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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Turn on the radio these days, and you are more likely to hear a pop singer railing against homelessness than one urging you to get down and party. Protest music has made a comeback, and Chapman is partly responsible. Her first album showed that social concern sold. Now singers known more for their commitment to sequins than their dedication to social policy are decrying acid rain.

Chapman does not criticize others for a trendy embrace of social concern. "I don't know that it's fair to question people's motives," she says, choosing her words carefully. "Even if people are doing it simply because they think it's commercial, I don't know that that's a bad thing. It can encourage action. If music can do anything, I would hope that it might make people more compassionate."

Hunger only for a taste of justice

Hunger only for a world of truth

She sang not long after she could talk. Chapman grew up with her mother and one sister in a mostly black, working-class neighborhood in Cleveland. Her father and mother divorced when Tracy was four. Her mother always listened to the radio when she was home: Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, Mahalia Jackson, mostly rhythm and blues.

Chapman was a quiet child and liked to be by herself. On her way to school, she made up songs for her sister and their friends. Her first ambition was to play the drums, but her mother feared that they would be too noisy and bought her a tinny $20 guitar. The instrument harmonized with her soul. School and the neighborhood, she says, were rough. The local high school had a metal detector at the door. "At times, it was a terrifying place to be." To say she wanted to get away is an understatement. "No desire to stay," she says. "And no desire to go back."

She won a scholarship for gifted minority students and went off to the Wooster School in Connecticut. It was her first glimpse of white, upper- middle-class life, and she found aspects of it dismaying. "It was difficult because a lot of students there just said very stupid things," she recalls. "They had never met a poor person before. In some ways, they were curious, but in ways that were just insulting. How many times as a black person are you asked to explain to a white person what racism is or what it means to be black?"

She was a fine athlete, star of the basketball team and captain of the varsity soccer team. But it was music that moved her. She wrote songs all the time. Friends remember her singing Talkin' 'bout a Revolution during her junior year. Her 1982 yearbook from Wooster predicts, "Tracy Chapman will marry her guitar and live happily ever after."

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