voice] _______,” to fill in the meme as they please (the meme employing Chapman’s distinct and well-known voice to say an often unserious phrase). The internet’s instant reconnection with the ubiquitous memory of Chapman communicates her timeless appeal and how we can still learn from this revolutionary folk musician 25 years after the peak of her career. Analyzing where Chapman fit into – or did not fit into – white folk traditions and the Black music scene of the 80s and 90s is necessary to understand why Chapman’s artistry continues to connect with contemporary audiences. Also, Chapman’s presentation as a queer woman, and her secrecy over her private affairs, are both a testament to her commitment to her music as well as an oft criticized element of her stardom from queer audiences. 

To learn more about Chapman’s place in music history, I interviewed Dr. Cheryl Keyes, the chair of African American Studies and a professor of ethnomusicology and global jazz at UCLA. Of Chapman, Dr. Keyes notes, “I only had to hear her one time, and I was hooked. I’m absolutely touched that 35 years after its release, we are still talking about the efficacy and the realism of Fast Car.”  

Much like Dr. Keyes, I fell in love with Chapman’s music once I was first introduced to it over the car radio airwaves, as songs like  “Baby Can I Hold You” and “Give Me One Reason” remained ubiquitous hits since their release. I remember being drawn to her realness, her raw voice a welcome relief from the overproduced and fast-paced songs of the early 2000s. I contacted my brother Eric Remiker, a first-year psychobiology major at UCSB and resident Tracy Chapman expert, to give me insight into her career beyond her freshman and sophomore albums, and discover why her return to the Grammys stage connected so intensely with the masses. Remiker believes Chapman is “an original artist, no one is going to compare,” and that “in terms of lyrical folk singing, being both queer and Black, who also in her day had hits, there’s nothing like that now.” Dr. Keyes agrees, defining Chapman’s “Afro-folk” sensibility as being “root-oriented, a sound centered in the vernacular culture.” By vernacular culture, Dr. Keyes means that Chapman’s music and her non-reliance on “electronic or amplified means” connects her with “everyday people who are right in the middle, those whose social class can raise or lower only marginally.” Chapman, arriving on the scene in the early 80s, after the political folk era of the likes of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, had a fresh voice and necessary vision to add to the folk canon. Notoriously a white field, Chapman utilized folk, her beautiful voice a perfect match for the stripped down genre, to communicate her experience as a woman, a Black person, and a queer person. 

Tracy Chapman was raised in Cleveland, Ohio, surrounded by a network of women, namely her single mother and her older sister. She was gifted a guitar when she was eight years old, and began to rise in the LGBTQ+ cafe music scene. Chapman, ever-interested in animal rights (best represented in her 1995 song “The Rape of the World” in her album “New Beginning”), studied for a time to become a veterinarian, before switching to anthropology with a concentration on Western African cultures and ethnomusicology. Despite receiving a record deal six months before her graduation, Chapman remained dedicated to her education and graduated before truly kicking off her career.  This dedication to her degree is indicative of Chapman’s dedication to herself, her vision, and her artistic integrity. As I traversed Chapman’s discography again since her Grammys performance, I realized that Chapman refused to bend to the times, instead adapting to prescient contemporary issues and always maintaining a central thematic thread. 

Following the Grammys performance, “Fast Car” rose to #1 on iTunes for the first time since its release 36 years ago. Chapman’s stripped-down, showstopping 2024 performance was no one-time feat, as Chapman got her big break when she was forced to stand in for Stevie Wonder (due to a misplaced synthesizer) at Nelson Mandela’s birthday concert. Armed with her guitar, her natural hair, and flowing black attire, she put the massive Wembley Stadium crowd into a daze. The rowdy crowd became transfixed, silent, and attentive. Following her performance, Chapman’s self-titled debut album catapulted up the charts. Just as it did at the Grammys, Chapman’s choice of “Fast Car” at Wembley Stadium struck a chord with Dr. Keyes; she sees the song as “timeless” in its “constant dealing with the border.” The song is still resonant because “we are struggling economically, and everyone wants to get into a fast car and drive away from a condition they don’t want to be or remain in,” Dr. Keyes underscores.  

Her headstrong dedication to her message was there from the beginning. The opening track to her self-titled 1988 album was the iconic  “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution.” Chapman sings powerful lyrics like “Poor people gonna rise up/ And get their share” with a folky voice and a plucking guitar. This track is a microcosm of Chapman’s legacy. Her stripped-down guitar riffs and the unmanicured vocals call upon the traditions of Bob Dylan, while her feminist and anti-industry messaging mirror the lyrics of Joni Mitchell, likely going on to inspire ingenues like Ms. Lauryn Hill and Tori Amos. 

Conversely, as hip-hop and rap began to rise in the Good Life Cafe of Los Angeles and in the streets of New York, many in the Black community criticized Chapman’s softer disposition, accusing her of appealing to white, wealthy, liberal sensibilities. Chuck D of Public Enemy remarked, “Black people cannot feel Tracy Chapman,” insinuating that Chapman’s music is emotionally disconnected from Black audiences as it did not appeal to the rap and hip-hop heavy output of Black radio stations. Chapman, level-headed and true to her roots, stated in an interview to The Los Angeles Times: “There are people who have gone so far as to say I’m not Black or not part of the Black musical tradition. I think the reason I don’t get played in Black radio stations is because I don’t fit into their present format and they are not willing to make a space for me.” Dr. Keyes defends Chapman, stating “She does fit in, because Black music is the music of the soul. She came out of a time when you start hearing voices like Anita Baker, a contralto-like voice, as opposed to someone like Mariah Carey. Her music, her smoky voice, that soul was created from her voice.” Despite the backlash, audiences like Remiker cite that “between singing voice and her song compositions, pulling in elements of Americana and folk and acoustic, both sonically and lyrically, her music is the pinnacle.” Despite early belief that she lacked mainstream appeal, Chapman’s self-titled debut peaked at No. 1 on the US Billboard 200 and has been certified six-time platinum.  

Her sophomore album, “Crossroads,” saw Chapman grappling with her newfound fame and  fighting the suffocating labels of the industry, with the title track sporting sharp lyrics such as “All you folks think you run my life / Say I should be willing to compromise / I say all you demons go back to hell / I’ll save my soul, save myself.” “Crossroads”, both the title track and the album as a whole, showed Chapman fighting lines, boxes, labels, and generalizations in all forms, from the speculation on her sexuality to her labeling as an artist who is “not Black enough.” To the question “Are you a folk singer?” from The Rolling Stone, Chapman replied “Yes and no. I think what comes to people’s minds is the Anglo-American tradition of the folk singer, and they don’t think about the Black roots of folk music.” Chapman is a true storyteller, as exemplified in Crossroads and throughout her later career. She occupies a multitude of perspectives in songs like “I Used to Be a Sailor,” with this sensibility going on to inspire artists like Taylor Swift through her use of metaphor and changing pronoun use. This neutral pronoun use on love songs like “The Promise ” from her album “New Beginning” demonstrates Chapman’s desire to keep her love life private, a mystery that both intrigued audiences and frustrated her initial LGBTQ+ fanbase. 

As an outwardly appearing queer woman in the 80s and 90s, Chapman became no stranger to assumptions about her private romantic life. While there was vitriol from straight, conservative audiences towards her gender-nonspecific love songs and her masc presentation, she also received pushback from her initial LGBTQ+ fanbase who saw her refusal to label her sexuality as detrimental to queer representation in the music industry. Black lesbian writer Beloved Suruae Ibiene, who claimed Chapman as her “Black lesbian fairy-godmother,” connected to Chapman’s music as both “feeling simultaneously trapped and invisibilized within my own yearnings” and viewed Chapman as inspiring as she was “fully legible in her claim of not just herself, but her desires; impassioned, playful and threaded with gritty community conscious nuance.”  She states “In my own Black lesbianism I often feel overcome not just with what I want, but by how much what I want and what I’m willing to sacrifice for myself to earn it.” That is what I, and many others, see in Chapman’s music. Her mastery of yearning love songs, songs that intertwine desire for social mobility, celebration of Black identity, and the progress of women connect because of her grasp on our most basic desires for love, touch, and connection. In all of its angst and frustration, “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution” connects broadly not only with revolutionary sentiment of the globally oppressed, but also with the grief and anger of the queer community struggling with AIDS and the structural ignorance of a government meant to protect them. Finally, Ibiene stressed Chapman’s ability to make “casualness and queerness go hand in hand”, finding that Chapman’s fame and popularity as a queer-presenting black musician help to normalize queer black women and their experiences. We both see Chapman’s presentation as an artist who is queer, rather than a queer artist, as a sharp political tool aimed at honoring queer lifestyles as well as overhauling the “implicit shame” that came with being LGBTQ+ in America. Chapman, in coding her music and appearance as queer without ever announcing her identity, slyly universalized her image in a world that would never allow a queer black woman to reach such prosperity. Tracks like “Fast Car” and “Baby Can I Hold You” may be timeless radio hits to some, but are widespread and successful queer anthems to those who were truly paying attention.   

Remiker’s key point during our conversation was to engage with Chapman’s newer work; he states, “If you liked her first and second albums, you’ll like the rest of her discography. Give it a listen, as she goes deeper in the themes of police violence, identity, and love than she did in her initial work.” He recommends songs like “Our Bright Future” for its “slow, melodic fingerpicking” and “Unsung Psalm” from her 2000’s album “Telling Stories,” which houses some of her most pensive lyricism. Remiker reminds us, “Tracy knows that ‘if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.’” Following the resurgence of Chapman after her Grammys performance, he states “Go beyond ‘Baby Can I Hold You,’ ‘Fast Car,’ and ‘Give Me One Reason.’” Fans and the radio alike remained loyal to Tracy Chapman through the rise of grunge, art pop, and the likes of Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake because many saw Chapman’s loyalty to folk traditions as an antidote to the hyper-capitalist, industrial pop world that continues today. Dr. Keyes cites the immovability of Chapman’s aesthetics because “she did what she wanted to do. She was appreciated by Elektra Records, and they let her be creative and did not interfere with her creativity.”

It was with her 2008 album Our Bright Future that Chapman said goodbye to the industry, coinciding with the end of her 20-year record deal. On her own take of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” titled “I Did it All” she sings “I did it all / I didn’t ask permission / I did it all / What kind of life / Is not an exhibition?” Sitting with Chapman’s music now after she rounded out her career at the age of 44, I hear a woman who has lived a full life, a life of political revolution through the vibration of guitar strings. Chapman truly did do it all, maintaining a solid fan base and cultural relevance despite the fast-paced evolution of the music market. She refused to commodify herself, often turning interviews and protecting her body and beauty from the public eye. Chapman is a musician of the people, a woman born to create doing so with grace and truth. 

Considering Chapman’s diverse and successful career throughout the 80s, 90s, and into the 2000s, why did she decide to end her performing hiatus at the 2024 Grammys, and why did that decision hit a nerve with modern audiences? 

Remiker highlights that Chapman’s work is “really introspective” and makes him think about himself “as part of a larger world,” through her integration of “herself, her experience as a queer Black woman in the 80s and 90s” with themes of love, power, and identity. Remiker believes the song choice of “Fast Car” to have particular resonance: “It mixes the topic of love and social inequality so well. The lyrics ‘I know things will get better / You’ll find work and I’ll get promoted / And we’ll move out of the shelter / Buy a bigger house, live in the suburbs’ are universal. The verses of the song show the lyrics are more about capitalism and the hampering of connections because of  poverty.” Remiker remarks, “We can learn from her musical career and from Fast Car because in this musical era, very much driven by TikTok, Tracy Chapman coming back and having this impact showed the world that this style of music isn’t dead — very political music isn’t dead, music that comes from the fringes isn’t dead. Tracy’s career and resurgence show us it can still be done, and that folks now are fighting cynicism of modern music.”

Moreover, Remiker notes the obvious, that “The Grammys are notoriously very racist towards Black women. Lauryn Hill was the last Black woman to win album of the year. If you think of all of the Black women who have made their mark on music, especially recently, and the fact that we haven’t seen a Black woman win Album of the Year for two-and-a-half decades is ridiculous.” Finally, it is important to remember “Fast Car” is about a woman. Angelica Cabral of Xtra Magazine states, “Listening to ‘Tracy Chapman’ as a young brown queer person is like sitting down with an elder in the community.” The Grammys drew criticism for the inclusion of country artist Luke Combs onstage with Chapman, who was Grammy-nominated for his cover of “Fast Car” this year. On Luke Combs, Dr. Keyes has a multilayered opinion. She states, “You have a white male who gives a certain type of validation because we are in a race and gender-based society. Seeing the two juxtaposed on stage was extremely powerful,” and she also notes, “He kept up with Tracy Chapman, she didn’t have to keep up with him.” Chapman returning to her highly influential song 35 years after its release was nothing short of transcendent, even if Luke Combs had to be there, too.  

This is why everybody cried: the catharsis of seeing a pervasive cultural figure, who has been  gracing the airwaves with her revolutionary messages and her silken voice for decades, now graying and glowing, once again cleansing the industry with her timeless art. “There’s never going to be another Tracy Chapman. This is the final coda on her career,” Eric expounds. Tracy Chapman, a woman at the intersection of the Black experience, queer expression, and blessed with a gift for connective lyricism and a voice from the gods, deserves to be reappraised. And she will be, for her Grammys performance reminded the world of her grace, her artistry, and her eternal messaging. Remiker says, “I feel like I can’t say enough about Tracy Chapman. Tracy Chapman is so unique, no one else does what she does. Tracy’s career and resurgence shows us it can still be done, she will forever be there to fight the cynicism of the music industry and our world.” Tracy Chapman’s Grammy performance reminded us that she is due for a revisiting, her important political and social legacy a haven in the racist, misogynoir society she operated within. She reminds us that a voice from the soul, a tone seemingly crafted from heaven, has the ability to cut through the hatred and evil that infects both the music industry and the world at large. Dr. Keyes bookends the true connective essence of Tracy: hope. She states, “she gives me hope. When I look at her, I’m proud. This is a Black woman, she looks like me, she has locs and is natural. This is how you can see her music transcends race, labels, and time.” 

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