Tracy Chapman’s appearance at the 1988 Nelson Mandela tribute concert transformed her career. The political turmoil surrounding Apartheid was transposed onto Chapman’s performance; songs confronting domestic abuse, segregation, and poverty were broadcasted to 600 million people. This worldwide crowd answered her lyrical calls for change by propelling her to overnight stardom. The songs that that provoked this response – the now classic ‘Behind the Wall’, ‘Across the Lines’, and ‘Fast Car’ – have received international acclaim. They delight and disturb their listener in equal, uneasy measure.
Protest music has always had a disruptive agenda. Green Day’s American Idiot, Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’, and James Brown’s Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud are unapologetic in their honesty. They simultaneously agitate and excite. The function of these works is to have every listener blaring the same anthem – they initiate a musical battle cry. Quieter forms of protest music can be just as loud. Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’ or Donovan’s ‘Universal Soldier’ are archetypal of protest in the folk tradition, using memorable storytelling to rally and challenge hegemony. Pieces without the explicitness of lyrics can also be filled with new political meaning; a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 was performed to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. Repackaging the symphony as an ‘Ode to Freedom’, instead of the original ‘Ode to Joy’, revered the political shift.
This constant cultural backdrop of music on our radios, televisions, and mobile phones, makes it an effective mechanism for change. The philosopher Theodore Adorno concluded that protest music is “taking the horrendous and making it somehow consumable”. Injustices are filtered into our everyday life through music. The politically unpalatable can be digested. Adorno argues that this can breed complacency; but the opposite seems to be true. A nation entirely captivated by the next impassioned soul, folk, or rock hit is more likely to act than one consuming and conforming to the dominant narrative.
It is fitting that Chapman’s music is a blend of all these genres. Her soulful voice is able to travel between folk, pop, and blue-rock across her eight studio albums. Despite her fluid style, the albums are linked by a consistent political engagement. She is unconcerned with sticking to a specific cause; instead, her songs present a web of various social controversies. As Chapman herself says, “I think it’s important, if you are an artist, to use your music to stand up for what you believe in.” Mountain O’ Things denounces materialism and excess; Cold Feet examines the extent to which some will go to escape destitution; while Short Supply critiques our detrimental impact upon the environment. Despite the variation in the problems, the theme – the intention – remains unchanged: to protest.
Not only do her pieces flow from one political outcry to the next, but they are also often void of politics altogether. The merit of her debut, Tracy Chapman, is that it can drift from a guttural protest song to the hush of a love song. Chapman’s voice is the only instrument required for ‘Behind the Wall’. Her distress is immediately felt with the words “Last night I heard the screaming / Loud voices behind the wall.” Then Chapman displaces this visceral depiction of domestic violence with the tranquillity of ‘Baby Can I Hold You’. The tonal shift is repeated throughout the album: a challenge towards world hunger and warfare in ‘Why?’ is swiftly followed by the intimacy of ‘For My Lover’. Her initial question of “Why are the missiles called peacekeepers / When they’re aimed to kill” in ‘Why?’ becomes more threatening when preceded with “I’d climb a mountain if I had to / And risk my life so I could have you” in ‘For My Lover’. The initial anarchy Chapman interrogates is present in the same world as the devotion and humility expressed towards her ‘lover’. Riot and affection exist side by side; the contrast between them reveals why the rebellion is necessary.
Chapman’s most famous song, ‘Fast Car’, is a perfect example of this tension. It intertwines the cyclical nature of poverty with a love affair. Billie Holiday’s haunting rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’, a song condemning lynching, is placed in the middle of songs of romance and joy in her self-titled album. Bob Dylan’s tender love song towards the ‘Girl from the North Country’ finds breathing space among the defiance of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘Masters of War’. Protest musicians have always flowed from outrage to intimacy, exhibiting the humanity subjected to the horror.
The final song on Tracy Chapman’s debut album is ‘For You’. To conclude the drama and anguish of what has come before, Chapman ends with simplicity: “No words to say / No words to convey / This feeling inside I have for you.” At the end of an album raging with lyrical wit and complexities, having proudly scrutinised social wrongdoing, she is finally “at a loss for words to express [her] feelings.” She is not simply a political warrior; she is also fallible and frail. This outcome displays the innate humanity of her work. It reflects what is at the core of protest art.