Being Black: The 80's with Toure
Tracy Chapman became one of the biggest musicians in the world thanks to two critical 80s concepts—affirmative action and the diasporic mindset. Because of the diasporic mindset, many Americans thought of Africa as part of their world, as if Africa’s problems are our own, and we are not truly free until South Africans suffering under Apartheid are free. And affirmative action did nothing less than change Chapman’s life. We’ll explore how those ideas helped Chapman and how they relate to “Fast Car.” We’ll also look at what Chapman’s life might have been like if she’d never been helped by affirmative action.
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Toure [00:00:00] It all happened because Stevie Wonder had a technical problem. The year is 1988. The place is London. The concert is a celebration of Nelson Mandela‘s 70th birthday. At a time when Mandela was the world’s most famous and beloved political prisoner, a man who had spent decades in prison and given his life to battling apartheid. Hundreds of millions of people were watching this concert. And Stevie Wonder was supposed to go out, but he couldn’t because he had a technical problem.
Tracy Chapman [00:00:35] There was a pretty good chance that I actually wasn’t even going to get to play, even though I’ve flown all the way from the States to London. They had me waiting in the wings because the schedule wasn’t entirely set. I think it was pretty much in order for all of the major acts who were scheduled to play, but they were just thinking they would slot me in wherever they needed me if they had a moment of downtime. And that happened. Stevie Wonder was supposed to go on, and somehow he didn’t have some programs for one of his keyboards. And so he wasn’t ready to go and they didn’t have anyone else ready. And all I had was my guitar and my vocal mics. So it was pretty simple setup.
Toure [00:01:18] That’s Tracy Chapman. So suddenly there was a hole in the lineup. What do we do? What do we do? Someone said, Let’s send out Tracy. She can perform by herself with just a guitar. And while she plays, we’ll figure out what to do next. They had no idea that cultural lightning was about to strike. Tracy’s debut album had come out a few months earlier and made no real splash. But on that day in London, she walked out on stage and calmly flowed into.
Tracy Chapman [00:01:53] You got a fast car?
Tracy Chapman [00:01:55] I wanted to go to anywhere. Maybe we make a deal.
Toure [00:02:00] And it felt like the whole world stopped and said, “Who is that?” And then came the chorus. Oh, my God, that chorus.
Tracy Chapman [00:02:12] I remember when we were driving. Driving in your car, speeds so fast I felt like I was drunk. City life laid out before us in your heart. Go Nice wrapping around my shoulder and I. I had a feeling that I belonged. I had a feeling I could be someone. Be someone. Be someone
Toure [00:02:35] And that’s the moment when Tracy Chapman became a global superstar. But it wouldn’t have happened if not for Stevie Wonder having a technical problem and the awareness of Mandela and the injustice of apartheid reaching a fever pitch because of a rising sense of Afro centrism and Black Americans feeling like they are part of the global diasporic struggle and affirmative action saving Tracy’s life. There’s a lot to say about Fast Car and how one of the greatest and most important singers of the 1980s almost never even made it. Because success isn’t promised to anyone, no matter how much talent you have. And even a Tracy Chapman level talent needs some help sometimes. This is Being Black: The ’80s. I’m Toure and this is a look at an epic decade through the lens of some of the great songs of the era. Not necessarily the best songs, but the songs that speak best to the issues that shaped the eighties. The rising war on drugs, women’s empowerment, the anti-apartheid movement, etc.. This episode dives deep into Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car, a plaintive, folksy, bluesy, heart wrenching story about dreaming of escaping from poverty, told in the voice of a working class woman who’s asking her boyfriend to just get in his car and help both of them escape from their nothing lives. It’s a song about the dream of class ascension, the hope of getting a better job and being able to move to the suburbs. But Tracy sings that she wants to get out of the shelter. The speaker in the song is so far away from the suburbs. The story is powerful because it’s heartbreaking and because it’s so relatable. Black poverty grew immensely in the eighties. There was a 50% increase in the number of Blacks living in poverty in America. So many people knew the despair that Chapman was talking about in the verses. But in the chorus, the song shifts. The drums pick up and Chapman moves from an overview of her life into more closely observed storytelling, giving us a single moment of actually being in that fast car.
Tracy Chapman [00:04:55] “I remember when we were driving, driving in your car. Speed so fast felt like I was drunk”.
Toure [00:05:00] And the intensity of her singing and the slowing down of the story and the microscope to details make it feel like you’re in that car with them.
Tracy Chapman [00:05:11] City lights lay out before us and your arm felt nice wrapped ’round my shoulders. And I…
Toure [00:05:16] You can feel the window open in the wind, hitting you in the face and the possibility of getting on the highway and just driving and never coming back and remaking yourself into something totally different. And then Chapman gives us the zenith of the chorus and puts to words what she’s really chasing in all of this because the place she hopes to get to by escaping in the car is not a place on a map. It’s a place in her heart.
Tracy Chapman [00:05:46] And I had a feeling that I belonged. I had a feeling I could meet someone. Be someone. Be someone.
Toure [00:05:58] “I had a feeling I could be someone.” She had the feeling of self-esteem. And that is so important in a world where whiteness is prized and blackness is denigrated so often. Just loving your African features, your curly hair, your brown skin, your wide nose, your body shape. Just loving yourself as a Black person. That can be a challenge in a world designed to make us feel lesser. We have had to create mechanisms by which to remind ourselves to love ourselves. Because Black self-esteem can be hard to hold on to. In the 1960s, Black people said, “Black is beautiful”. It was a constant refrain and an important counter-programming at a time where calling someone African was an insult when calling someone Black could be an insult. And people straighten their hair and lighten their skin. “Black is Beautiful” told us curly afros are beautiful. Dark brown skin is beautiful. Black bodies are beautiful. Black people needed to hear this as much as white people. And it was transformative. The phrase itself imbued us with self-esteem. In recent decades, some of that work has been done by the notion of Black Lives Matter, which spoke to the importance of Black people at a time when we were being executed by police on a daily basis. In the eighties, that lane was filled by “I Am Somebody”, Jesse Jackson’s famous poem.
Jesse Jackson [00:07:33] “I may be Poor.
audience [00:07:36] “I may be poor”.
Jesse Jackson [00:07:36] “But I am”
audience [00:07:36] But I am”
Jesse Jackson [00:07:37] “Somebody.”
audience [00:07:38] “Somebody”
Jesse Jackson [00:07:39] “I may be on welfare.”
audience [00:07:41] “I may be on welfare.”
Jesse Jackson [00:07:41] “But I am.”
audience [00:07:44] “But I am.”
Jesse Jackson [00:07:46] “Somebody.”
audience [00:07:45] Somebody.
Jesse Jackson [00:07:45] “I may be in jail.”
audience [00:07:46] “I may be in jail”
Jesse Jackson [00:07:47] “But I am.”
Jesse Jackson [00:07:50] “But I am.”
Jesse Jackson [00:07:50] “Somebody.”
Jesse Jackson [00:07:51] “Somebody.”
Jesse Jackson [00:07:51] “I may be uneducated.”
Jesse Jackson [00:07:52] “I may be uneducated.”
Jesse Jackson [00:07:53] “But I am.”
Jesse Jackson [00:07:57] “But I am”
Jesse Jackson [00:07:57] “Somebody.”
Jesse Jackson [00:08:00] “Somebody. “
Jesse Jackson [00:08:00] “I am.”
Jesse Jackson [00:08:00] “I am.”
Jesse Jackson [00:08:00] “Black”
Jesse Jackson [00:08:00] “Black.”
Jesse Jackson [00:08:02] “Beautiful.”
Jesse Jackson [00:08:03] “Beautiful.”
Jesse Jackson [00:08:03] “Brown.”
Jesse Jackson [00:08:03] “Brown.”
Jesse Jackson [00:08:03] “I must be respected.”
Jesse Jackson [00:08:07] “I must be respected.”
Jesse Jackson [00:08:07] “I must be protected.”
Jesse Jackson [00:08:07] “I must be protected.”
Jesse Jackson [00:08:07] “I am.”
Jesse Jackson [00:08:19] “I am. “
Jesse Jackson [00:08:20] “Somebody.”
audience [00:08:20] Somebody.
Jesse Jackson [00:08:20] “Right on”.
audience [00:08:20] Right on”.
Toure [00:08:20] Jackson seemed like a walking self-esteem machine, using his every breath to send as much of it as he could into Black America’s lungs. He knew the lack of self-esteem was imposed by white supremacy, and it was a problem, and we deserved better. And he was there to change things. In the eighties, Reverend Jackson ran for the presidency twice in 1984 and 1988. He ran at a time when most of us thought a Black man had zero chance of becoming president, which meant that Jackson’s campaign had the extra significance of putting cracks in the highest glass ceiling.
Jesse Jackson [00:08:58] For Black Run. You can’t win if you run. You don’t know who has going. A good man like Mondale could lose. Glenn might beat him. And there are all these considerations about what would happen to Glenn and Mondale, but no real consideration about our empowerment.
Toure [00:09:13] And he wasn’t a fringe candidate. No. His message of self-esteem and morality and policies that would uplift the poor put him in the conversation. He won states in both his campaigns. And in ’88, he won Michigan, putting him for a moment at the front of the race. He finished in second place in ’88, ahead of then Senator Al Gore, and his success broke down mental barriers in white and Black people after him. When we asked could a Black person become president instead of a resounding no? The answer was a tepid maybe. Jesse ran so that Obama could win, but Jackson’s candidacy was a victory in and of itself because it made many of us think my child could be president. Being poor. Does it mean I’m a nobody? Black is beautiful and I am somebody. I am somebody.
Jesse Jackson [00:10:11] I am.
Children [00:10:12] I am.
Jesse Jackson [00:10:13] Somebody.
Children [00:10:12] Somebody.
Jesse Jackson [00:10:15] I may be poor.
Toure [00:10:18] Now, a word from our sponsors.
Toure [00:10:23] There’s a story about another Black female folk legend I want to tell you. It reminds me of Tracy Chapman’s life, but also shows me how different Chapman’s life could have been. One of the giants of Black folk music is Elizabeth Cotten.
Elizabeth Cotten [00:10:39] Going down the road feeling bad. Honey babe, Lord. Going down the road feeling bad. Honey babe Lord
Toure [00:10:48] But it took her a long time to get to her rightful throne. Cotten was born in 1893 in North Carolina, the youngest of five. She was drawn to music as a small girl. She loved to play her brother’s banjo.
Shetland Fiddler Aly Bain, from his 1985 Series Down Home [00:11:02] Did you learn your music at home when you’re growing up?
Elizabeth Cotten [00:11:04] I learned my music in my home.
Toure [00:11:07] By eight years old. She was playing music all the time, but by nine she had to quit school to work to help the family make ends meet. She became a maid from a 1985 interview on the Scottish TV show Down Home.
Elizabeth Cotten [00:11:23] When I was 11 years old, I went to work and bought myself a guitar. When my mother would leave home to go to work and mother was gone, I’d get up and put my dress on and go down among where the white people live. And I knock on the door. Someone would come to the door and I said, Ms.. Would you like someone to work for you? And they sometimes said, No, nothing. I knocked on one lady’s door where she opened the door, she says. What can a little girl like you do? She harden. I miss. I can sweep your kitchen, I can help with the vegetables. I can set your table and you know I can make a fire in your wood stove. She cooked on a iron stove then. Y’all know about them?
Shetland Fiddler Aly Bain, from his 1985 Series Down Home [00:12:13] Yeah.
Elizabeth Cotten [00:12:14] Now you know you’ve heard about them. But I did. I know how to make a fire in this iron stove to make it draw so she could cook. So she says to me, Come in. And I went to her house. I started to work for her that day. And I worked for her until she left Chapel Hill. And she paid me $0.75 a month. Well, I didn’t know 75 cents wasn’t that much money. It was a lot of money to me. I never worked before. So one morning she came in the kitchen. She says, We going to give you more money. And she gave me then after that $1 a month, and I gave that to my mother to buy me this guitar. So she bought it to her sorrow. She didn’t get no more rest. See, I was just trying to it. I couldn’t play. Is making a noise. She’s down, down to me and me. She called me babe. Babe, put that thing down and go to bed. I said, Momma, I’m learning a new song. I didn’t know one then. I didn’t know no songs them.
Toure [00:13:23] Then when she was 11 or 12, she wrote a song called Freight Train.
Elizabeth Cotten [00:13:34] What is it that I lay in bed at night and yet still an old trap trying to come in. It is Choo-Choo.
Elizabeth Cotten [00:13:44] Choo choo choo choo choo choo choo.
Elizabeth Cotten [00:13:45] Choo choo. And I go to sleep here and the rest of the night. So I guess that gave me a mind to write something about a freight train.
Toure [00:13:55] It would become her most famous song, but that would come many years later. When Elizabeth was 15, she got married, and then she had a daughter and she quit playing music for four decades. She spent most of those decades working as a maid until one day fate intervened.
Elizabeth Cotten [00:14:15] Well, when I come to Washington to live, I applied at Landsburgh department store for a job I word at a department store. They give me a job to sell dolls. I was just there for the holidays, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. Mrs. Seeger. Mike Seeger’s mother walked in and two sisters. She came in with two fine looking children. That was Peggy and Barbara. She bought two dolls, one for each child while she was waiting for the dolls to get wrapped, Peggy. got lost in the store. I happen to be the one find her and to bring her into her mother. Peggy was crying, and I never could stand to see children cry. And I brought into tears was coming down on my cheeks. So Mrs. Seeger says to me, Have you worked here long? I says, No. She says, Well, if you ever decide to stop working here, here’s my telephone number. Give me a ring. I say, Yes, I’ll do that. So after New Year’s, I stopped working at Landsburgh department store. I decide, to give me Mrs. Seeger a ring.. She says, Come right out. The same day I went to, she started me to work and I worked for her ten years. She was a folk singer, music writer. They had two pianos, guitars, banjos, mandolins. All kind of strange music. Because that made me think about what I used to do play a guitar a little bit on the banjo. So Peggy kept her guitar in the kitchen hanging. So when Mrs. Seeger going to start a music, I’ll get the guitar and go into the dinning room and close the door so that I couldn’t be heard. So I wasn’t playing a freight train. I’m just playing in a way. Peggy and Mike walked in a say Libba, we didn’t know you could play a guitar. Well, there’s nothing to say. I was playing guitar. So Peggy says to me, What was the song you playing. I said its Freight Train? She says, Would you teach me how to play that song? I said, certainly. So from that, I started learning Michael and Peggy.
Toure [00:16:50] They were a family of professional musicians and composers, and being around them led to her playing guitar again. She was in her sixties, but the family recorded her songs and helped her make an album. And after the little girl she had met in the department store grew up and became a professional musician. She went to England and performed Freight Train, which led to many groups playing it, including the Beatles. Cotton recorded and toured for years and made enough money to buy a home in Syracuse and move her family there in 1984. She won a Grammy for Best Ethnic or traditional Folk album. In 1987, the year before Fast Car was released. Cotton passed away at the age of 95. She was still doing shows just months before her death.
Elizabeth Cotten [00:17:41] Freight train. Freight train run so fast.
Toure [00:17:45] When I hear Freight Train, I hear the beginnings of Fast Car. They’re both simple, direct, powerful blues themed folk songs about longing to move away rapidly from where you are and calling on the dominant vehicle of the day to help carry you away. And when I hear Cotten’s life story, I hear a classic blues story of a life derailed by poverty, a Black person swept up by the tides of life who had to wait until a lucky break late in life to be able to pursue her dream. How many of us have immense talent in any field that was blocked and shelved by the hurdles of being Black in America? Tracy Chapman has a life story that has some similarities to Cotten’s story, except there are some forces trying to help her. Forces endemic to the 1980s. Tracy grew up poor in Cleveland in a single parent home. Her father left when she was young, like Cotten, her musical talent began to show itself early on. Chapman had her own ukulele by age three and was writing songs at eight. As a small kid, she had already determined that she was going to play music.
Charlie Rose [00:18:57] Does writing come natural to you?
Tracy Chapman [00:18:59] It does. That doesn’t mean it’s not difficult, but I’ve been writing songs since I was eight years old.
Toure [00:19:05] The family was poor. Times were tough, and the public schools she had access to weren’t much. Then teenage Chapman got accepted into a program called A Better Chance, or ABC, which was built to help smart Black kids get into elite private schools. ABC helped change a lot of kids lives by giving them scholarships and entree into schools that their parents may not have even known existed. By getting into great high schools, they went on to great colleges and had professional lives that might have been very difficult to reach without ABC’s initial bridge. I know ABC kids who went from growing up in the projects to becoming bankers or executives or doctors. The program has helped over 16,000 kids. It’s built on the basic principles of affirmative action, the notion that if Black and Brown people are just given access to studying at great schools or working at great companies, we can thrive. And making sure that we get that access that has been historically denied to us is a critical part of making those institutions and this country better. And it’s the right thing to do. After decades of racism has prevented so many of us from rising. Where teenage Elizabeth Cotten was out of school and out of music and married and working as a maid. Teenaged Tracy Chapman got a scholarship to the expensive Wooster School in Danbury, Connecticut. Even with this chance to get out of Cleveland’s crumbling public school system, it wasn’t easy for her mom to finally let go and agree to send her.
Tracy Chapman [00:20:43] It was a life saving experience.
Charlie Rose [00:20:47] Because.
Tracy Chapman [00:20:47] Because I was in the Cleveland public school system before I had the opportunity to go to the private boarding school. And the school system was just. You know, in shambles. The busing was going on and racial tension was very high. The teachers were underpaid. They were striking most of the time. And. You know, I was doing well in school, but. I think at the time that I received the scholarship, you know, it was just perfect because. I unfortunately, you couldn’t not be involved in some of the things that were going on. And I found myself in the middle of a race riot when I was about 14 years old, and I found someone pointing a gun at me, you know, and telling me to run or they shoot me. And it was about that same time that I applied for the scholarship, and my mother wasn’t sure she wanted to let me go because we thought I was too young to leave home. And I think that changed her mind. She decided that it might. Be better.
Tracy Chapman [00:22:00] Be a good idea. And then I ended up going to school and I had 60 people in my class, 12 people at most of my classrooms. And most of the classes in the in public schools were overcrowded.
Toure [00:22:11] At Wooster, she got a great education, played music, and went on to Tufts University in Massachusetts, which exposed her to Boston’s coffeeshop scene, where she met the son of a record executive who helped her get a record deal. Who knows what would have happened to Chapman if she had stayed in Cleveland? It seems possible that we may have never been exposed to her music and she may have ended up struggling to have her immense talent recognized just the way Cotten struggled. The idea of affirmative action holds that if we have a diverse group of people at the table, then we will have a diversity of ideas and that will make the conversation more representative of the true breadth of America. And it will be better. Chapman’s experience at Wooster and Tufts, where she was one of the few Black people in those environments, that was an experience many Black people had in the eighties. Affirmative action put a lot of Black kids into private schools and a lot of Black adults into big corporations. Many in the expanding Black middle class moved into white suburban neighborhoods. A lot of Black people found themselves in predominantly white situations. And this was a world that was quite often difficult for them a field of land mines called microaggressions and stereotype threat and overt racism when they looked for a way to center themselves. Amid all of that, many of them turned to Afro centrism.
Jelani Cobb [00:23:36] The paradox of inclusive. What happened was that what we were calling the hip hop generation at that time, as some people would call it Generation X, we had a far greater degree of social inclusion than our parents ever had that we were allowed to matriculate in institutions of higher education. Many of us grew up in suburbs that were integrated. We had social lives and educational lives that exposed us to more of a white world than our parents had experienced.
Toure [00:24:06] That’s Jelani Cobb, a writer for The New Yorker and a journalism professor at Columbia.
Jelani Cobb [00:24:11] And I think that the surge you saw in a kind of Afrocentric nationalist consciousness came as a result of that, As an ironic result of it, I don’t think I would have been able to articulate that as a young person. But the person growing up in the eighties, there were innumerable instances where I interacted with a white person and came away with the sentiment that this person viewed me as lesser and not even necessarily in a malevolent way. That moment of Afrocentric consciousness was the whole generation of us trying to create a Black table and say like, This is where we are, this is what we’re connected to. You know, we’re part of this community and part of this tradition. People were staking a claim to Black identity, and in searching, they found the Africa, the connections to Africa. You know, if you’re looking at culture, if you’re looking at history, if you’re looking at religion, you’re looking at all the music and all these things that connect straight back to the African continent. And I think it’s the exposure to the often ill informed ideas of the white world about who Black people are, about what Black people are that make it more necessary for people to kind of search those things out.
Toure [00:25:20] So the affirmative action that transformed Chapman’s life also transformed many Black lives in the eighties and put many Black people in close proximity with a lot of white people that helped lead them to needing a stronger relationship with their blackness, which led to a diasporic consciousness, which led to a deep sense of connection to Africa and feeling like Africans are our sisters and brothers, which led to a deep seated anger about apartheid and a concern about the decades long imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, which led to the global TV concert that led to millions of people discovering Tracy Chapman. The conversation that American pop music was having in the eighties had no one like Tracy Chapman in it. She was the only pop crossover folk musician around. But more than that, no one in any genre was saying the things she was saying. No one was telling the stories she was telling, No one was talking about poor people the way she was. And we’re better off for her. Having told this story. The life journey and unlikely success of Chapman is part of what makes Fast Car so important. It proves the importance of affirmative action and of having a diversity of voices telling the story of America. It also taps into something we often see in folk and blues, the inherently political song. Fast Car isn’t overtly political. It’s not a direct plea to end poverty, but it’s inherently political in that, you know, the speaker is saying the system is wrong. There’s no call to action. But we know she’s saying we have to do better. And to have that message come through the voice and the guitar of a woman who we think could have been the woman in the song makes it even more of a powerful political statement. The more you know about Tracy Chapman, the more Fast Car means. ABC was her Fast Car, a vehicle that carried her rapidly away from nowhere and gave her a chance to live, to follow her dreams, to be someone, to be one of the seminal musicians of the eighties. In the eighties, Black people were both sinking and rising. We were taking steps forward and back at the same time. Black poverty was widening and deepening, and yet affirmative action was helping thousands rise, and Jesse Jackson was mounting two important presidential bids. And we were seeing ourselves as part of a global diasporic community. Less than two years after that 70th birthday celebration for Nelson Mandela, he was finally released from prison, marking the beginning of the end of the war against apartheid. Tracy Chapman became a household name and an important voice and a rich person by singing about poverty and revolution in a deeply authentic way and inspiring people to be their best selves. But we as a country still had considerable work to do because as Black poverty grew, the government did less and less about it. And then they flooded Black America with cheap cocaine, creating the crack epidemic. But that’s a story for next time. I’m Toure and this was Being Black: The Eighties. The next episode of this show is already available and soon we’ll be back with being Black. The Seventies. This podcast was produced by me, Touré and Jesse Cannon and scored by Will Brooks with additional production by Brian de Meglio and executive production from Regina Griffin. Thank you for listening to this podcast from the Grio Black Podcast Network. Please tell a friend and check out the other shows on the Grill Black Podcast Network, including Black asked questions with Chrissy Greer, Dear Culture with Panama, Jax and The Grio Daily with Michael Harriot and Writing Black with Maisha Kai.
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Chapman graduated from Wooster School in Connecticut, and then attended Tufts University in Boston, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in anthropology and African studies. During college, Chapman would travel to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and play her compositions in Harvard Square.When did Tracy Chapman become popular? ›
Chapman was signed to Elektra Records by Bob Krasnow in 1987. The following year she released her debut album, Tracy Chapman, which became a commercial success, boosted by her appearance at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert, and was certified 6× Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America.How can I contact Tracy Chapman? ›
Fill out the booking request form or call our office at 1.800. 698.2536, and one of our agents will assist you to book Tracy Chapman for your next private or corporate event.