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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But Salim Muwakkil, an editor for the Chicago biweekly In These Times, who has written about Chapman, says blacks are uncomfortable with her not because she's too white, but because she's too black. "There's a reverse prejudice in the black community," he says. "The Michael Jackson syndrome is strong. She refuses to disguise her racial characteristics. Blacks are uncomfortable with the lack of glitter." At the same time, critics have suggested that Chapman is merely penance music for yuppies; listening to her songs on their CDs is a way of assuaging guilt about their own materialism.

This kind of talk hurts Chapman, though she tries to conceal it. "There are people who have gone as far as to say that I'm not black or not part of the black musical tradition," she says. "I don't have a problem with so-called black music as it is today, which is mostly dance music, R. and B., and rap music. But I don't think things are that way because that's the only music that black people can respond to. I think the reason I don't get played on black radio stations is because I don't fit into their present format. And they're not willing to make a space for me. I'm upset by what has been said because it doesn't speak well of black people. You know, it basically says black people don't respond in a cerebral manner to music, and that's just not true."

Chapman belongs to the tradition of black intellectuals caught between the mainstream black audience that ignores them and an elite white audience that supports them. Writers and artists of the Harlem renaissance in the 1920s and black poets from Langston Hughes to Amiri Baraka have often complained that their principal audience and patrons were white liberals. "It hurts you when your own people don't appreciate what you're doing," says Henry Louis Gates, a Cornell University professor of English. "John Coltrane heard that. Charlie Parker heard that. I think that's the most painful feeling for a black artist."

She is trying to protect what she keeps inside. She wants the music to speak for itself, while her manager and record company would like her to be more outgoing. "I think I write songs better than I give interviews," she says. She's right.

Chapman has written hundreds of songs, more than she cares to acknowledge. She keeps the lyrics and a chord chart in a notebook, and often makes a cassette. "There are lots of things that you never show anyone else. But they're basically exercises that teach you something about writing."

I'll save my soul, save myself.

"When I was a kid and I'd listen to records," she recalls, "I used not to be able to understand what they were saying. I thought they had done that purposely. So when I would play my songs, I would sing so you couldn't necessarily understand the lyrics." She laughs. "When I was playing for my sister and mother, they would say, 'I couldn't understand what you are saying.' Then I explained to them that I thought it was supposed to be that way. But I realized at that point that if I felt that what I was saying was important, then it should be clear."

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