More than enough ink has been spilled through Mavis Staples‘ eight decades music, both as a member of The Staple Singers and with her solo career, and a result, it would make it delving into her biography or relating what countless other journalists have written and said about her a bit unnecessary; however, with a music career that long, Staples has seen quite of bit of American history — including the bitter prejudice, racism, ugliness and violence of the Jim Crow-era South, the hypocrisy an wishy washines of White liberals, the Civil Rights era, the election of this country’s first Black president, Barack Obama — and yet . . . as the old adage says — the more things change, the more things remain the same, and the same racial and class-based animus has sadly (but unsurprisingly) has returned to the forefront of national consciousness.
Staples’ latest effort If All I Was Was Black is slated for an November 17, 2017 release through Anti- Records, and the effort continues her ongoing and critically applauded collaboration with singer/songwriter and producer Jeff Tweedy; however, the album manages to mark the first time that Tweedy has composed an entire album worth of music for the legendary vocalist. Unsurprisingly, as Tweedy and Staples reconvened to write the material, which would eventually comprise If All I Was Was Black, the duo found themselves completely in sync in wanting (and needing) to say something about the current state of the country and about the various fissures that have been re-exposed. “We’re not loving one another the way we should,” the legendary vocalist says in press notes. “Some people are saying they want to make the world great again, but we never lost our greatness. We just strayed into division.” Tweedy adds, “I’ve always thought of art as a political statement in and of itself — that it was enough to be on the side of creation and not destruction. But there is something that feels complicit at this moment in time about not facing what is happening in this country head on.”
And while lyrically, some portion of the album’s material reportedly expresses anger and frustration — after all, how it could not? But overall, the material also reportedly finds the legendary vocalist balancing her prototypical optimism with a realistic sensibility — that there’s quite of hard work and love that’s needed to truly make things right. Interestingly, when I heard album title track “If All I Was Was Black,” I was immediately reminded of Syl Johnson‘s aching and bitter lament “Is It Because I’m Black.” in the sense that Staples’ latest single is an earnest and hopeful plea to the listener, imploring them to look into the heart and souls of every individual they come across, and to see them for their unique abilities; to render one’s skin color as relatively unimportant as the color of one’s eyes. And by doing so, perhaps every one’s perspective of people they don’t understand will be shifted, as they may actually see the universality of the individual. For Ms. Staples sake, I hope we can all try before it’s too late.