Music News


Tracy Chapman is not black for the same reason New Kids on the Block are black. In the music industry, cigar-chompers, not chromosomes, decide the ebony-or-ivory question. They've determined that R&B--yes, even New Kids' R&B--is black and that contemporary folk is "un-black."

Of course, if Chapman were to change her stage name to MC Tracy and trade her acoustic guitar for a couple of turntables or a synth and a drum machine, she'd be the blackest woman in the biz. Songs like "Freedom Now," "Born to Fight," and "All That You Have Is Your Soul" would be scaling the black charts.

Instead, blacks buy more New Kids albums than they do Tracy Chapman records. Chapman performs in places where there are often not many more blacks in the audience than on-stage. And everyone knows why.

For one thing, there's Chuck D's aforementioned theory: No matter how hard-core Chapman's protest lyrics are, Chuck implies, they're not going to move black people unless she packages them in a black radio-ready style. But the black-musical-conscience-of-white-America doesn't buy the black-musical-conscience-of-black-America's explanation. "I'm upset by what has been said because it doesn't speak well of black people," Chapman told Time in a recent interview. "You know, it basically says black people don't respond to music in a cerebral manner to music, and that's just not true."

Then there's the psychological theory: White liberal yuppies have made Chapman their champion because her politically correct folk songs make overtures to their own socially responsible guilty consciences. Even better, they can listen to Chapman sing about doing the right thing in the comfort of their own BMWs or living rooms.

Finally, we come to the exposure theory: Black radio does not care to make sure its listeners know there's someone named Tracy Chapman. While her record label, pop radio, album-rock radio, alternative radio, VH1, MTV, and Rolling Stone--all white-dominated media--have been busy turning Chapman into an upper-class household word, black radio has all but ignored her. There's been virtually no space for Chapman in a format that won't give a song the time of day if isn't R&B, dance-oriented, or hip-hop. Of the five singles Chapman's released so far, only one--"Talkin' Bout a Revolution"--has made it onto Billboard's black singles chart. The song barely scratched the surface, however, making it to No. 78 before fizzling out.

"With every new release, they try to push Tracy to black radio," says a spokesman for Chapman's Elektra Records label of efforts by the company's promotion team. "They've always just come up against such a roadblock.

"There are a number of black artists now that don't get the kind of recognition they deserve in the black community," adds the spokesman, who asked not to be further identified. "You don't hear Robert Cray or Living Colour on black radio. We have an artist named Ernie Isley. Same thing. He has a very bluesy, Hendrix-y influence, and black radio won't touch him at all. It's obviously a big problem. Now that more black artists are moving into folk, rock and Third World music, it's important they get the same recognition in their own community that Bobby Brown and Luther Vandross get."

Given black radio's reluctance to air Chapman--and the liberal lyricist's equal resistance to fit a pop formula--it's doubtful that many blacks will be hit over the head with her songs 35 times, let alone 35,000.

Nevertheless, Chapman has declared that she refuses to be shut off from black listeners or be told that she's a strictly white phenomenon.

In October, when her new album Crossroads was released, Chapman hinted she wasn't altogether thrilled about being turned into a compact-disc conscience for the millions of whites who bought her debut album.

On the Crossroads song "Born to Fight," Chapman sang, "They're tryin' to hurt me inside/And make me into a white man's drone/But this one's not for sale."

Another track, "Material World," had Chapman specifically addressing a black audience for the first time. In a stinging indictment of opportunistic buppies, Chapman wailed, "Call it upward mobility/But you've been sold down the river/Just another form of slavery/And the whole manmade white world/Is your master."

Shortly after Crossroads was released, Chapman's Elektra Records label tried to help get her new tunes across to black listeners by taking out a full-page ad in Billboard. Placed directly across from the magazine's black singles chart, the Crossroads plug seemed to admonish black-music execs for their ultraconservative formatting decisions while at the same time picking at their consciences. "BLACK MUSIC IS MORE THAN RHYTHM & BLUES," the ad trumpeted. "THERE'S A WHOLE GENERATION STANDING AT THE CROSSROADS. DELIVER THE MESSAGE."

A few months ago, a public relations team was even hired to help sell Chapman to a larger segment of the African-American community. The Chapman campaign, titled "Crossroads in Black History," included a high school essay contest and a video in which the folk-rock star answered black students' questions. On the same film, she talked about the video for her single "Born to Fight," which was directed by Spike Lee and documents the work of blacks including Rosa Parks and Malcolm X.

Elektra also thought "Born to Fight" would finally get mass black audiences hip to the singer-songwriter. "A concerted effort is being made to make radio part of the marketing mix and to put some familiarity between Tracy and the black community," Elektra black music VP Doug Daniels was quoted as saying in Billboard back in January when the single was released. "I don't think the whole album will work with black radio, but the single will."

As anyone who's listened to "Born to Fight" no doubt knows, Daniels' prediction was almost laughable. The song, an up-tempo rural blues with muted trumpet fills, would clash bizarrely against the disco and soul sounds of black radio airwaves. Needless to say, "Born to Fight" never made it onto Billboard's black singles chart.

At this point, reaching a mass black audience appears to be a no-win situation for Chapman. She could make the stylistic compromises necessary to rate airtime on black radio and be accused of selling out by critics who salivate over her acoustic-based sound.

Or, she could hope that black radio will take its blinders off and offer her more than just a trial position in the mail-room portion of the charts. Of course, as long as Janet Jackson and Babyface are setting the standards, she'll be waiting a long time for an opening. Tracy Chapman will perform at the Mesa Amphitheatre on Tuesday, May 22. Show time is 7:30 p.m.

No matter how hard-core her protest lyrics are, Chuck D implies, they're not going to move black people unless she packages them in a black radio-ready style.

Chapman wasn't thrilled about being turned into a compact-disc conscience for the millions of whites who bought her debut album.


KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
David Koen