Like many fellow members of Generation X, I welcomed the chance to see Tracy Chapman return to the stage to sing “Fast Car,” one of the most affecting songs of our generation at the Grammys this past weekend. From the opening refrain, Chapman had us transfixed and we sang along as if three and a half decades hadn’t gone by. We were transported to the first time we heard it on the radio, or on cassette tape, or on vinyl.
But this moment of nostalgia was different because Chapman didn’t return to the stage alone. She now shared the stage with country music singer Luke Combs, who released his cover of “Fast Car” in 2023, garnering a lot of public and critical praise in the country music realm, and making Chapman the first Black woman and first Black songwriter to win a Country Music Award. In truth, while others were celebrating, I was a bit circumspect. On one level, I believe most anyone can cover most any song. But “Fast Car,” is not any song and Tracy Chapman is a singular artist.
For me “Fast Car” is a powerful and poignant song that conveys the devastation of intergenerational trauma caused by the twin evils of racism and classism better than all the 300-page tomes I’ve read. I’m not a fan of country music, mostly because — with the exception of a few artists like Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and more recently Jason Isbell and Kacey Musgraves — I haven’t found it to be a genre that makes space for people who aren’t white and Christian, and I’m neither. I didn’t love Combs’s version of “Fast Car” but I didn’t hate it either.
Despite, or because of, its compassionate lyrics about wanting to escape our circumstances and “be someone,” millions of us saw ourselves in the lyrics of “Fast Car” even if we were upwardly mobile kids of immigrants who didn’t want to follow our parents’ tried and true path to economic stability and social status as doctors. So, I can completely understand if a white male country music star who grew up of humble means found himself in the lyrics of this song. And as someone who has worked in racial justice and written about issues of equity, I can acknowledge that while we haven’t talked nearly enough about the impact of racism on every facet of life in this country, we’ve also not talked enough about the betrayal of poor white people by rich white capitalists. But to me, this song will always truly be about the entrenched and inescapable harm of American racism and capitalism on generations of Black people.
As Luke Combs’s cover of “Fast Car” climbed the country music charts, I was insulted by online chatter that characterized Combs as resurrecting Chapman’s song and Chapman, herself, from obscurity. In truth, “Fast Car,” is as relevant today as it was when it was first released and has never left rotation for me, even as the technology for listening to music changed. And Combs didn’t rescue Chapman from obscurity, just as David Letterman who featured Chapman as his final musical guest on the “Late Night” show didn’t rescue her. Chapman had chosen a life of solitude after many years of playing the music she wanted to make about pushing back against the forces of poverty, racism, and capitalism.
Others have applauded the idea of this Black female folk singer’s song being reinvigorated decades later by a white male country singer, claiming that it shows not only music’s transcendence but our own, as a society. This sentiment was echoed over and over again in think pieces following Chapman and Combs’s “Fast Car” duet at the Grammys, which characterized their duet as a moment of unity and harmony in our divided nation.
I don’t want to pierce through the veil of a “feel good” moment. I love them too, especially given how few and far between they are in our ravaged world. However, I feel compelled to point out that when white people talk about “harmony” and “unity,” it’s usually on their terms and timeline. These beautiful, powerful words have been co-opted by white conservatives and white liberals alike to essentially mean assimilation and capitulation by Black people and people of color so as not to disrupt the white capitalist power structure.
To be clear, I’m all for the love and new audiences finding their way to Tracy Chapman’s music in this moment. But it’s not lost on me that this is coming more than three decades later, only after this phenomenal song by a once-in-a-generation Black, queer female singer songwriter, who sang of revolution and the devastation of poverty, is covered by a white male country singer in a moment where white voters are leaning towards voting for a vengeful, racist, capitalist fraud like Trump, again—this time with their eyes wide open. Underneath the nostalgia and good feelings of this moment, we must acknowledge there’s nothing harmonious about listening to “Fast Car,” but doing nothing to change things. If not now, then when?
Kavita Das came to writing ten years ago after working for social change and social justice for fifteen years. She writes about culture, race, gender, and their intersections. Nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Kavita’s work has been published in WIRED, CNN, Teen Vogue, Catapult, Fast Company, Tin House, Longreads, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, Kenyon Review, NBC News Asian America, Guernica, Electric Literature, Poets & Writers, Colorlines, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Kavita’s second book Craft and Conscience: How to Write About Social Issues (Beacon Press, October 2022) is inspired by the Writing with Conscience class she created and teaches. Her first book, Poignant Song: The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar, was published by Harper Collins India in 2019. In the real world, she lives in New York with her husband, toddler, and hound. And in the virtual world, she can be found on Twitter: @kavitamix and Instagram: @kavitadas and at kavitadas.com.