“I decided if I want to continue to sing, which I love, I need to keep moving,” the singer and civil-rights activist Mavis Staples said.
By Elon Green | The Culture Desk – The New Yorker | September 11, 2017
The last eight months—roughly the amount of time since Donald J. Trump’s Inauguration—haven’t smothered Mavis Staples’s irrepressible optimism, but it’s been palpably tempered. She faced dark days even before the election in 2016, when Prince died that April. Staples’s feelings for Prince, her friend and onetime producer, bordered on maternal: he had two mothers, she once said, and she would e-mail him with the greeting “Hello, son!” “Oh, Lord, I miss Prince so much. I can hardly listen to him yet without breaking down,” she told me recently, briefly home from the road. Staples has photos of Prince in her house in Chicago, including a wall calendar from 1987 given to her by the man himself. “It’s from back in the day. But I keep it hanging and every month I change it.”
Prince’s love for the Staple Singers, the legendary gospel group, was genuine and deep. He opened his last concert, a week before he died, with “When Will We Be Paid,” a gorgeous, denunciatory song off the family’s 1970 album, “We’ll Get Over.” The lyrics catalogue the labor of black Americans (“We have worked this country from shore to shore / Our women cooked all your food and washed all your clothes”). When Pops Staples performed it, he would recall his grandfather, who had been a slave in Mississippi. Prince recorded “When Will We Be Paid” in October of 1999. He sent the track to Mavis, and she took the song to her father. Pops, who would be dead in a year, asked excitedly if Prince had really recorded it. “Yes, sir,” she said.
Staples’s forthcoming album, “If All I Was Was Black,” recalls the family’s civil-rights-era records. Like “Freedom Highway,” written by Pops following the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, the new songs are nakedly current. The album, recorded over a week in May with the aid of her frequent producer, Jeff Tweedy, of Wilco, is largely steeped in frustration. Staples’s voice has a strength and endurance not heard in years, owing in part to an exercise regimen begun in preparation for last December’s Kennedy Center Honors. “I decided if I want to continue to sing, which I love, I need to keep moving,” she said. Her road manager secured a trainer in Hyde Park, and now, three times a week, she walks on the treadmill and, adorned with pink boxing gloves, sweatily punches a heavy bag twenty or thirty times at a stretch.
The payoff is heard when Staples sings the first lines of the new album’s opening track, “Little Bit,” about an unnamed boy stopped by police. It effectively lays down a dark marker for the rest of the record:
This life surrounds you The guns are loaded This a kind of tension Hard not to notice . . . Poor kid they caught him Without his license That ain’t why they shot him They say he was fighting So That’s what we were told But we all know That ain’t how the story goes.
Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland loom over the record, even as they are unnamed. This is also true of Trump, though Staples doesn’t mind saying so. “He has brought so much hurt on us,” she said. “It seems that this man has brought a rebirth; the bigotry and hate has resurfaced through him.”
What Trump and his Administration have wrought is reminiscent of the turbulence of her youth, Staples said: “We’ve gone all the way back to the fifties and the sixties. This is the President of the United States! He’s supposed to bring joy and light and love to the world. It’s all backwards, it’s backwards.” Indeed, as voting rights are restricted and bigotry of all kinds is ascendant, Staples makes clear that her loyalty remains with the oppressed. In “Build a Bridge,” she and Tweedy give a nod to one of our era’s great activist movements:
When I say my life matters You can say yours does too But I betcha never have to remind anyone To look it at from your point of view.
Staples was in close proximity to the civil-rights movement—her father was a confidant of Martin Luther King, Jr., for whom the Staple Singers were often an opening act—but I didn’t take her support for Black Lives Matter as a given. After all, the movement has faced some criticism from the Old Guard. “You know, I feel good about it,” she said. “But I still say that all lives matter. When we were marching with Dr. King, there were black lives and there were white lives marching with us, too. I’m not just being sarcastic or biggity. Black lives matter to everyone, not just black people. People get that all twisted.”
But, I asked, isn’t “black lives matter” important to say? “That is very true. A lot of people don’t think that black lives matter,” she said, and recalled watching torch-wielding white supremacists march through Charlottesville, Virginia. “It brought back memories of the burning of the crosses. The only difference is they didn’t have the white sheets over their heads.”
“We’ve had it hard all our lives, you know. It’s still going on,” Staples said. She’d just seen a news report: black men are being incarcerated for minor offenses and remain so because they lack the money for bail. “The jails are just loaded with black guys!” she said. Amid such systemic institutional horror, Staples is upset that the words “black lives matter” have been misconstrued. She had hoped those words would be seen for what they are: a statement of black people’s humanity. “It made them think that’s all we care about—black. But I care about all lives. Everybody, to me, is the same,” she said.
As much as Staples does not like Trump, she adores Barack and Michelle Obama. She’s met the former President and First Lady several times, and credits them with introducing the country at large to blackness. For example, at the Kennedy Center Honors, Staples gave James Taylor dap. That’s something black people had been doing for years, Staples noted, but it was only when the Obamas did it that “the world knew about it.”
A famous line of Michelle Obama’s is the basis for the album’s eighth track, “We Go High.”
We go high When they go low I know they don’t know What they’re doing When they tell their lies Spread around rumors I know they’re still human And they need my love.
I want to believe this, I told Staples. But it seems, at least to me, that, for the better part of a year, people taking the high road have been crushed. “That’s true,” she said. “But, for us, we have to take the chance. If we’re going to get crushed, we’re going to get crushed. But we have to stand up for ourselves. We can’t just crumble, just go down because we’re treated that way. We have to be strong and stand tall.” That, she said, is what Michelle Obama meant.
Staples and Tweedy discussed having Michelle Obama record a spoken-word segment to “If All I Was Was Black,” but they never got around to it. They did, however, ask Chance the Rapper—a fellow Chicagoan—to contribute to the album, but he was too busy. “This little Chance the Rapper, he’s so hot. He wanted to, but he just can’t get time. He’s hot as a firecracker,” Staples said.
“If All I Was Was Black” is not bereft of uplifting tracks. “Peaceful Dream” is almost jaunty:
I had a simple dream My heart filled with hope A little more and again than the past And I may never know What broke those chains But if I don’t pass it on It won’t last.
The song is a throwback to the family’s old records, Staples said, noting the guitar licks that echo her dad’s on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” (“Everything is a conscious echo of Pops,” Tweedy confirmed.) She sang the last line to me over the phone: “Come and share my peaceful dream.” “Dream” was drawn out. “We used to end our songs with that slur,” she said.
Staples said she dreams all the time. “I have beautiful dreams. I dream of my father and my mother,” she said. Sometimes, when she awakens, she remembers nothing. But usually the dreams stay with her: “I wake up sometimes and I say, ‘Oh, my gosh, that was a good one.’ ”
The closing track is startling. On an album largely driven by Tweedy’s bass and percussion, his son Spencer’s drums, and Staples’s longtime coterie of backup musicians, she’s accompanied on “All Over Again” by not much more than an acoustic guitar. The song is short and melodically mournful. But the lyrics are not; they are the words of a woman satisfied with the trajectory of her life:
Time is slow And the world gets cold Sometimes I have regrets But I ain’t done yet I’d do it All over again.
With the caveat that art doesn’t necessarily imitate life, I asked Staples what, if any, were her regrets? Packing her luggage, she said. She’s always hated it, and often overpacks because she can’t decide what to take. Any other regrets? “Regrets of my love life,” she said. Like Bob Dylan? In 1963, Dylan proposed marriage and she declined. “Well, wait a minute!” she said. “I’ve been married and I’ve been divorced. I had quite a love life when I was a young lady.” But she allowed that, especially since touring with Dylan last year, she’s considered how her life could’ve gone: “I wonder how it would have been if I had married him. You know, that’s one of my regrets.” I offered that perhaps she’d dodged a bullet; Dylan, after all, was reportedly prone to infidelity. She laughed. “Don’t say that! Don’t say that! I told somebody, ‘The next time I see Bobby, I’m going to propose to him’. And he’ll probably tell me, ‘Get in line, Mavis.’ ”