Current events in Ferguson, Missouri, where protesters and authorities have clashed repeatedly in the wake of the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager, have evoked strong memories in singer Mavis Staples.
“Every now and then I see [a news event] that takes me back to the ’60s [civil rights movement],” Staples, 75, said by phone from her home in Chicago. “I just said, ‘Oh lord, it’s still here.’ But I’m still here. I’m a living witness, and I feel like I’m supposed to do this. I still have my health and my strength, and as long as I’m here I’m going to be fighting. My work isn’t done yet.”
The musician and social advocate has long championed civil rights issues, first alongside her siblings and father in the legendary Staple Singers, which frequently served as a warm-up act at rallies headed by Martin Luther King, Jr., and in later years as a solo artist. Staples’ 2007 album We’ll Never Turn Back, for one, could function as a soundtrack to the racial unrest currently rippling outwards from St. Louis, shifting from soul-stirring chronicles of inequality (“Down in Mississippi”) to songs like “Eyes on the Prize,” a resolute, keep-striding-forward anthem that envisions brighter days ahead.
In conversation, as with her music, Staples projects an unshakeable sense of optimism, tempered only by the reality meaningful, lasting change generally requires patience.
“I don’t know if I’ll see the day we can come together and stop all of this, but I might,” said the singer, who performs a free show at Bicentennial Park on Friday, Aug. 22. “In the past I’d said I didn’t think I’d ever see a black president, and I did. You never know what tomorrow brings, so I’m just going to keep on with what I know is right.”
Staples inherited this unbending fortitude from her father, the late Roebuck “Pops” Staples, whom she credits with her development as both a human being — “I try to be a good person like him, even if I get lazy sometimes,” she said — and as a singer.
Mavis recalled one early Staple Singers performance in New York where she took the stage and did her best to imitate the group’s high-energy opening act, jumping around and belting out her vocal parts at the top of her lungs.
“And Pops snaps me up and says, ‘Mavis, what are you doing?’ And I said, ‘I’m singing, daddy,’” Staples said, and laughed. “He said, ‘Mavis, let me tell you something. You’re singing god’s music. You don’t have to clown, and you don’t have to sing at the top of your voice. Sing from your heart, because what comes from the heart reaches the heart. If you sing from your heart you’ll reach the people.’”
This approach has remained a constant for the deep-voiced Staples, who tends to adopt a more conversational tone on the microphone, like a friend imparting wisdom amid challenging circumstances.
“We would sing about [the hard times], and hopefully we could make the world a better place through our songs,” Staples said in a 2012 interview, going on to evoke a handful of lines from Staple Singer standards like “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “I’ll Take You There.” “I shall not be moved. I’m like a tree that’s planted by the water. We will fix you all. We’ll bring you back.
“That’s what kept us going. We could have a better piece of mind just singing our songs.”
Though Staples still incorporates many of these tunes into her live show — “There’s always going to be a freedom song or two in there,” she said — she’s resisted becoming a nostalgia act in her later years, recording a pair of well-received new albums alongside Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy (You Are Not Alone and One True Vine in 2010 and 2013, respectively) and more recently teaming up with Public Enemy rapper Chuck D for “Give We the Pride,” a self-empowerment banger built around Staples’ cries of “We need pride to survive!”
“These people in the industry have put me in so many categories. They put me in Americana and gospel and R&B and blues. Now they’re going to have to add hip-hop, and I love it,” Staples said. “So many come at me that shouldn’t be in my comfort zone: Jeff Tweedy, a rock star, wanted to produce me, and [I’ve worked with] Ry Cooder and Prince and Curtis Mayfield. I’ve always been willing to step outside of my comfort zone as long as what I’m saying is positive and inspirational.”
In addition, the singer was recently the subject of “I’ll Take You There,” a 2014 biography from longtime Chicago Tribune pop music critic Greg Kot — a treatment she resisted for years believing her story far from finished.
“I told Greg to write at the end of the book, ‘To be continued,’” Staples said. “And since he finished it so much more has happened I want to talk about. That might be something you see in the future: the rest of Mavis’ story.”
Photos by Chris Strong and Zoran Orlic