Today we honor and celebrate a woman who fights for social justice with her music and her activism. Tracy Chapman was born in Cleveland, OH, in 1964. She was raised by her single mother; despite not having much money, her mother recognized Tracy’s love of music and bought her a ukulele when she was just three. She began playing guitar and writing songs at the age of eight. Surprisingly, she says that she may have been first inspired to play the guitar by the television show Hee Haw. She was accepted into the program “A Better Chance”, which helps minority students attend private schools. She graduated from Wooster School in Connecticut and subsequently attended Tufts University, where she received a BA in anthropology and African studies.
Chapman burst onto the national consciousness with her powerful debut album, simply named Tracy Chapman. Released on Elektra records in 1988, this powerful set of eleven songs mixed her amazing musical sensibility with her demand for justice. While most famous for the hit Fast Car, the album is perhaps most fully realized in the quiet rage of its opener, Talkin”Bout A Revolution. The album was a smash, hitting #1 on the Billboard charts. Chapman received an amazing seven Grammy nominations and won three: Best New Artist, Best Contemporary Folk Album, and Best Female Pop Vocal (for Fast Car). It was ranked #10 in Rolling Stone‘s 100 Best Albums of the 80s and #261 in the magazine’s list of 500 Best Albums of all time.
Her work since then has been equally powerful, matched by her activism and voice for social justice. She has been a force for education and human rights, working for Amnesty International and other organizations. She also works for AIDS research and quietly supports LGBT causes. While she is open about being a lesbian (and once dated Alice Walker), she tries to maintain a balance between her public persona and personal life. In recognition of her social activism, Tufts awarded her an honorary PhD in Fine Arts in 2004. Chapman sums up her work nicely in her own words:
I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to do my work and be involved in certain organizations, certain endeavors, and offered some assistance in some way. Whether that is about raising money or helping to raise awareness, just being another body to show some force and conviction for a particular idea. Finding out where the need is – and if someone thinks you’re going to be helpful, then helping.
What a powerful example of the difference one person can make. As we celebrate her 48th birthday today, please enjoy one of her finest songs, Give Me One Reason.