I was eight years old the night Tracy Chapman performed this song on the Grammys, just after being named best new artist of the year. I remember being transfixed by her voice and image on the screen. The next day I asked my mother to bring me to Bradlees at the local mall to buy the cassette tape. (This was a big leap forward from my primary musical interests at the time, which were Air Supply and Weird Al Yankovic.) I listened to that tape until it wore out. I remember walking around the playground in fourth grade singing “Talking About a Revolution” with my friend Ricky. I memorized the lyrics to every song well before I could fully understand the emotional depth and political commentary contained inside them. One of my favorite tracks was “Across the Lines” which speaks straight to the heart of racism, classism, sexism and unequal power structures in America. I couldn’t have described it in those words at the time, but the messages were not lost on me. Her words and music influenced me and guided my consciousness at a very important time when no one else in my life was bothering to say those kinds of things to me.
Watching this video again for the first time today, it is both exactly how I remembered it, and somehow also a brand new experience. As I have grown through the twenty four years since then, this song and that whole album have never left me. This music has been the soundtrack to many of my own emotional discoveries and heartbreaks, in moments of hopelessness and joy. It has united me with friends and strangers alike. It has taught me about social in/justice, individuality, and courage. Tracy Chapman was one of the first successful masculine-appearing women I had ever seen, and I don’t know whether I appreciated what that meant to me when I was eight, but I surely do now. I hope to be able to live my life as authentically as it seems she has.
If you are a fan, you will really appreciate listening to this recording of her very first radio interview, in studio at WUMB in 1985. It includes early performances of timeless tracks like “Baby Can I Hold You,” “For My Lover,” and “Talking About a Revolution” among others. She talks about her early years busking in Boston subway stations and Harvard Square (think of that next time you see someone playing in Downtown Crossing).
And I had a feeling that I belonged
And I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone