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Tracy Chapman is finally getting her flowers, and it’s way overdue

Though she found commercial success in the 1980s, Chapman never got the mainstream recognition she deserved.
Tracy Chapman performs on stage  during the Grammy Awards.
Tracy Chapman at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday night. Valerie Macon / AFP - Getty Images

Tracy Chapman’s Grammy performance of her song “Fast Car” with country musician Luke Combs, who recently recorded it, was one of those moments from Sunday’s awards show that seemed to have everybody talking. And listening. Chapman’s 1988 studio version of the song shot up to No. 1 on iTunes, as did “Tracy Chapman,” her debut album, on which “Fast Car” appears. The music video topped iTunes’ music video charts this week.

What made the performance so captivating? Why did Chapman stop the world in its tracks?

There have since been numerous posts and articles on the musician, who, paradoxically, is being treated as an industry veteran and like some newly discovered act. What made the performance so captivating? Why did Chapman stop the world in its tracks?

In short, her performance appeared to be the first time Chapman, who has, for decades, been embraced by the lesbian community, was fully received by the world. It should be noted that the notoriously private musician, a Black woman with radical politics, has never discussed her sexuality or her love life. But to her fans, she has long embodied queerness and manifested a kind of liberation the world was not ready for.

And the profundity of her being so well received Sunday was not lost on queer people, especially queer people of color, such as me, who have watched Black and brown people who present themselves as Chapman does be systematically sidelined because their very existence challenges prevailing ideologies, like cishet patriarchy and white supremacy.

Chapman, who rose to popularity in the 1980s, was in many ways an improbable music star. Though she found commercial success, she also spent much of her career skirting the periphery of the industry, never gaining the kind of mainstream recognition she deserved.

Part of the allure around her Grammys performance can be attributed to the increasingly reclusive life she’s lived since 2009. That’s when she toured for a studio album she released in 2008. One wonders to what extent her disengagement reflected her disenchantment with a system that did not fully embrace her.

Though she found commercial success, she also spent much of her career skirting the periphery of the industry, never gaining the kind of mainstream recognition she deserved.

For many in the queer community, the power of Chapman lies in the rare ability of her music to offer us pathways to embodied freedom. Her protest and political songs, like “Subcity,” “Bang Bang Bang,” “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” and “Speak the World,” either challenge the very ideological strictures that limited Chapman’s own acceptance or they imagine a world free from them.

Her love songs, including “Fast Car,” are so palpably queer — from her deep, alto voice to how she occupies the space on a stage or the queerness of her physicality when she performs them — and they offer all who hear them access to desire, longing, pain, grief and love free from hegemonic constraints, such as heterosexuality. 

The simultaneity of the undeniable queerness and the universality of her music makes her music a portal for all of us, not just queer people, to access parts of ourselves we might otherwise have been encouraged to have forgotten. As it was for so many queer people of my generation, her music was the soundtrack to my own coming of age. Listening to her music offered me rare access points to my own queerness and transness, parts of me I could not understand, let alone articulate. 

And watching Luke Combs, a cisgender, straight, white, male country singer, embrace this song, with his own hit cover and in the shared Grammy performance, is a salient reminder of how her music allows everyone to access exiled, shunned or forgotten parts of ourselves, whether they be subtle articulations of our own queerness or anything else. The dynamic of the performance itself subverted typical gendered musical power dynamics, with Chapman, a Black woman and queer icon, playing the guitar, while Combs stood there, comparatively more vulnerable and stripped down, assisting in vocals — a role more typically reserved for women, who are often accompanied by male guitarists.

And that is the power of Chapman: Her music manages to subvert what it means to be a male country star (a role historically reserved for people who embody the regressive and oppressive ideologies she challenges at every level), as Combs’ own performance is refracted through Chapman’s queer energy.

It speaks to how much the world has transformed since Chapman released her first album that her music is now being celebrated by such disparate circles.

And it speaks to how much the world has transformed since Chapman released her first album that her music is now being celebrated by such disparate circles and has the power to transmute the essence of a white, male country music star, subverting typically heteronormative musical performances in the process.

“Queer musical performances and how to queer music culture depend strongly on the cultural and historical context the music is placed in,” Doris Leibetseder, a professor of gender studies and queer theory, explains in “Queer(ing) Popular Music Culture.” “In music culture this means to look at not only musical performances or at the appearance and behavior of the audience during the performance and in their daily lives, but also in doing music culture differently — hence ‘queering’ music culture — and not corresponding to the heteronormative production and consumption scheme.”

Sunday’s performance was so moving for people like me because it felt like the first time the world, collectively, acknowledged what was always there: Chapman’s implied queerness, her Blackness, her brilliance, her humanity. That acknowledgment is, itself, an act of liberation. In acknowledging and celebrating Chapman in her totality, we are finally able to do the same for ourselves.