Tracy Chapman

Tracy Chapman

Tracy Chapman was already on the roster of the June 1988 concert for Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday, and had performed a slot early in the day, before the television networks were broadcasting the event. But then, the hard drive on Stevie Wonder’s synclavier failed, rendering him unable to perform, and Chapman was asked to take his time slot. She performed “Fast Car” and “Across the Lines” to a global audience, and two weeks later had sold 2 million copies of her debut record. “Fast Car,” the album’s first single, went to No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. She quickly went from playing clubs to opening dates for Neil Young and Bob Dylan, before being asked to join the Amnesty International Human Rights Now! Tour alongside Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, and Youssou N’Dour, performing in stadiums around the world. The Cleveland-raised singer-songwriter’s quietly seething, sometimes hopeful songs were the perfect capstone to the tired, frazzled end of the Reagan era. But the fact that they resonate even more decades later is a testament to how little has changed and how timeless is her approach and delivery. Enduring classics like “Fast Car” and “Why?” and “Baby Can I Hold You” and “Talkin’ ’Bout a Revolution” were politically barbed and defiant, no matter how restrained the music and how soothing her voice. Luke Combs’ 2023 reverent cover of “Fast Car” not only brought the song newfound popularity, it introduced a whole new generation to Chapman, whose public appearances and performances had become rare. Later that year, Combs won Single of the Year at the Country Music Association’s yearly awards ceremony for his chart-topping version. But best of all, Chapman herself won Song of the Year, becoming the first Black woman to win a CMA award, 35 years after the song was originally released.

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