Now, 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 because I think that for the sake of 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. Of course, unsurprisingly, Staples has seen quite a bit of American history — including the bitter and shameful prejudice, racism, ugliness, injustice and violence of the Jim Crow-era South, the Civil Rights era, the hypocrisy and wishy washiness of White moderates and liberals, the election of Barack Obama — 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, class, ethnicity and nationally, for the first time in a couple of generations, the discussion of whether or not this country has lived up to is ideals have forced itself back into the national consciousness.
Staples’ soon-to-be released album If All I Was Was Black continues her ongoing and critically applauded collaboration with singer/songwriter and producer Jeff Tweedy — and interestingly, the album marks the first time that Tweedy has composed an entire album worth of music for Staples. And as the story goes, when Tweedy and Staples convened to write the album’s material, the duo found themselves recognizing that this was a critical historical moment, in which they wanted and needed to say something about the current state of things here in the US and about the various fissures along race, politics, gender, gender identity and so on. “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.”
Naturally, some of the album’s material reportedly expresses anger and frustration — after all, how it could it not? In some way, Election Day last year felt like major gains made by dear friends in the Black, Latino, LGBQT and Muslim communities were wiped away. And yet, the material while still rooted around Staples’ legendary optimism, the material is balanced with a grounded realism that essentially says “well shit, there’s quite a bit of hard work, love and empathy that’s needed to 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.
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.
Recently Ms. Staples, Tweedy, their backing band and members of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert band performed the song on Late Show with Stephen Colbert.