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'Fast Car' to Music Fame: The Trailblazing Career of Tracy Chapman

As she enters her 60s, the folk singer continues to inspire us with her soulful performances.

Naomi Chadderton
Naomi Chadderton
An experienced editor and journalist specialising in news and lifestyle.

In the tapestry of contemporary music, few voices resonate as profoundly as Tracy Chapman's. With a voice of experience and soulfulness, hers is a career marked by triumph over adversity, artistic brilliance and a commitment to humanitarian causes. And one we can all learn from.

Gifted Child

Born on March 30, 1964, in Cleveland, Ohio, Chapman was raised by her social worker mother, who bought her a ukulele when she was just three years old. The budding artist began playing guitar and writing songs at the age of eight and, despite facing adversity in her childhood - she grew up during a time when racial tensions were high and would endure racial abuse and assaults on her way home from school - she found solace in music, immersing herself in the world of folk and blues.

The singer, who said she "always loved school", won a scholarship to a private boarding school in Connecticut when she was 16 years old, where she pursued her passion for music with unwavering determination. It was during her time at Tufts University, however, that her musical journey began to take shape.

Tracy Chapman performs at a TED conference in 2007.
Tracy Chapman performs in Budapest, Hungary in 1988.

Luck and Triumph at Wembley

In 1986, when Chapman was just 22, her self-titled debut album burst onto the music scene with the force of a revelation. It was this album that featured the iconic hit single Fast Car, which propelled her to fame after she performed it at the Mandela concert at Wembley Stadium in London in June 1988. This was a stroke of luck, with Chapman being a last-minute stand-in for Stevie Wonder, who ran into technical difficulties.

The song became a No. 6 pop hit on the Billboard Hot 100 list in August 1988 and won a Grammy in 1989. Rolling Stone magazine ranked the song No. 167 on their 2010 list of 'The Greatest Songs of All Time' and, to this day, she is the only black woman ever to have a solo writing credit on a No. 1 country song.

Since then, Chapman has released seven additional studio albums, with her most recent, Our Bright Future (2008), receiving critical acclaim - including a nomination for best contemporary folk album at the 2010 Grammys.

Rare Performances Go Viral

While she has barely performed publically for the last decade, her performance of Ben E King's Stand By Me on US talk show host David Letterman's final show in 2015 went viral.

She also hit the headlines at the 2024 Grammys. Following the success of Luke Combs’ cover of Fast Car, she teamed up with the country star on stage at the awards ceremony for a rendition of her classic ode to unfulfilled dreams, in one of the most emotional moments of the evening.

Eager fans were quick to point out that her jet-black hair of yesteryear was now adorned with grey, showing that she is embracing age with attitude.

In the previous year, Chapman won the Country Music Award's Song of the Year Award, while Luke Combs won Single of the Year for the song.

Tracy Chapman: Social Activist

Beyond her music, Tracy Chapman is also known for her philanthropic endeavours and, as a political and social activist, she has performed at various concerts supporting human rights, AIDS and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

Her commitment to making a positive impact on the world extends beyond the stage, as she continues to use her influence to effect meaningful change in communities around the globe, and in her own home town of Cleveland. Recognising her dedication, she has received honorary doctorates from Saint Xavier University and her alma mater, Tufts University, for her social activism while, on April 16, 2023, the South African presidency bestowed a National Order on Chapman "for her contribution to the fight for freedom by participating in efforts to free Nelson Mandela and raising awareness of human rights violations globally".

Inspiring New Generations With Her Music

Chapman's life and career demonstrate the power of resilience, creativity, and compassion. From her humble beginnings to her status as a musical icon, she continues to inspire new generations with her timeless music and commitment to social justice.

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