Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Tracy Chapman performs at the 2009 Cactus Festival in Bruges, Belgium. (Photo: Hans Hillewaert via Wikimedia Commons)

Today I took to the streets with Tracy Chapman. That is, on my morning run I listened to her 1988 debut album, whose relevance to recent events practically stopped me in my tracks. For those who weren’t around back then, including many of the young activists now leading the daily protests all across the nation, Chapman’s eponymous album catapulted the unknown singer-songwriter to worldwide celebrity, garnering three Grammys and broad critical acclaim. It remains one of the bestselling albums of all time by a female artist, going multiplatinum and driving the single “Fast Car” to No. 1 on the charts.

The album dropped when Chapman was just 24, a recent Tufts grad who had cut her performing teeth busking on the MBTA. The same year I was 29, a recent MBA, living on New York’s Upper West Side, expecting my first child with my lawyer-husband. We were gentrifiers who thought frequenting an upscale soul food restaurant in Chelsea made us cool. The only thing we protested was the long lines at Zabar’s deli on weekend mornings.

We heard Chapman’s lyrics, but we did not really listen to what she was saying. We bought the CD and played it on repeat, but we didn’t take her message, a cri de coeur for racial equity, to heart or to the streets. We bought concert tickets, but we didn’t show up the next day for the hard work of social change. Safe in our yuppie bubble we hummed and tapped our feet as Chapman sang:

Poor people gonna rise up
And take what’s theirs
Don’t you know
You better run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run
Oh I said you better
Run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run’Cause finally the tables are starting to turn
Talkin’ bout a revolution
Yes, finally the tables are starting to turn

And then America ran straight from Reagan’s trickle-down economics into the arms of the first Bush era and into the distraction of military interventions in the Persian Gulf. The revolution that marked Chapman’s two-decade recording career brought the technology that now enables me to listen to her music on wireless headphones streaming from Spotify to my iPhone. It’s the same technology that has made it harder for musicians to earn a living.

Thirty-two years later, Chapman’s lyrics are as fresh and searing a call to action as ever. Listen to a deep-cut track such as “Across the Lines,” and ask yourself if anything has changed:

Across the lines
Who would dare to go
Under the bridge
Over the tracks
That separates whites from blacks

Choose sides
Run for your life
Tonight the riots begin
On the back streets of America
They kill the dream of America

Little black girl gets assaulted
Ain’t no reason why
Newspaper prints the story
And racist tempers fly
Next day it starts a riot
Knives and guns are drawn
Two black boys get killed
One white boy goes blind

Or take “Behind the Wall” and its view of policing:

Last night I heard the screaming
Loud voices behind the wall
Another sleepless night for me
It won’t do no good to call
The police always come late
If they come at all

The child I delivered in the fall of 1988 was an infant when Chapman’s second album came out the following year. By then, we were living in Paris and listening to Chapman sing “Subcity” with its biting refrain: “I’d like to please give the president my honest regards for disregarding me.” An actual revolution was taking place in East Europe, but it didn’t shake us expats out of our cocoon of American exceptionalism and white privilege.

Chapman hasn’t released an album since “Our Bright Future” in 2008. The title track muses about whether our bright future is in the past. Our generation has failed in so many ways, making a bright future even harder for our children. But over the last several weeks the anger, passion and energy out on the streets is a sign that, finally, many more of us, young and old, are ready to listen deeply and to work toward change. Maybe with the events of 2020 we won’t just be talking about a revolution.

Jan Devereux is a former city councillor and vice mayor.

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