Tracy Chapman and Folk Music

By Claire Jackson

Early Life

Tracy Chapman was born in Cleveland, Ohio on March 30th, 1964. When she was 4, her parents divorced and she was raised by her mother who bought her her first instrument, a ukulele, at a young age. By the time she was 8, Chapman was already writing songs and music. 


As Chapman grew up, and attended boarding and other elite, predominantly white schools, the divide between the way the wealthy live and the way she grew up became apparent to her, and would eventually become a topic of her lyrics. She was able to attend these schools through President Kennedy’s “A Better Chance” program, which Chapman described as a “saving grace” due to the fact Cleveland public schools were not providing the tools and education children needed.


Chapman eventually went to Tufts University, majoring in African Studies and Anthropology. The education she received along with her experiences as a economical lower class Black Woman influenced her point of view and the music she eventually created greatly.

As a Folk Artist

Folk Music has many definitions. One includes: music that is transmitted orally and typically of unknown authorship, and originates in traditional popular culture and will be written in the style of the popular culture. Lyrics often include stories of personal plight and triumph, or a relatable narrative that the people can associate with.


Chapman released her first album and the lead single, “Fast Car,” in 1988. “Fast Car” was especially popular, the lyrics that depict wistful yearning for a better life proving to be relatable to many. In addition to lyrical activism and visibility, Chapman paved the way for a “women’s movement” along with charity work such as Amnesty International tours and celebrations in honor of Nelson Mandela. She also became an icon due to her appearance that was different than the glamorous pop norm.


As Chapman continued to grow as an artist and her career progressed, it is noted that her style and way of dress was against the norms expected from a celebrity of her caliber and beauty interpreted from white imperialism. In this manor of natural appearance and a diverging path from 1980’s glitz and glam, her music emphasized and the message was more clearly received.


Chapman, along like many other folk artists, utilize their music to express a narrative and an experience, one that is not always positive. The lyrics incite emotions in listeners and depict a story, something Chapman did incredible well and is the reason for her great acclaim along with her great musical talent.


Career Success

Throughout her career, Tracy Chapman has become a multi-platinum selling artist with 4 Grammy awards and even mire nominations. She has released 6 studio albums, and made a great impact on the Folk genre and the expression of Black womanhood through music.


Works Cited



Jenkins, Rashida Quiett. The Songs of Black (Women) Folk: Music, Politics, and Everyday Living


“Tracy Chapman.”, A&E Networks Television, 20 Sept. 2019, 


“Tracy Chapman.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Jan. 2021,,time%20Grammy%20Award%E2%80%93winning%20artist.&text=Since%20then%2C%20Chapman%20has%20experienced,%22Give%20Me%20One%20Reason%22.

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