Talking about Tracy

Some things just define you; the music you listen to as a child is often one of them. For me, anyway. Maybe I was luckier than some – thanks to my parents, I was exposed to a large variety of truly great songs as a child. This wasn’t really intentional; my parents just listened to what they liked, and they happen to have really good taste. (Not that I liked all of it – I still don’t get the point of Mariza Koch.)

Most of my musical memories come from driving around Greece in our trusty old Ford Fiesta, often at night, the highway lights stretching into the distance, the dusty landscape disappearing into the dark. Sitting in the back seat, watching the landscape go by, with nothing in the world except the music and my thoughts and the slow days of summer… the memories are vivid, and some songs bring them back with heartbreaking clarity. This is one of them.

How much is this album responsible for who I am today? Tracy Chapman has made a lot of great music that I love, but that particular album was part of my childhood, part of my process of discovering what I believe in. All those songs – they shaped me. How could they not? How could you listen to a song like Behind the Wall and not be changed by it? How could you not be chilled to your soul by it? And know that something must be done, that we have to fight to make the world better than that?

A thousand pages of feminist scholarship couldn’t have done 0.1% of what that song accomplished.

Or take Why?, one of the simplest, most to-the-point songs about injustice I know:

Why do the babies starve when there’s enough food to feed the world? Why are the missiles called peacekeepers when they’re aimed to kill? Hearing these questions when I was young is one reason I’m making the games I’m making, writing the stories I’m writing. So is Mountains o’ Things.

And since I’m asking questions, isn’t it amazing, isn’t it glorious, that thanks to modern technology, a black woman from Ohio changed the life of a Greek/German boy half a world away? That the words and music she recorded on that first, self-titled album would shape the thoughts, language and beliefs of someone she’s never heard of? And to make the whole thing more wonderful, that said boy from Greece is only one of many affected in such a way?

Hearing Tracy Chapman’s voice does something to me. It reminds me of my childhood, but not in a hollow, overly sweet kind of way. It reminds me of long journeys through the night, of discovering that the world was big and complex and unfair – but also of discovering how powerful art could be, how it could lift you up and motivate you and change you. The songs on that album are as essential to who I am as my DNA is. In fact, far more so. I’m grateful for that.

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