TRACY CHAPMAN: Singing For Herself

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

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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

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