She rocketed to fame at the age of 24, taking the world of folk music by storm – but Tracy Chapman is not just a multi-platinum, four-time Grammy Award-winning singer. Chapman also changed the face of protest music forever, drawing from her own life experiences to create her unforgettable anthems.
Raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Chapman was a quiet child who spent most of her free time in libraries. It wasn’t until she began university that she was talent-spotted while busking, and her musical career took off.
Her discography – from Fast Car and Talkin’ Bout A Revolution to her most recent album Our Bright Future – has won her adoring fans from across the world. Chapman is also a committed social activist, having worked with Amnesty International and AIDS/LifeCycle as well as joining the campaign against Apartheid in South Africa.
The twists and turns of Chapman’s career have led to some pretty fascinating experiences. Here are ten things you probably didn’t know about the singer-songwriter.
20. Two million copies of her album were sold in the fortnight following Nelson Mandela’s birthday concert
While studying at Tufts University in the late 80s, Chapman would occasionally busk – allowing her unusual talent to shine.
A fellow student noticed her unique sound, and referred her to his father Charles Koppelman, who owned the record label SBK.
After signing a contract with the label, Chapman honed her craft with acoustic solo shows and club performances.
And she had secured a spot in Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday tribute concert when, by chance, the star performer Stevie Wonder dropped out.
At the last minute, the little-known Chapman offered to perform twice, and in this act she drew massive international attention.
Prior to the concert, she’d sold 250,000 copies of her album; in the fortnight afterwards, she sold two million.
19. Her original plan was to become a vet
Chapman spent countless hours in the public library as a child – she has described her young self as bookish and quiet.
Out of her six university offers, the 18-year-old Chapman picked Tufts University for its renowned veterinary school.
- Dire Straits
The star has said she dreamed of becoming a vet from the age of six.
But a very different department caught her eye while she was studying, and she changed her plans.
Chapman ended up graduating with a degree in Anthropology and African Studies. She’s noted that while her family supported her eventual music career, “I think they always felt I should have majored in something more practical than anthropology—like pre-med or pre-law—so I was a lost cause anyway.”
She shares her alma mater with fellow folk musician Slaid Cleaves and country singer Darrell Scott.
18. Her first ever instrument was a ukulele
- Hans Hillewaert
As a young child, Chapman’s first ever instrument was a humble ukulele – which she’s said was lost to another keen young musician.
“My best friend at the time stole [it] from me,” she recalled to Rolling Stone in 1988.
She progressed to the mouth organ and clarinet, before buying a $20 guitar in sixth grade.
At the tender age of 14, Chapman began composing songs about social issues that seemed particularly topical.
She would rifle through local newspapers for inspiration, and remembers writing about asbestos poisoning at one point.
In a song called Cleveland ’78, she remembers writing about how “Andrew Young was in some sort of controversy, and I had something in there about flying saucers…”
17. Her upbringing was shaped by racial tensions in her hometown
- Joel Bez
Chapman was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1964 – a city that was filled with tension over racial integration.
In a 2013 interview with the Independent, Chapman recalled that the racism she experienced as a child “wasn’t subtle.”
“There was always tension,” she commented. “It felt like the kind of racism people assume existed in parts of the South in the late 60s, in that you’d go to a public pool and there’d be a sign saying ‘Whites only’.”
“They were bussing black children into white neighbourhoods, and white children into black neighbourhoods, and people were upset about it so there were race riots,” she told The Guardian in 2008.
She suffered racist assaults and abuse on her route home from school, and has spoken out about being bullied.
“A lot of kids spent more time out of school than in, but I always loved school and thought it was my way out of Cleveland, and out of poverty,” she added.
16. Her lyrics have been translated into five languages
- Steve Jurvetson
Thanks to her international fame, Chapman has had her songs translated into five different languages.
There translations appear in foreign copies of the album Tracy Chapman, written out in an accompanying booklet.
The album swept the charts in 1988, reaching the top spot in the USA, UK, Austria, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.
Her song Fast Car, translated into German, was renamed Flitzer (which translates to something close to ‘speedster’).
As a single, Fast Car became a Number One hit in Belgium, Canada, Ireland and the Netherlands – but not in the UK or USA.
It returned to the UK Top Ten in 2011, after it was covered by Michael Collings on Britain’s Got Talent.
15. She recently appeared on TV for the first time in five years to tell people to vote
After five years away from the cameras, Tracy Chapman broke her TV-free spell in 2020 to encourage US citizens to vote.
In a rare televised performance, she starred on Late Night with Seth Meyers, singing her 1988 hit Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution.
In the pre-recorded clip, she appeared solo in front of a simple black curtain.
She altered the song’s closing lines to add in the phrase, “Go Vote!”, with a note behind her repeating this message.
“I’ve always thought Tracy Chapman’s music skips your ears and goes straight to your heart,” Meyers commented at the time.
“This is the most important election of our lifetimes,” Chapman wrote in a formal statement before her appearance. “It is imperative that everyone vote to restore our democracy.”
14. She used to date author Alice Walker
While Chapman speaks rarely of her personal life, it emerged in a 2006 interview with The Guardian that she had a relationship with Alice Walker in the 90s.
Walker, the famous author of The Color Purple, said in the interview that she had warm memories of their romance.
- Virginia DeBolt
“It was quiet to [the press] maybe but that’s because you didn’t live in our area,” she pointed out.
She went on to confirm, “It was delicious and lovely and wonderful and I totally enjoyed it and I was completely in love with her but it was not anybody’s business but ours.”
Like Walker, Chapman loved writing poetry in her youth. She’s commented that reading, too, is an essential part of her songwriting process.
“I have been a life-long avid reader of fiction, poetry, reference books and in recent years graphic novels and non-fiction,” she said. “I read for pleasure but I feel certain that the act of engaging with a well written or well told story is also a lesson. If you want to write you need to read.”
13. Nicki Minaj had to pay Chapman almost half a million dollars over a copyright claim
- Zoran Veselinovic
In 2018, Chapman launched a lawsuit against rapper Nicki Minaj for allegedly copying portions of Chapman’s song Baby, Can I Hold You Tonight.
Nicki’s song in question, Sorry, was never released, but it went viral after being leaked by the DJ Funkmaster Flex.
A judge ruled in favour of Minaj in 2020, announcing that she was not guilty of copyright infringement.
“Artists usually experiment with works before seeking licenses from rights holders and rights holders typically ask to see a proposed work before approving a license,” the judge stated.
“A ruling uprooting these common practices would limit creativity and stifle innovation within the music industry,” they noted.
The pair ended up settling the copyright dispute out of court, with Minaj paying Chapman $450,000.
12. She shuns all social media and smartphones
Chapman does not have a smartphone and she avoids all social media as much as possible.
“You can’t entirely escape it,” she told AP News in 2015. “I don’t have an account and I don’t plan to get one, but most people I know do.”
“So in some way, you end up being a part of it because you end up being in someone’s selfie or something,” she said.
“Truthfully, the record company was strongly urging me to consider [social media],” she added. “…I can see why people are participating in it but it doesn’t appeal to me.”
She’s said all she really wants from a phone is to make a phone call – and joked that’s become the “least reliable” feature left on modern smartphones.
Simon Cowell and Elton John share Tracy Chapman’s aversion to modern phone culture – likewise neither of them own a smartphone.
11. She has three honorary degrees
As well as her undergraduate degree from Tufts, Chapman has received an honorary doctorate in Fine Arts from her alma mater.
This PhD was granted in recognition of her accomplishments in social activism as well as the world of music.
Each year, Tufts’ Humanist Chaplaincy holds a New Beginnings event, which gathers graduating seniors to reflect on their university years and future dreams.
This occasion is named after Chapman’s song New Beginning, which featured in her 1995 album of the same name.
She holds an honorary masters degree in Fine Art from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
Chapman was also granted an honorary doctorate by Saint Xavier University in 1997, along with Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus.
10. Her single mother played professional football
Chapman’s parents divorced when she was four years old, leaving her in the care of her mother Hazel.
Chapman has credited her mother with fostering a passion for music in her and her sister Aneta.
“My mother sang, my sister could sing, music was so much in the fabric of my life and upbringing,” she said to the Irish Times in 2015.
The multi-talented Hazel became a professional footballer in the late 60s, playing wide receiver.
She later became a news paper columnist and host of The Hazel Chapman Show, a TV talk show based in Lorain County, Ohio.
She also wrote a poetry collection called The World As I See It, published in 2008.
9. Chapman played at the first ever Lilith Fair
- Jason Philbrook
The Lilith Fair was founded by Canadian artist Sarah McLachlan, who was disappointed by the lack of opportunities for female musicians.
She was frustrated at radio stations’ and concert promoters’ reluctance to play two songs by female artists in a row.
She created the first Fair in 1997, inviting only female artists and female-led bands to perform.
Tracy Chapman was among the stars to perform on the main stage, along with Lisa Loeb, Jewel and the Indigo Girls.
The 1997 Lilith Fair earned $16 million to become the highest-grossing touring festival of the year.
Over the course of three years, these annual festivals also raised $10 million for charity.
8. She prefers to write songs at the crack of dawn and late at night
Chapman has said that she keeps unorthodox hours when it comes to penning her songs.
“Songwriting is a very mysterious process,” she has commented. “It feels like creating something from nothing. It’s something I don’t feel like I really control.”
“I’m never sure if: 1) I’ll ever write another song, 2) what the song will be about and 3) if what initially sparked the beginning of a song might complete it,” she explained.
Her songs often grow out of phrases or just a few lines, while many of her ideas never go any further than this.
“I often write either really early in the morning, just when I’m waking up, or really late at night,” she added.
“You’re the One was a song that came to me in the morning,” Chapman said of her 2002 song. “I woke up on my birthday, March 30, and wrote that song.”
7. Fast Car is the highest-ranked song written and performed by a woman in Rolling Stone’s Top 500
Rolling Stone Magazine last updated their list of the ‘500 Greatest Songs of All Time’ in 2010.
To this day, Chapman’s song Fast Car remains the highest-ranking tune that was written and performed solely by a woman.
It checks in at #167 and is her only song to feature on the list, compared to the Beatles’ 23 entries and Bob Dylan’s 15.
In 2015, blogger Alexandre Passant used data mining techniques to work out the most popular themes of songs to make the list.
He picked out “love” and “baby” as two of the most common lyrics, featuring 1057 and 746 times respectively.
Regarded as a lesbian anthem, Fast Car is often considered a love song – but unlike many other tunes on Rolling Stone’s list, it doesn’t feature either of these words.
6. She broke taboos by playing the digeridoo
New Beginning is Tracy Chapman’s fourth album, released in 1995 to huge commercial success.
In the album’s song of the same name, Chapman plays the didgeridoo. She played this unusual wind instrument live in Paris in 1998.
- Tomer T
Chapman first studied the didgeridoo at the Didgeridoo University in Alice Springs, Australia.
However, her performances have drawn some controversy due to the didgeridoo’s unique history in Indigenous Australian music.
Traditionally, women did not play the didgeridoo in official ceremonies, and the practice is still discouraged by some Aboriginal communities.
Other unusual instruments to feature in Chapman’s music are the Appalachian dulcimer and the Nyckleharpe, a traditional Swedish chordophone.
5. Her first quality guitar was a gift from her school chaplain
Despite playing the guitar from the age of 12, Chapman never had the funds to get a good-quality instrument.
After a year of guitar lessons at school and many years of teaching herself, she caught the attention of her high school’s chaplain.
He encouraged her to look out for a better instrument, and for a while Chapman borrowed a better model from a friend’s vast guitar collection.
Her mother clubbed together $100 for her daughter, but the Chaplain warned her it wouldn’t be enough to get an excellent instrument.
“One day, the Chaplain asked me to come to his office and he presented me with a check for $272,” she recalled in her Tufts interview. “It so happened that I’d been playing at chapel services and school coffeehouses.”
“The money came from the Chaplain and his wife, the school administration and faculty,” she added. She took the money to New York and picked out her beloved Fender guitar.
4. She wrote over 200 songs before she even graduated
In her Tufts interview, Chapman mentioned that she had written an incredible 200 songs just in the first two decades of her life.
She composed lyrics and melodies for each of them, and she accompanied all of them with guitar.
Nevertheless, it felt like a more casual hobby to Chapman until she hit high school.
Through the non-profit A Better Chance, Chapman left her Episcopal high school to join Wooster School in Connecticut.
Over 500 miles from Chapman’s hometown, Wooster School was the first ever prep school to focus on recruiting minority candidates to be prepared for Ivy League colleges.
When Chapman joined the prestigious school, it had only begun accepting female students in the past decade.
3. Gabrielle’s hit single had a Fast Car sample stripped from it
The 1993 soul hit Dreams is famed as the signature song of UK artist Gabrielle.
Hitting #2, it broke records as the highest-ever chart debut by a solo female artist in the UK.
However, versions you’ll hear today are missing one important detail that was prominent in the 1993 version.
Gabrielle’s original hit contained a sample from Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car, which was later edited out for copyright reasons.
Writing for Music Week, Alan Jones commented that “the soothing and gentle guitar intro to Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car underpins this superbly soulful dance cut, written and performed by a 22-year-old newcomer from Sydenham.”
It topped the UK charts on 20th June 1993, remaining there for three weeks.
2. She shared an Amnesty International tour with Springsteen and Sting
In 1988, Chapman participated in Human Rights Now, a tour of 20 benefit concerts around the world.
This six-week event for Amnesty International was designed not to raise funds but to raise awareness on the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The shows involved Chapman, Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Sting and Youssou N’Dour, as well as many human rights activists and former prisoners.
The tour covered 15 different countries and 19 cities, including Athens, Harare and New Delhi.
Chapman and Springsteen revived this connection by performing a duet of Springsteen’s song My Hometown in 2004.
Chapman is famed for frequently performing at charity concerts in aid of Make Poverty History, amfAR and AIDS/LifeCycle.
1. People were spooked by the resonance of Fast Car
Chapman has spoken about how uncannily relevant many of her fans have found the lyrics of Fast Car.
Speaking to the BBC in 2010, she said, “I had so many people come up to me and say that they felt it was their song.”
- Sharon Troy
“Someone told me at one point that they thought I’ve been reading their mail, they were saying ‘You seem to know my story,’” she noted.
“People would come up and tell me about a car relationship and some detail that they felt was in the song that represented something that happened in their lives,” Chapman also recalled.
However, Chapman has said it was inspired more by her childhood blue collar community than personal experience.
“I never had a ‘fast car,’” she said. “It’s just a story about a couple, how they are trying to make a life together and they face challenges.”