Throughout the legendary Mavis Staples’ eight decades-long music career, both as a member of The Staple Singers and as a solo artist, Staples has seen quite bit of American history — including the bitter prejudice, racism, ugliness and violence of the Jim Crow-era South, the hypocrisy and wishy washines of White liberals, the Civil Rights era, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, The Black Panthers, the hypocrisy and wishy washiness of White moderates and liberals, the election and presidency of Barack Obama, the Black Life Matters movement. And yet, as the old adage says, “the more things change, the more things remain the same — and the same racial, gender and class-based animus has forced itself back to the forefront of national consciousness.
Staples latest effort, If All I Was Was Black was released late last year through Anti- Records, and the album continues Staples’ ongoing and critically applauded collaboration with renowned 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. And unsurprisingly, as Tweedy and Staples reconvened to write the album, the duo found themselves completely in sync in wanting (and needing) to say something about the current state of the country and the various fissures that had 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.”
Lyrically, a portion of the album’s material expresses anger and frustration but overall, the material finds the legendary soul artist balancing her renowned optimism with a realistic sensibility; the sort of realism that says “there’s hard work, sacrifice and love that’s needed to make the world truly just and right.” Interestingly album title track “If All I Was Was Black” reminded me a bit of Syl Johnson‘s “Is It Because I’m Black” as both songs are earnest pleas to the listener, imploring the listener to look into the heart and soul of every individual they may come across, and to see them for their unique and innate talents; while hoping that one day, one’s skin color can be rendered as relatively unimportant as the color of their eyes. Perhaps by doing so, one’s perspective of the people they see as “other” and don’t understand will be shifted towards seeing and celebrating both difference and universality.
Directed and edited by Zac Manuel, the recently released video for “If All I Was Was Black” features a deeply pensive Staples sitting in a local diner, drinking tea or coffee but just outside the window Confederate statues have been torn down — and a local man replaces one with a thoughtful and honest representation of a lovely sister. That sequence suggests a new reality that accepts and celebrates diversity with everyone’s story adding to the larger American zeitgeist.