Tracy Chapman's powerful voice makes folk music rock
Courtesy of Tracy Chapman Fans

When Tracy Chapman burst onto the scene in 1988, her soulful voice did the seemingly impossible. It made folk music cool.

Most female artists of the time were wearing bright red lipstick and singing about sex, and boys, and boys, and sex. But Tracy sang about poverty, and about saving the Earth. She wrote songs about matters of spirit and social issues. She delivered her folk-music lyrics with the powerful voice of a soul diva, and backed up her vocals with bluesy guitar riffs.

The resulting music was hypnotic and appealing. Right away, the world recognized that Tracy was something different. She was invited to perform her single, "Fast Car," at Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday tribute concert, and the song rapidly rose up the charts to number 6. "Fast Car" is one of Tracy's most enduring hits, ranked in Rolling Stone's top songs of all time at number 167, the highest position held by a song written and performed by a woman on the notoriously androgen-centric list.

Along with 10,000 Maniacs and REM, Chapman helped turn the musical tide of the late 80s toward socially-conscious material.

Tracy hasn't recorded a new album or toured in a while, but at age 50 she still has a strong fanbase and is still influential. Tracy currently serves on the 2014 Sundance Film Festival U.S. Documentary jury.