Talking About Revolution

Tufts, President Lawrence S. Bacow presents Tufts graduate, singer songwriter and four time Grammy winner Tracy Chapman, with an honorary doctorate of Fine Arts during the universities 2004 commencement in Medford, MA. Recognizing her for social activism, music and community work.

Growing up in a poor, working class family, raised by a single mother in Cleveland, Ohio, Tracy Chapman began writing poetry at an early age, received her first guitar from her mother and as an 18 year old women took her folk-guitar and lyrical singer songwriter, socially conscious voice, driven by simple melodies and lyricism into Harvard Square, the Boston folk scene, and then on to a worldwide stage.

Winning A Better Chance (ABC) Scholarship to the prestigious Wooster School, a prep school in Danbury Connecticut, started Tracy Chapman’s road to the east coast. At the Wooster School she worked on developing her songwriter skills, playing at the schools’ coffee house and staring on the women’s basketball and soccer team. Several colleges recruited her as she approached graduation in 1982. She enrolls in Tufts in the fall and begins studying veterinary medicine, later switching academic majors to anthropology and ethnomusicology–the study of music from outside Western traditions.

As a Tufts student, Chapman gained a strong following in the numerous folk coffeehouses and clubs of Boston and nearby Cambridge, playing guitar and performing self-written acoustic songs. She performed at two local, well-known Cambridge coffee houses– the Passims, and the Nameless Coffee House. At Passims, Chapman played acoustical guitar and sang her songs in a poster filled, intimate lower street level setting, in which the audience surrounds the artist, sitting down at tables sipping coffee, tea and eating pastries. Around the corner, at the Nameless Coffee located in the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, Chapman sang and played guitar during an open mike session that would be very well received by the audience. At Tufts she records a set of demos at the college radio station. One of her fellow classmates, Brian Koppelman, hears her play and recommends her to his father, Charles Koppelman of SBK Publishing, formerly CBS music. In 1986, she graduates from Tufts and signs with SBK Publishing. Koppleman helped secure a management contract with Elliot Roberts, who previously worked with folk artist Joni Mitchell. Koppleman and Roberts helped Chapman sign with the New York-based Elektra records. Elektra helps Chapman to launch her national-international folk music career. Her self-titled debut album, simply called Tracy Chapman, was released in 1988 and met with success. This set of 11 songs produced by David Kershenbaum mixed her music sensibility and strong social conscious. The most famous hits being “Fast Car” and its predecessor “Talking Bout A Revolution.” The album was a smash hit on the Billboard music charts. She received seven Grammy nominations and won three: Best Artist, Best Contemporary Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal for Fast Car. Chapman continued her success with “Crossroards” her second album, selling 4 million copies and going Platinum.

Chapman is widely regarded as a political and socially active musician. Michel Martin of NPR interviewed Chapman in 2009, he asked: “how do you decide what you want to get involved in?” Chapman said: “Well, as you might imagine, I’m approached by lots of organizations and lots of people who want me to support their various charitable efforts in some way. And I look at those requests and I basically try to do what I can. And I have certain interest of my own, generally an interest in human rights, so that’s partly why I’ve supported Amnesty International for all these years. And as you probably know, it was because of the Amnesty International World Tour in 1988 that I was introduced to an international audience.” Chapman has performed a series of fundraising concerts for Amnesty International, including the Small Places Tour, which marked the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Peter Gabriel and U2’s The Edge joined with other performers to raise their voices in song-action in hundreds of concerts held around the world between 2008 and 2009.

Chapman said: “ I got to see some of the work that they were doing around the world when we kind of had that whirlwind tour. You know it was six weeks and going to every continent, every major city in the world. It was really quite amazing. So it’s humbling, really. I mean to see the scope of and the scale of some of these problems. In some cases you’re thinking that after you’ve made a certain amount of effort there would be obvious improvement, you know, obvious positive change. That sometimes doesn’t happen in the timeframe that you might expect or hope..“

Chapman has also been involved in the United States working with the Cleveland elementary school system. A music video produced by Chapman highlights significant achievements in African-American history and has become an important teaching tool in Cleveland Public Schools.

More recently, in 2004 Chapman performed (and rode) in the AIDSLifeCycle event, a fundraising bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles to raise donations and awareness for HIV and Aids services on the West Coast. Chapman also supports, amfAR, the Foundation of AIDS research. Chapman said in the English Guardian: “I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to do my work and be involved in certain organizations, certain endeavors, and offered some assistance in some way. Whether that is about raising money or helping to raise awareness, just being another body to show some force and conviction for a particular idea. Finding out where the need is – and if someone thinks you’re going to be helpful, then helping.”

-Robert Sondak

Robert Sondak is a vendor and a writer for Spare Change News.

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