Tag Archives: working class

Music Retrospects #2: Tracy Chapman, class consciousness and womanism

These series were written by Cedric McCoy and republished here with the author’s and publisher’s consent. The 3-part series were originally published on The Michigan Daily webpage on Feb. 8, 21 and 23.

For Black History Month 2023, I will be publishing a mini-series of short music reviews under the title “Protest Music Retrospects.” The aim of this series is to both revisit some of the most pivotal moments in Black protest music history and to shed light on overlooked Black figures and musics, specifically those of Black women, that have contributed to socially-conscious popular culture. The reviews will be a mix of musical critique as well as historical and historiographical analysis of the works and their responses in media. I first highlighted Sister Souljah’s 360 Degrees of Power; for this next entry, I will continue the series with Tracy Chapman’s 1988 debut and self-titled album, Tracy Chapman.

Arguably, Tracy Chapman isn’t exactly “overlooked.” It is one of the best-selling albums of all time (having sold over 20 million copies worldwide and certified platinum six times over) and earned Chapman Grammys for Best Contemporary Folk Album, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance (for “Fast Car”) and Best New Artist. However, I argue that the political themes and lyricism of Tracy Chapman is frequently missed in discussions of protest music of the era; released in the same year as N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton and Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the surviving narrative is that Black male rappers and emcees pioneered the new resistance. The intrigue of “Fast Car” quickly became what Tracy Chapman was known for, and in combination with the fact that she was a Black woman making folk music in the late 20th century, the politicization of her lyrics was lost on a majority of audiences. As a result of her commercial success, contemporary accounts strip Chapman of her evocative and powerful commentary.

Tracy Chapman is, at its core, an album that documents the experience of a working class Black woman. Chapman, in a traditional folk style, often positions herself as a narrator outside of the story actively being told; even so, she weaves her knowledge and experiences into the narrative. For example, in the lead track “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution,” Chapman discusses the rumblings of an impoverished and overexploited working class interested in a “revolution,” wherein “poor people gonna rise up / and take their share / poor people gonna rise up / and take what’s theirs.” 

Raised by a working-class family in Cleveland, Chapman knows firsthand the challenges of working-class Americans and is able to dictate the experience with a certain specificity: “While they’re standing in the welfare lines” in the first verse becomes “I’ve been standing in the welfare lines” in the third verse. “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” sets the tone for an album unmistakably entrenched in the struggle.

Every subsequent track on the album continues this thread of what Southern University professor Dr. Rasheedah Jenkins describes as “unabashed critique of the economic system’s virulence during the Reagan-Bush administration and its global influence.” In songs like the album’s lead single “Fast Car” and “She’s Got Her Ticket,” Chapman tells stories of women desperately seeking an escape from poverty and lack of opportunity; “Why?” and “Behind the Wall” comment on violence against women, both domestically and globally; “Mountain O’ Things” critiques American materialism and exploitative labor practices and so on. In each track Chapman addresses these issues with nuance and empathy, directly personifying the resistance of capitalist oppressions and state violence.

Even beyond her searing indictments of American society and western greed, there is something unique and admirable about Chapman’s lyrics that I find especially worth noting. In contrast to the hyper-masculine and chauvinistic aggression found in some of her male contemporaries, Chapman centers love and understanding in her narratives. She connects herself to the stories she tells — not to center herself, but to engage the reader in a more personal listening of her lyrics. In “If Not Now…” Chapman spends the first few verses presenting economic and social liberation as the ruling class’s unrequited love for the working class, but then presents this line in the final verse: “Now love’s the only thing that’s free / we must take it where it’s found.” Immediately this could be read as a continuation of her running metaphor, that we should seize opportunity when it finds us; I argue that Chapman intends a second, more literal meaning with the lyric. In the same way that she has humanized the working-class stories throughout the album, Chapman humanizes our fundamental desire to be acknowledged and cared for. I feel that the album’s final track, “For You,” can also be understood in this double-meaning framework.

Essentially, I encourage the reader to see Chapman’s debut album through a womanist lens – especially regarding the second definition ascribed to the term by its originator, Alice Walker: 

“A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female.”

While Chapman has never publicly disclosed information about her sexual preferences or identity, we do know that there is potential to see her life and work through a queer lens (ironically, as a result of Alice Walker herself disclosing her and Chapman’s affairs). I borrow musicologist Suzanne Cusick’s framework for understanding music through a lesbian lens from her article “On A Lesbian Relationship with Music” to extend this analysis. Cusick argues that a (assumedly oversimplified but fundamental in nature) lesbian relationship lacks the traditionally heterosexual power dynamic: 

(A woman) is non-power: to be in love with her is to be in love with, to be fascinated by, to be drawn to that which is non-power. With her, a self who is also non-power is more likely to create a relationship based on non-power…No one in the relationship has been formed to be the power figure, although all can play at it.

In short, Cusick claims that queer relationships (but that specifically of lesbians) defy a hierarchical, vertical power structure in favor of a horizontal, fluid power structure. I find this lens, applied to music specifically as Cusick later does, useful in understanding Chapman’s work because it lacks that exact power dynamic protest music had come to embody in that moment: in contrast to a prophet or speaker for Black America to rally behind and listen to, Chapman simply tells her story as-is and lends her ear to her working-class comrades.  Chapman, in the face of multiple jeopardy systemic oppressions, advocates intracommunal love and the liberation of all through mutual efforts. There is no appeal to violence or physical rage, as such devices are unnecessary in her approach; rather, it is more useful to understand one another and build solidarity in absence of hierarchical power structures, both in terms of race and gender but as well as sexuality.

Tracy Chapman will be remembered by, as it already is, Chapman’s transparent and relatable lyricism as well as her politically informed criticisms. In addition to the genre-defining musicality and emotion displayed throughout Chapman’s recordings, I hope that the album is revered for its revolutionary draw to love and its commitment to radical empathy within the canon of Black protest music for generations to come. The album is potent with themes, analysis and lyrics to pick apart for at least a few more decades.

MiC Assistant editor Cedric Preston McCoy can be reached at cedmccoy@umich.edu.