Mavis Staples shares her concern about the decline of civil rights

Mavis Staples has a career that spans eight decades. In the 1950’s she began performing alongside her father Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples, and siblings Cleotha, Pervis and Yvonne, as the Staple Singers.

They began performing gospel music in churches in Chicago. Pops Staples had a close friendship with Dr Martin Luther King and the group became known for their songs about equality and freedom. They were the sound of the civil rights movement.

In the 1970’s the band topped the charts with hits including Respect Yourself, Let’s Do It Again, I’ll Take You There and If Your Ready (Come Go With Me). Later these tracks would often be sampled for hip-hop tunes created by artists including Salt n Pepa, Ludacris, John Legend, Easy-E and Big Daddy Kane.

In the late 1980’s Mavis began working with Prince. She appeared on his Graffiti Bridge album, and played the character Melody Cool in the accompanying feature film. Mavis also released two solo records on his Paisley Park label.

Over the decades Staples has never stopped making music, and well known songwriters line-up to collaborate with her. In recent years she’s made records with Norah Jones, Hozier, Gorillaz and Arcade Fire.

Her 2016 album Livin’ on a High Note saw acclaimed indie musicians lining up to write songs for the acclaimed singer. She recorded new tunes from Nick Cave, Justin Vernon, Neko Case, Benjamin Booker, Laura Veirs and Aloe Blacc.

In 2017 she released If All I Was Was Black, which saw her collaborate with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. For her most recent record she’s teamed up with Ben Harper. We Get By is a record filled with powerful messages and observations about the world today.

In 2019 Mavis Staples celebrated her 80th birthday, but the singer has no intentions of slowing down. In March she’ll be the final artist to take to the stage at the Chevron Lighthouse, closing the 2020 Perth Festival.

Graeme Watson spoke to Mavis Staples from her home in Chicago discussing her long career, collaborations and her thoughts on where America’s civil rights movement stands today.

“It got better for a while and we were doing just fine until this man in The White House came along.” Staples said of America’s journey to equality and acceptance.

“I really credit him with the rebirth of bigotry.” Staples said of US President Donald Trump. The singer shared her alarm at scenes of race rallies in Charlottesville in 2017.

“I call them Klansmen, you know when they were marching through Charlottesville… with their torches and white robes on. I looked at them, and they looked like intelligent college students, it didn’t look like the average person who would be doing that.

“Back in the day – they looked different, they looked like you expected them, they looked the part, but these were handsome young men marching with these torches. It got me scared, are they going to burn a torch, are the going to burn a cross next? I didn’t know what was going to come after that” Staples said.

“I’m glad that we still have some who are fighting for justice for the black man. It really really has come back, we had done very well with Dr King as our leader, we had done well and things had gotten so much better.”

Staples said current President Donald Trump was taking the nation backwards, but she’s confident that the vision of racial equality will win through in the long run.

“It’s a losing battle for the bigots. It makes me sad to see that that is still happening in our world today, in the 21st century, with all that we have been through, and all of the marchin’ and singin’ we did for justice and for our people.”

For her most recent album, the fourteen solo record she’s released, Staples opted not to have her photo on the cover of the record. Instead she opted for an image from photographer Gordon Parks. Outside Looking In is taken from his 1956 photo essay The Restraints: Open and Hidden.

“I chose that picture because that picture reminded me so much of myself and my sisters.” Staples said. “You got five little girls standing and the outside of a fence looking in. They want to be in it, they want to be in the park, they want to ride on the swing, and the slidin’ board and the see-saw.

Staples said the image reminded her of times she had her sisters would stand outside places they were not allowed to go into.

“My mother would have us in little dresses like that. We couldn’t go in the park. We couldn’t go on the grass, and we want to go on grass. We had no grass, our playground was a vacant lot, with dirt and rocks and glass, we couldn’t play on the grass.

“I was looking at them and I saw us.” Staples said.

Recent years has seen Staples record songs with a wide range of younger artists, and for her latest record Ben Harper wrote all the songs and produced the record.

She jokes that maybe she is getting a reputation as a serial collaborator.

“When I get an invitation to collaborate, mostly they are from my friends, and I know them, and they know me.”

“They know whatever the song is, whatever they want to me to sing, it’s got to fit me, or else I’m not going to try it, but I feel so good when they come to me and want me to sing with them.”

Staples said she embraces the challenges other artists bring to her, and notes that one recent collaboration made her stop and think before taking it on.

“When Hozier came with Nina Cried Power, I thought ‘Oh my God’ and I really had to lay back and listen to that song.  Whatever part you’re going to be singing on a song, you want to make it yours, you want me it belong and fit you.”

Staples said singing the tune with highlights the work of singer Nina Simone was a great honour, noting that she knew the late singer.

Now in her 80th year, Staples said she never imagined that at this point in her life she’s still be on tour and making more records than ever before.

“I really didn’t, I’m surprised at it myself.” she said. ‘Sometimes I say, ‘Lord, I’m still here, why I am still here?’

The singer has now plans to slow down anytime soon.

I don’t have any problems, I don’t have any problems with my voice, I’m still strong. I’m a ‘Golden Girl’ now, but people still want to hear me, and when I go out , my shows are sold out, and it’s unbelievable. Where I came from, singing my gospels songs with my family – and for me to still be here, and getting all of the honours that I’m getting.”

Staples says there’s nothing that she enjoys more than getting in front of a live audience and sharing music and important messages.

See Mavis Staples at the Perth Festival on March 1st. Tickets are on sale now

Listen to our entire phone chat with Mavis Staples where we chat about what it was like being in the studio with Prince recording Melody Cool. 

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