Tracy Chapman is widely regarded as a thoughtful and introspective singer-songwriter, producing such hits as “Fast Car” and “Give Me One Reason.” She was born in Ohio in March 1964, but was raised in Connecticut.
It was Chapman’s mother who first encouraged her daughter’s love of music, giving Tracy her first instrument, a ukulele, when she was just three years old. Chapman began writing and performing original music while enrolled to study African studies and anthropology at Tufts University.
Her self-titled first album was released in 1988, and the world met a woman who will always speak a powerful truth on issues such as poverty, racism, and violence against women — but who also clearly values her own sense of privacy. That year, Rolling Stone profiled Chapman, referring to: “…Her carefully wrought tales of characters in contemporary America who seek meaning in the face of society’s fragmentation.” But just because she was caught up in the spotlight doesn’t mean she likes to parade in front of the media.
In 2018, Chapman told The Irish Times: “Being in the public eye and under the glare of the spotlight was, and it still is, to some extent, uncomfortable for me, but there are some ways by which everything that has happened in my life has prepared me for this career. But I am a bit shy.” Obviously, the celeb lifestyle isn’t well-suited to Chapman — and she knows it, too.
She told the Irish Times: “I have this personality that is a bit on the reserved side, and which had never really sought out the limelight. That has made me perhaps not the ideal person for this job.” But the limelight sought out Chapman nonetheless.
In June 1988, a few months after her first album was released, she was booked to perform at a tribute concert in honor of Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday. The venue was Wembley Stadium in London, and she performed not one set, but two, because one of the other acts refused to play. And Chapman blew the audience away – in a very, very public setting.
This stroke of luck led to further successes for Chapman – but the singer has nonetheless always been more than happy to step back into the shadows. Her last studio album was recorded in 2008, while a “Greatest Hits” compilation was released in 2015.
She’s also notoriously protective of her work, refusing frequent requests to use or sample her songs in other media. In fact, it came as quite a shock to Chapman’s fans that the artist gave permission to Lena Dunham to use “Fast Car” in the series finale of Girls back in 2007. The show’s music director had reached out to Chapman’s people, fully expecting to be turned down.
Remarkably, however, Dunham and Chapman spoke to each other on the phone and came to an agreement in just 10 minutes. But it’s not always like that.
Case in point: In 2018 Chapman brought a suit for copyright infringement against Nicki Minaj.
The rapper had recorded a collaboration, titled “Sorry,” with fellow artist Nas, that had used Chapman’s 1988 track “Baby Can I Hold You” without Chapman’s permission. Although the Minaj track was never released, it was played on Hot 97 as well as a number of other outlets, and so audio for the song does exist online.
It wasn’t as though Minaj didn’t ask for Chapman’s permission to use “Baby Can I Hold You,” though — as have many others over the years, for one composition or another. She asked, and Chapman declined.
Minaj’s team persisted, however, and a Lena Dunham-style sit-down between the two artists was briefly touted, with Minaj herself admitting on Twitter that she was trying desperately to pull it off. In the end, however, Chapman never relented.
You’re unlikely to hear Chapman’s side of it anytime soon, though. The singer outright refuses to use social media, never discusses her private life, and rarely gives interviews. Instead, she spends much of her time engaging in quiet activism, often playing benefit gigs for causes dear to her heart. Don’t expect that to change anytime soon.