When talking about Mavis Staples, it’s hard to decide what to focus on. The fact that she marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the sixties might be a good place to start. Or maybe that she rejected a marriage proposal from Bob Dylan in her youth. Or that she has appeared in a slew of television shows and films, including Prince’s Graffiti Bridge, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, and The Cosby Show. Despite all these impressive feats, Staple’s ultimate legacy is her music. Of course, you cannot talk about her music without talking about her activism.
Staples got her start as one-fourth of the iconic family band, The Staples Singers. Comprised of father Roebuck “Pops” Staples and his three daughters, Yvonne, Cleotha and, of course, Mavis, the group began performing in churches around Chicago in 1948. In 1952, they signed a record deal. Their popularity quickly grew and by the sixties, they were a household name. At the same time, the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum. Like many Americans nationwide, the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. had a powerful effect on the Staples family. Realizing their cultural influence, the band began to pen freedom songs that echoed King’s messages of love, peace, and togetherness. They, alongside many other musicians of the time, are largely to thank for diffusing the ideas of the Civil Rights Movement across the country through radio waves, television sets, and live concerts.
In 1969, Mavis was no longer the little girl that got her start singing with her father. That year, she put out Mavis Staples, her debut solo album. Older now, she sang of love, romance, and heartbreak. But even as her solo career progressed and she introduced the world to a more personal, intimate side of herself, the cry for social justice never left her music. Now, over seven decades since she first started singing in the churches of Chicago, Staples is still calling for love.
In the last decade alone, Staples has released more original music than many musicians release throughout their entire career. In 1999, she and the rest of The Staples Singers were inducted into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame. More recently, 2017 saw Staples get inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame for her solo work. Not to mention, over the course of her career, she has amassed several Grammys and Blues Music Awards, and not one but two Lifetime Achievement Awards. Rolling Stone named her one of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. She could have retired a long time ago, having accomplished more than most of her musical colleagues—blues or otherwise—could ever dream of, but instead she revved up production of her signature soulful sound and unitarian message. “I’m the messenger,” she said, just before turning 80. “That’s my job—it has been for my whole life—and I can’t just give up while the struggle’s still alive. We’ve got more work to do, so I’m going to keep on getting stronger and keep on delivering my message every single day.”
We Get By, Staples’ thirteenth studio album, and her most recent, sees the singer at her strongest. The album was produced and largely written by Ben Harper, a modern blues powerhouse. “When I first started reading the lyrics Ben wrote for me, I said to myself, ‘My God, he’s saying everything that needs to be said right now,’” she said, in her current artist bio. “But the songs were also true to my journey and the stories I’ve been singing all my life. There’s a spirituality and an honesty to Ben’s writing that took me back to church.”
Politically charged but still full of grace, Staples and Harper call, above all else, for change. It would be easy for someone like Staples to grow pessimistic after more than a half-century of singing about the same thing, but she continues to choose hope. “Not too far down the wrong road to turn around, brothers and sisters,” she sings, on We Get By’s fourth track, “Brothers and Sisters.” “Gotta find a way not to fade away, brothers and sisters / Something’s got to give, something’s got to give, something’s got to give.”
Her most recent single, the incredibly timely “All In It Together,” was released in the spring of 2020, just as the first wave of the pandemic was really starting to hit. The track is reminiscent of King’s famous “I Have A Dream” Speech: “We’re all in it together / Every boy and every girl / We’ve all got to get it together / Everybody in the world / I gave up on hatin’ you / Just for hatin’ me / I gave up on hatin’ you / A long time ago.” Mere weeks later, George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police, which prompted millions of Americans, as well as citizens from nations all around the globe, to pour into the streets in protest of our nation’s flawed “justice system” and the persistence of deep-seated racism into the twenty-first century.
With issues like these still heartbreakingly rife, the work of artists like Staples is more pertinent than ever before. She is the midpoint of a long, arduous hike—she makes no bones about the trek ahead, but helps us pause and both recognize the progress we’ve made and relocate the place of love we must continue to work from. See her in all her legendary glory on Sunday, September 26 in Columbia, Missouri at Roots N Blues Festival. Purchase your passes here: https://rootsnbluesfestival.com/tickets/.