Tracy Chapman's Quiet Power + a Thank You
The "Fast Car" singer's performance with Luke Combs at the GRAMMY's on Sunday highlighted the diversity of styles that exist within Blackness.
It’s been 5 days since the GRAMMY awards performance that I think the whole world needed. Plenty of people have said on Twitter that seeing an odd-couple like Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs on stage was a big reason why the performance was so touching, but I think it’s a lot bigger than just seeing a Black woman and a white man performing together.
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The performance is available online in a variety of low quality rips (Why the GRAMMY’s wouldn’t post the video themselves, I’ll never know). But what stood out to me the most was how different Tracy Chapman is and is allowed to be from what is sort of the standard Black performer in Hollywood these days.
And before anyone takes offense, I have nothing but love for Black women in Hollywood. It’s a weird place, and one where a lack of diversity at the top often results a lack of understanding of all the possibilities of Blackness on-screen. And I focus specifically on Black women, because Black men obviously get more space to be how they want to be. Dennis Rodman, Tyler the Creator, Andre 3000…these are people who come to mind, who aren’t being forced into a box.
And while people like Missy Elliott and Tierra Whack have found success, Hollywood generally doesn’t hold that many different kinds of Black womanness in high esteem.
Tracy Chapman is a Gen X darling. The lore of her first single is pretty great, but if you hadn’t heard, basically Stevie Wonder’s tech for a performance at Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday celebration at Wembley was failing, and so in a last minute switch to entertain the enormous crowd, Tracy was sent out to buy some time.
This quiet, acoustic, unassuming performance drove “Fast Car” up the charts. That debut album went on to win Chapman Best New Artist, Best Female Pop Vocals, and Best Contemporary Folk Album at the ‘89 Grammy Awards.
Okay, lemme cut to the chase; A long time ago I auditioned for The Nightly Show, Larry Wilmore’s short-lived comedy/politics show that followed The Daily Show on Comedy Central. They were looking for comedians to be panelists and so in the audition, we were thrust into groups of 3s to talk about pop culture, politics and more.
Every time the producers would give us a topic, all the comedians would just sort of start yelling, desperate, clawing and clamoring for attention. I imagined myself as a viewer, feeling my blood pressure rise as no one said anything important, but they sure were loud. I got a few words in, but then there was shouting and theatrics, which works for Real Housewives franchises, but not nuanced conversations about serious topics.
A producer pulled me aside and was like “get in there! Be sassy!” But that is not at all my style. Also, before you ask, he was and I did clock “sassy” as a microaggression. But anyway, it’s not the first time in my career that I’ve heard something like that. I was pitching a show that I did eventually sell, a sketch comedy series, and one production company didn’t want to meet with us because (and this got back to me, he didn’t say it to my face), “Akilah has low energy.”
When I tell people who’ve known me for years that this was the assessment of a decision maker with power in Hollywood, their reaction is always, “okay so he hasn’t met you.” My delivery and comedy is not especially frantic, but I’m naturally very bubbly. My actual strength is that I listen to what other people are saying, and usually have a good one liner that throws people off. But he saw that I wasn’t a TikTok star, I wasn’t dancing or screaming, my glam was toned down, and decided that I wasn’t exciting enough to hear a pitch from.
Months later, once we had sold the show, this same executive rushed to have a meeting with me—that I took on zoom, while laying down in bed to really drive home my low energy status.
I digress, the point is, when I saw Tracy and Luke together I cried. Her vocals and guitar performance is still top notch. I was disarmed by her small, surprised smile when the audience erupted upon hearing the first few notes she played. When Luke was lip-syncing as she did her part of their duet like a real fan, it was touching. She’s a legend, and not a super public one. Not an incredibly loud one. And aside from everyone noticing how annoying Taylor Swift was being all night, it’s the main thing people are still discussing a few days later. She didn’t have to be loud. She was talented, and she shared her gift, and it was powerful. Her songwriting is inspiring and at a higher level than we saw celebrated most of the night.
And obviously as I keep lamenting the slowdown in the entertainment business and how unmoored I feel these days, I can’t help but think that Hollywood could use a major refresh. Not just by hiring me, obviously, lol, but in letting different kinds of talent in. The media’s box for Black women is so small and suffocating, and when you’re not winning, it can be enticing to make yourself more of what sells. More dramatic. Louder. Playing into stereotypes. Doing what everyone is doing. But then there’s Tracy Chapman, doing her own thing, for decades, not caring if we are all up in her business or not. Without an ounce of desperation. She looked so free.
I hope when the opportunities thaw out there’s more space for artists who break the mold. We are in such a cultural rut. And when I think about the artists, dead and alive, who became legends in their originality, I realize that what I miss most about them is that they weren’t like anybody who is out now. They were inspired by other artists, but so rarely derivative. And that’s what I think we are all craving.
Okay, one last thing before I sign off: Thank you so much to everyone who read my last post, shared it, donated, signed up for a monthly or yearly subscription to this substack, called, emailed, texted, etc.,. It has been so helpful and heartwarming to be taken care of and looked after. I’m still figuring out what I will do in the next few months, but at least now I have some space to figure it out. I wish we were all so lucky. Everyone needs this. But all I can say at this point is thank you for loving and supporting me this much. I won’t let y’all down. <3
Have a good weekend, more next week!