Current Issue #488

Mavis Staples:
A change is gonna come

Mavis Staples
Myriam Santos
Mavis Staples

The bona fide gospel legend and civil rights icon Mavis Staples is on her way back to South Australia for WOMADelaide 2020, and we’d better have some lemonade ready.

Mavis Staples is 80 years old.

An artists’ age is generally not germane to a discussion about what they’re doing, but in this case it’s instructive. And that’s because she’s not just soul and gospel music royalty – born into the legendary Staple Singers, daughter of Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples, with a catalogue which stretches back into the 1950s – but because she has been at the frontline of the struggle for civil rights in the US. The Staples Singers were the house band for Martin Luther King Jr and soundtracked the long, hard fight for African-American people to live without discrimination in their own country. And you’ve probably noticed that the fight for racial equality, civil rights and basic human respect has taken something of a hit since that election in 2016.

But if you’ve thought that Staples would have left the fight, then you’d be sorely mistaken. In May 2019 she released the fiery We Get By, an album written and produced for her by Ben Harper, which is both a beacon of hope and a call for action in the Trump era. And she’ll be bringing it and her considerable catalogue to WOMADelaide in a city about which she has especially fond memories.

“I remember Adelaide! I could not pronounce it the first time we came there,” she laughs uproariously down the phone line from her home in Chicago. “I was trying to talk to the audience and I said ‘I’m so happy to be here in…’ and finally I just said ‘…in Lemonade!’ And boy, the people they just cracked up! They had a fit! So yes, we have a history.”

With the impeachment of Donald Trump gathering steam the themes of We Get By seem pretty much ripped from the headlines, raising the eerie possibility that Harper is a soothsayer. Certainly it captures the mood of the times in a very specific way.

“Oh, it does, it does, and that’s exactly what we wanted. When we went in the studio that guy was on everybody’s mind, the guy in the White House, and we needed these songs, we needed this message to send out to the people, to make a believer out of them that it can get better if we be close and love one another,” she says, with emphasis. “You pass somebody on the street and you just smile, that can do so much. You never know what the person is going through and maybe they need a smile. And Ben Harper, his lyrics are so strong and powerful and meaningful, and we want people to hear these lyrics and believe ‘em and start living ‘em.”

Staples, you see, has hope – but she also knows that hope is nothing without action and that right now we need both, in unfailingly large supplies.

“That’s why I sing these songs, these message songs, because all these years I’ve been singing, that’s my desire: to try to help, to bring people together, and all this shootin’ and killin’, it’s a different thing going on than was happening in the sixties, and I credit this man for starting all this bigotry all over again. It had calmed down, it was better, and now you have college students marching with torches [at white rallies], high schoolers making hangin’ nooses, that really got to me. I was like ‘are they gonna burn crosses next?’ And when I do my shows I talk about it. I let the people know, we got work to do.”

She chuckles wickedly. “And sometimes I go too far and say ‘I’m gonna go up to that White House and I’m gonna slap that guy around!’ We’ve come all the way from the 50s and the 60s and I can’t give up now! As long as I have my health, my spirit and my voice I’m gonna be putting it out there in my songs. And I hope it matters to some people.”

While Harper is her most recent collaborator, Staples has always been beloved by groundbreaking artists. Bob Dylan legendarily asked for her hand in marriage, and Prince wrote an entire album for her in the 80s. In recent times she’s had songs composed for her by everyone from Neko Case and M. Ward to Funkadelic’s George Clinton and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy (with whom she’s made three albums to date). Given the calibre of artists that have written for her, has she ever had to say to someone “sorry, this tune isn’t up to scratch?”

“Well, Ben did come in with one called Adelaide,” she slyly responds. “And I said ‘well look, I’ll sing this but I’ll have to change the words to Lemonade.’”

Mavis Staples will perform at WOMADelaide on Monday 9 March

6 – 9 March

WOMADelaide 2020

Andrew P Street

Andrew P Street

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Andrew P Street is a freelance writer whose books include The Short And Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign Of Captain Abbott (2015) and The Long And Winding Way To The Top (2017).

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