More than enough ink has been spilled throughout Mavis Staples‘ eight decades in music, both as a member of the legendary The Staple Singers and as a solo artist, so I won’t delve into her biography or what other journalists have written about her and her work, because for this post, it’s largely unnecessary; however, whether as a member of The Staple Singers or as a solo artist, Ms. Staples has released some of the most important, influential and beloved songs of the 60s and 70s — and in my book, the woman is a revered, national treasure.
Unsurprisingly, Staples has seen quite a bit of the past century of American history — including the embittering and dehumanizing prejudice, racism, injustice and violence of the Jim Crow-era South, the Civil Rights era, the hypocrisy and wishy washiness of White moderates, liberals and the Far Left, the elections of Barack Obama and Donald Trump — and yet . . . as the old adage says, the more things change, the more things remain the same. And while the same hate has always remained, rooted around race, gender, gender expression, sexuality, class, ethnicity and nationality, for the first time in a couple of generations, the discussion of whether or not this country has lived up to its ideals, how we get there — hell, if we’re even willing to sacrifice to get there, have all been forced back into the national consciousness on a insistent basis.
Now, if you’ve been frequenting this site for a while, you’d know that Staples’ latest effort If All I Was Was Black, which was released last November continued her ongoing and critically applauded collaboration with renowned singer/songwriter and producer Jeff Tweedy. And interestingly, the album marked the first time that Tweedy has composed an entire album worth of music specifically for Staples. As the story goes, when Tweedy and Staples convened to write new material, the duo recognized that they were in the middle of a critical, historical moment — and that they felt it necessary to address the current sociopolitical state of things both here in the States and elsewhere. “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.”
Of course, some of the album’s material expresses anger and frustration — after all, how could it not? In some way, Donald Trump’s election back in 2016 felt like the major gains made by Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, Asians and the LGBQT communities were going to be completely wiped away. And yet, while rooted around Staples’ legendary and lifelong optimism that optimism is balanced by a healthy pragmatism in which the soul legend seems to say “well shit, there’s quite a bit of hard work, love and empathy that’s needed to get 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. The album’s latest single “Build A Bridge” focuses on the growing sense of alienation, loneliness and misunderstanding of modern life — with Ms. Staples boldly suggesting that many of the world’s problems could be solved if people could allow themselves to be vulnerable and empathetic to the plight of others, so that they can see both the glorious differences in others and the universality of all. For Ms. Staples sake, I hope we can all try before it’s too late.
Mavis and her backing band have been doing the talk show circuit to promote If All I Was Was Black and it included a Martin Luther King Day appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! where they appropriately performed “Build a Bridge.