Talkin’ Bout a Revolution (1988)

– Tracy Chapman –

In 1988, Tracy Chapman, being new to the American music industry, released “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution”. Thirty-two years after its arrival on the radios, the ideas expressed in it have never really been far from reality , and still echo the socio-economic situation of a majority of the population, not only of America but also internationally. 

However, before starting to analyse the message delivered in her song, we must first introduce Tracy Chapman. The one whom the experts often referred to as resembling “Black Dylan”1, is born in a rough neighbourhood of Chicago. It is a childhood marked by these poor backgrounds, like that of the majority of the Black-American community living in the US, which will permeate her music. Therefore, since her first album (Tracy Chapman, 1988) – an album containing the title “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” – Tracy Chapman is constructing a musical universe advocating a very dedicated commitment to the left of the political spectrum, denouncing racism, the condition of women, and poverty. 

A commitment that she continues to dedicate herself to this day  as the situation is far from having improved, if not regressed in view of the latest news that can be observed in the country of Uncle Sam. Listening to certain unacceptable remarks by their 45th president on women, immigrants and the disabled people, watching the “Black Lives Matter” movement, born of yet another police blunder against George Floyd, or even looking at the statistics of the victims of Covid-19 who are, overwhelmingly, Black Americans living in working-class suburbs: most of the commitments made by Tracy Chapman can still be found today. This song particularly highlights the reaction, the popular revolt against inequalities, in this case poverty. Reactions that can be traced to other themes, such as the anti-racist “BLM” movement, which is a perfect illustration.

Thus, putting forward the message expressed by Tracy Chapman, I would like to underline one thing: How, in the face of universal and timeless issues, such as poverty, can songs bear witness to popular methods of ending it? Indeed, it is interesting that what the singer says about  past events also applies in today’s world. She highlights the reaction of the population to extricate themselves from poverty, she shows how humans can (or must) become actors of their own destiny when inequalities become too strong.

“Poor people gonna rise up”

Reading “While they’re standing in the welfare lines, Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation, Wasting time in the unemployment lines, Sitting around waiting for a promotion”, Tracy Chapman questions the liberal American model which leaves part of the population in misery and especially the failure of the principle of the welfare state that is supposed to ensure solidarity and social justice. Tracy Chapman has two goals. First, she wants to sensitize public opinion to the existing problems in order to remove the prejudices that the upper classes have towards the popular classes. Her second goal was born out of this anger. She encourages the oppressed to stand up for their living conditions, to seek the goods that no one will give them. For her, eradicating poverty can only happen if the people concerned challenge the existing chessboard. She wants to give people the opportunity to become masters and mistresses of their own destiny, to free themselves from their chains in order to have a better life. She wants to instill hope in new generations, to tell them that change is possible.

Tracy Chapman was the revelation and spokesperson for an entire generation  who felt condemned by their birth in underprivileged backgrounds. For her, revolt is possible for the purpose of social change: it is necessary to create demonstrations, to show that one does not need to let go and to become an actor of one’s own condition.

What Tracy Chapman has been delivering is a universal message that is not limited to the American situation. It is apparent that the lyrics resonate on an international level and, very quickly, the song reached the top 40 in several countries. It was even performed during the concert for the release of Nelson Mandela on 11 June 1988, a symbol of resistance and improvement of the conditions of the black community. The event was broadcasted in 67 countries.

“Finally the tables are starting to turn

Talkin’ bout a revolution

So, is it really surprising that Tracy Chapman’s song was broadcast on radio during the “Arab Spring” of 2011? When you think about it, “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” includes in its lyrics  some of the reasons that led to these chain revolutions in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. A population that is evolving in difficult conditions, new generations that are fed-up and want to offer themselves a different future, one that is better than that of their parents and grandparents : it wouldn’t have been surprising to see the writing of “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” begin at this time.

The song was also chosen to be the unofficial campaign anthem of the U.S. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders in 2016, one of Donald Trump’s political opponents. Trump represents everything that Tracy Chapman rejects: explosion of inequalities, racism, degradation of women’s conditions and, above all, the impoverishment of the working classes. A situation that has led to demonstrations and revolts opposing two camps: the poorest populations, mainly from the Black community, against the upper classes, mainly white, who denigrate the rest of the population: everything that Tracy Chapman illustrates since 1988. The anger she expressed is still felt by her peers and leads to the same reactions as in her time.

Tracy Chapman has thus succeeded in composing a timeless song that is always listened to and associated with the current events of our time. The song presented above resembles other titles from her album such as “Mountains O’Things” or “From My Lover”, to which it is essential to listen in order to capture all of her talent and her commitment.

Translated by Iman Seepersad.

1 Referring to a well-known American singer, Bob Dylan.

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