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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During her freshman year at Tufts, she won a talent contest by singing Baby Can I Hold You?, which appears on her first album. She majored in anthropology, but her real discipline was being a troubadour. She played in coffee shops, churches, sang in Harvard Square and developed an ardent following. In those days, she talked when she performed, telling stories, explaining the genesis of certain songs. Chapman went from college student to recording artist after a classmate persuaded his father, Charles Koppelman, co-founder of SBK, a major music-publishing company, to listen to her music. Chapman needed a producer; many heard her tape and passed, thinking it too uncommercial. But music producer David Kershenbaum fell in love with her voice. "The timbre of it," he says, "is rare to find. It instantly disarms you. She's able to sit there and produce an almost flawless performance. Normally today's producers take tracks and build them and then put in the voice. We wrapped the tracks around the voice."

Today Chapman is less than thrilled about fame. "I guess if there were some way to choose what I wanted or didn't want from what my success has brought me," she says, "I would choose not to have the celebrity. I don't think I'm very good at it." She isn't. She doesn't like getting fussed over. When strangers approach her, she is often cool to the point of brusqueness. All she divulges about her private life is that she recently moved to San Francisco and lives there in a rented house with her sister.

They're tryin' to dig into my soul

And take away the spirit of my god

Her performance style reflects her reticence. There is no chatter, no dancing, no fireworks. Yet she is capable of creating an intimacy with the audience that more gregarious performers cannot duplicate. At an outdoor concert for the homeless in Washington this fall, she stood atop a six-story platform facing 40,000 people. When she played the first few bars of Fast Car, the fidgety audience grew quiet, as though she were singing a lullaby to a baby.

Chapman is one of a handful of black recording artists whose music directly addresses blacks' concerns. Yet her audience, the people who buy her records, are by and large white, upper-middle-class baby boomers. She says she is speaking to and for the disenfranchised, but they do not listen to her.

Urban contemporary radio stations, or what people in the record business call "black stations," rarely play her music. A Chapman tune on an urban contemporary station is about as common as a rap song on classical radio. This is primarily because it does not fit into the dance-and-funk formula of those stations. But Chuck D., a member of the controversial rap group Public Enemy, says the reasons have less to do with genre than with soul. "Black people cannot feel Tracy Chapman, even if they got beat over the head with it 35,000 times," he told Rolling Stone. The implication is that her music is too precious, too bland, too white.

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