The Life and Career of Tracy Chapman, the Only Black Woman Ever to Have a Solo Writing Credit on a No. 1 Country Song with ‘Fast Car’

The Life and Career of Tracy Chapman, the Only Black Woman Ever to Have a Solo Writing Credit on a No. 1 Country Song with ‘Fast Car’

By Yoonji Han | November 9, 2023

  • Tracy Chapman is an American singer-songwriter with four Grammys under her belt.
  • Her song “Fast Car” gained renewed popularity this year after Luke Combs’ cover of the song went viral.
  • Chapman is now the only Black woman to ever have a solo writing credit on a No. 1 country song.

Tracy Chapman was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1964. She was raised by her mother, who bought her a ukulele when she was 3 years old, and began playing guitar and writing songs at age 8.

Chapman’s parents divorced when she was 4 years old. She says she may have been first inspired to play the guitar by country variety show “Hee Haw.”

Chapman grew up during a time when racial tensions were high, and endured racial abuse and assaults on her way home from school. She saw education as her “way out of Cleveland, and out of poverty.”

“The city had been forced to integrate the schools so they were bussing Black children into white neighborhoods, and white children into Black neighborhoods, and people were upset about it so there were race riots,” Chapman told the Guardian in 2008.

Chapman, who said she “always loved school,” won a scholarship to a private boarding school in Connecticut when she was 16 years old. She went to Tufts University for college, where she studied anthropology with an emphasis on West African cultures.

After Chapman graduated from college, she signed a contract with Elektra Records, a prominent label that played a crucial role in the development of contemporary folk and rock music between the 1950s and 70s. Her debut album, “Tracy Chapman,” was an instant hit, selling 6 million copies in the US alone.

In college, Chapman performed her own songs in coffee houses and on street corners. A classmate, Brian Koppelman, approached her after hearing her play and introduced her to his father, Charles Koppelman, the head of one of the largest music publishing companies. Koppelman facilitated the recording contract with Elektra Records.

The singer-songwriter skyrocketed to global fame when she performed “Fast Car” at the televised Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert in London in June 1988. It was a stroke of luck: Chapman was a last-minute stand-in for Stevie Wonder, who ran into technical difficulties.

“Fast Car,” a song about ruminating on escape, 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.”

A private person, Chapman doesn’t share much about her personal life. But writer Alice Walker shared that she and Chapman were in a romantic relationship during the mid-1990s.

Chapman has won four Grammys, including for Best New Artist in 1989. Of her eight studio albums, four are certified platinum and two are gold.

A political and social activist, Chapman has performed at various concerts supporting human rights, AIDS, and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

“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,” Chapman told the Guardian in 2002.

Chapman received honorary doctorates from Saint Xavier University and her alma mater, Tufts University, for her social activism. 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.”

This year, country music star Luke Combs’ cover of “Fast Car” went viral. In July 2023, it reached No. 1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart. Chapman, who wrote “Fast Car” by herself, is now the only Black woman to ever have a solo writing credit on a No. 1 country song.

Other artists, like Sam Smith, Justin Bieber, and Khalid have also covered “Fast Car.”

Listener response to the achievement has varied: While many are thrilled “Fast Car” is back in the spotlight, some are troubled by the fact that it was Combs, not Chapman, who catapulted the song to modern fame. Chapman herself has voiced support for Combs’ cover.

“I never expected to find myself on the country charts, but I’m honored to be there,” Chapman told Billboard. “I’m happy for Luke and his success and grateful that new fans have found and embraced ‘Fast Car.'”

On November 8, Chapman became the first Black songwriter to win song of the year at the Country Music Awards.

She won the honor 35 years after the song was originally released.

Chapman did not attend the ceremony, but instead shared a statement read onstage by presenter Sarah Evans. In her statement, she said, “It’s truly an honor for my song to be newly recognized after 35 years of its debut. Thank you to the C.M.A.s and a special thanks to Luke and all of the fans of ‘Fast Car.’”

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