The Grammy stage lights came up, revealing one expected face, that of Luke Combs, who was up for an award for his cover of “Fast Car.”
But those lights also showed a surprise. Tracy Chapman, who wrote the song back in 1988, stood beside him, dressed all in black, bearing an acoustic guitar as she plucked the iconic opening notes of the song.
Chapman hadn’t been announced as a performer, and the audience roared its approval.
The two proceeded to play a beautiful duet of the song, trading lines and singing in harmony. It’s well worth a few minutes of your day to watch.
— Craig R. Brittain (@RealBrittain) February 5, 2024
The moment was great entertainment, but its meaning goes deeper than that.
Chapman is Black, queer woman. Combs is a white, male country singer. His rendition of “Fast Car” topped the country charts and even charted as high as No. 2 on Billboard’s all-genre Hot 100 chart, surpassing Chapman’s high of No. 6.
That’s inspired some controversy and mixed feelings. As the Washington Post reported in July:
“On one hand, Luke Combs is an amazing artist, and it’s great to see that someone in country music is influenced by a Black queer woman — that’s really exciting,” said Holly G, founder of the Black Opry, an organization for Black country music singers and fans. “But at the same time, it’s hard to really lean into that excitement knowing that Tracy Chapman would not be celebrated in the industry without that kind of middleman being a White man.”
Chapman had officially blessed the song with a statement earlier this year: “I never expected to find myself on the country charts, but I’m honored to be there. I’m happy for Luke and his success and grateful that new fans have found and embraced ‘Fast Car.’”
Why it matters: This performance was a savvy PR move for both Chapman and Combs — and the Grammys, of course.
Chapman’s brief statement was adequate to dispel some controversy, but appearing on stage showed her (literally) full-throated approval of the cover. It also gave Combs a chance to show her respect: She sang the first lines of the song and carried the bulk of the vocals. She accompanied on her guitar, playing the iconic melody. At the end of the piece, Combs made worshipful bowing motions while Chapman soaked in the applause from the industry’s biggest stars and beamed.
It also helped introduce Chapman to audience members who may not have been familiar with her and proved a financial windfall: Almost instantly after the performance, her version of the song and her debut album both topped the iTunes charts, NPR reported. She also receives royalties from Combs’ version.
Does this moment end the complex racial politics inherent in the American music scene? Certainly not. But both Chapman and Combs came out triumphant: Chapman through her willingness to step into the spotlight for a rare public appearance and Combs for his humility in acknowledging the woman responsible for his single’s success.
And we all got to hear a smashing performance.
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