TALKIN’ BOUT A REVOLUTION (and it sounds like a song)
Charlotte dent offers a nostalgic review of her favourite childhood music and how it has developed into what it is now.
A black silhouette of voluptuous lips and the sound of an otherworldly voice – strong but also delicate – sings acapella into a microphone. A sound that is courageously clear, that trembles with silvery emotion, swells to a reverberating height, then shrinks on the murmured word “whisper”.
Watching Tracy Chapman singing ‘Talkin’ Bout a Revolution’ on Late Night with Seth Myers transported me suddenly back to a childhood spent wondering if the voice echoing plaintively out of my mother’s car stereo was male, female or angelic. During one of these journeys, my mum told me wistfully that Chapman rarely performed live, and explained that when she did, it was usually purposeful.
Nothing about the US presidential election struck me quite so much as this video did. I felt its great significance; Chapman was speaking out. This time, the message was worked into the final words of the song, when ‘oh no’ slipped seamlessly into ‘go vote’.
If I’m ever feeling nostalgic, I listen to Chapman until the undulating tones soften into leather seats, the warmth of sunlight through glass and confusion as to whether “Revolutionsounds” is a compound word. At the age of 6, I didn’t pick up on the political and social activism that pulses through Chapman’s debut album, or attempt to solve the riddle of who exactly was ‘screaming […] behind the door’. The words were just music, and the music was good.
It was only when I watched Chapman’s recent performance that I understood the significance of her activism, and realised its contemporary pertinence. “Across The Lines” could be superimposed onto the racial violence in America today. “The riots […] on the back streets of America” Chapman witnessed in her hometown of Cleveland in the early 70s could be about Portland in June. Nevaeh Thomas, the 11 year old black girl from Kansas who was seriously injured in a racist attack on 28th August, could just as easily be the song’s “little black girl [who] gets assaulted”. The lyric “knives and guns are drawn” is reminiscent of a news report about a Trump rally. That oscillating murmur, in which the words “racist tempers fly” are slipped soberly into the song, may as well be the Proud Boy’s emblem.
Chapman’s album, released in 1988, is a marker of how far liberation movements still have to come in their struggle against violence and fight for equal rights. “Behind The Wall”, the song in which Chapman’s unaccompanied voice hauntingly moans “last night I heard the screaming”, reverberates off the recent domestic violence statics, in which reports have found a “conspicuously steep” increase in killings during the first lockdown”.
“Why?” also comments on this great injustice, asking “Why is a woman still not safe/When she’s in her home”,while insisting that those “who seek the truth” will prosper over brutality. The song hopefully awaits this moment and assures us that the “time is coming soon”.
Chapman’s voice rails against oppression, a rallying cry which transcends time by singing for the marginalised urban underbelly.
In her performance on 2nd November, her lyrics told America to “rise up / get their share”. When I hear “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” now, it takes on a new meaning. “Finally the tables are starting to turn” shows me a hope-filled vision of the future Chapman helped to foster; one in which an orange man with yellow hair exits a large white building, and a woman with black skin enters it.