“Mama Mavis, oh my mama they try my patience. It’s gone, who’s left to save us? I’m praying for my neighbors,” raps Pusha T on a recent Gorillaz single titled “Let Me Out.” In response, gospel singer Mavis Staples wearily advises on the chorus, “You got to die a little if you want to live.” Her relevance is seemingly infinite as she screams with grit and pride, preaching about love and equality. As a resurgent force in modern pop music, she is preaching the same message that she was preaching alongside Dr. Martin Luther King. Pusha’s narrative of looking to Mama Mavis is more than just a structural opening for the song — a growing artist looking up to an inspirational predecessor. It imitates the way she looked up to Dr. King. Pusha T envisions Mavis Staples as a gentle and wise mother who will deliver us from evil.
Staples began her career singing gospel with her family band, fronted by her father Roebuck “Pops” Staples, alongside her sisters Yvonne and Cleotha and brother Pervis. As the decades passed and their catalog grew, the Staples Singers were notably revolutionary for their cross-genre capacity. Defying the limitations of being pigeonholed into religious music, the Staples family dabbled in blues, folk, and even rock ‘n’ roll. They sang freedom songs that were a catalyst for change and communal growth within the black community. Pops was close with Dr. King, urging that “If he can preach it, we can sing it.” Staples cites “Why You Treat Me So Bad” as one of King’s favorite Staples Singers tracks. They would sing before Dr. King would speak. The Staples Singers became one of the defining voices of the Civil Rights Movement. The battle between secular and gospel music was not an issue. As Pops Staples put it, they were singing love, peace, and freedom.
Staples sang with her family at Civil Rights conventions, she sang at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, and she sang for the Obama administration. Although it’s been 50 years since the peak of the movement she has voiced that she still sings for the same reason. At a civil rights summit in 2014 Staples explained, “I was there, and I’m still here. I’m on the battlefield, and I’m fighting. And I won’t stop. Every concert that I do today, I’m still singing freedom songs. I’m still singing. I’m not going to let it go ’cause I’m a witness. I’m a living witness, you know. Yes. Yes, indeed.”
Not only is she a political activist, she’s a fucking rockstar. And she’s worked with fucking rockstars. Back in the early ‘60s she had a relationship and intimate friendship with a little-known singer by the name of Bob Dylan. Her family would perform covers of his music. He even asked her to marry him, but she declined. Prince signed her to Paisley Park Records and worked with her on two of her solo albums (The Voice, Time Waits For No One) in the ‘80s. She’s released four records on Anti- and won a grammy in 2011 for Best Americana Album. Her latest full-length Livin’ On A High Note organized songs from a variety of well-known songwriters like Nick Cave, tUne-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus, Neko Case, Benjamin Booker, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, and M. Ward.
“People are always asking me when I’m going to retire. I don’t care to retire,” Staples sternly expresses in the HBO documentary Mavis!. Singing is her life. If she were to retire, she would be retiring the part of herself that the world knows and loves — she’s very aware of this. Her charisma and consistent positivity has radiated throughout the several decades that span her career. Not only does it feel appropriate to keep one of the most notable and fortuitous voices from the ‘60s in modern rock and pop music, but necessary to give back to the soul singer that has given us so much.
Although it seems pertinent to the past couple years that Mavis Staples has been getting the recognition by the younger musical generation, she’s been consistently releasing albums since the ‘70s. This past January, Staples was featured on Arcade Fire’s first single since 2013’s Reflektor, “I Give You Power”; all proceeds went to the ACLU. It felt like a necessary track for Staples to sing, one that continues her fight for social justice through rich vocals. The single has a sinister underbelly, a misleading club beat, and is the sonic embodiment that Staples’ voice is as gritty and masterful as ever. She’s still got power, both in her presence as a social figure and an influential musician. Here’s a list of Staples’ contemporary shoutouts and spotlights.
1. Star Slinger’s “Mornin'”
The Manchester-based DJ/producer Darren Williams, who makes music under the moniker Star Slinger, remixed Staples’ “Let’s Do It Again” in 2011. Williams added repetitive claps and manipulated Staples’ vocals, making them sound warped and nasally. The track is sped-up and hypnotic. It sounds like breakfast in bed with a side of LSD, shifting the sensual and libidinous tone of the original. “Let’s Do It Again” was written for the Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier movie of the same name in 1975. Williams commented to Rolling Stone how Mama Staples received the song’s makeover, saying that “her manager played the remix I did and she actually liked it!” Staples is an enthusiastic participant in the recent collaborations and appearances, but she also supports generous re-workings of her past recordings.
2. The Many Celebrities Lining Up To Write Songs For Livin’ On A High Note
Last year, for her fifth album released on Anti- Records, Staples enlisted a crystalline cast of musical celebs. “Dedicated” was written by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and M. Ward. “High Note” was written by Valerie June. TUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus wrote the track “Action.” Nick Cave wrote “Jesus, Lay Down Beside Down Me.” Staples told her cast of songwriters that she wanted a record that would make people smile. She cited Pharrell’s viral hit “Happy” as inspiration in an interview with The Guardian: “I’ve been making people cry for so long.” Her writing collaborators are more than just helping hands though. They’re blossoming new relationships that she continues to cultivate as she gets older. Staples performed at Vernon’s Eaux Claire Festival at the end of the summer in 2016. In a press release for the festival, Vernon stated that “Mavis Staples is a true national treasure. The Staples Singers’ catalog is one of the most important in my life history. I’m beyond humbled to hear her sing on a song I had a hand in writing and to have her perform this year at Eaux Claires.”
3. Her Friendship With Stephen Colbert
Prior to Livin’ On A High Note, Staples worked with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy on two albums (One True Vine and You Are Not Alone). Several months before the release of 2013’s One True Vine, Staples joined Tweedy and Sean Lennon to sing the politically charged Christmas carol “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” helping Stephen Colbert sign off the final portion of that year’s Christmas Carol Week on The Colbert Report. Colbert is not modest in his love for the Staples Singer. She has shared airtime with him a handful of times, both on The Colbert Report and The Late Show. Last year she performed and was interviewed by Colbert for Livin’ On A High Note. She recalls the first song she learned to sing (“A turkey is a funny bird, wobble, wobble, wobble/ And all he knows is just one word, gobble, gobble, gobble”) and the difference between gospel and soul. She clarifies that the Staples Singers never sang the devil’s music; in fact, “the devil has no music.” Her electrifying and bubbling personality (her mom called her Bubbles when she was younger) is a smile-jerker for any event, televised or not. But we should be thankful that she is close with one of the biggest late night comedians.
4. HBO’s MAVIS! Documentary
MAVIS! aired in the February of last year and documented the unbelievable path that Staples has walked. It begins with the career of the Staples Singers and their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. It then reveals Staples struggle to have a solo career and her resurgence in the ‘80s with Prince, in the ‘00s with Anti- Records, and up until the past couple years with her work alongside Jeff Tweedy. Staples shares personal memories in addition to recent interviews of Bonnie Raitt and Chuck D plus older clips of Bob Dylan and Prince. In the initial moments of the documentary Staples reflects on her long, and at first glance exhausting, career. She clarifies that she sees no end in sight. “I’ll stop singing when I have nothing left to say … and that ain’t gonna happen.” It certainly seems it won’t.
5. The Kennedy Center Honors
This past December Staples was honored at the 39th Kennedy Center Honors. Fellow Chicagoan President Obama introduced her, opening with the tale of 8-year-old Staples singing at church and bringing attendees to tears. Her mother Oceola Staples later proclaimed to the bewildered young Mavis, “Your singing makes them cry happy tears.” She was recognized for her vast catalogue and her persistence to keep spreading the word that she and her family starting singing many decades ago. She was honored along with James Taylor, Al Pacino, the Eagles and Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich. Staples did an interview with The New York Times after the ceremony sharing special moments like her fistbump with Taylor, making Pacino dance, and seeing her great pals the Obamas.
Although being honored at the Kennedy Center is an incredible rarity, the timing of Staples’ induction had an undertone of bitter irony. Our country is revisiting sentiments that the Staples Singers were pushing back against in the ‘60s. “I am really disheartened. I’m about to relive the ’60s. I’ve seen some of it already. I can turn on the news and I can swear I’m back in the ’60s,” she told The Times when asking her about the future of music, social change, and Trump. “The way things are going, every day it’s something. I feel like all of this is happening because of the way Mr. Trump is. He’s bringing it on. I’m going to have to start writing songs again. I’m so sorry that we, as black people, don’t have a leader like Dr. Martin Luther King — someone to take charge. We have to do it through our songs and our actions. And try to stay nonviolent,” she continued.
6. Arcade Fire’s “I Give You Power”
In their standalone single “I Give You Power,” Arcade Fire concocted a funky synth-driven background for Staples’ forthright, attention-commanding, almost sinister vocals. Win Butler’s falsetto acts as a halo highlighting Staples in the foreground. They both sing the mantra: “I give you power over me/ I give you power, but I gotta be free/ I give you power, but now I say/ I give you power, I can take it away.” The single came out on the eve of Trump’s inauguration, and all its proceeds are going to the ACLU. Butler, along with the rest of the band, is extremely close with Staples, saying that she is one of his “favorite people on earth” in an interview with Zane Lowe. Lowe asked about the timing of releasing the song. “We’re just musicians, and the only thing we have to offer is our music. I talked to Mavis last night, and she said now more than ever we just need to hold onto each other,” Butler responded. “For us, it’s a feeling of solidarity — to not feel powerless and focus on what we can do as individuals and try to do our part.”
7. The All-Star Last Waltz Revival
Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz came out 39 years ago, documenting the Band’s final performance. The film yielded the definitive rendition of “The Weight” with the Staples Singers backing the Band. For the Chicago TV special Mavis Staples: I’ll Take You There — An All-Star Concert Celebration, which just aired this week on AXS TV, Staples performed an updated version of “The Weight” with friends including Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and his son Spencer, Eric Church, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Gregg Allmann, and many, many others. The celebration brought together both past and current generations of Staples admirers.
8. Benjamin Booker’s “Witness”
New Orleans’ Benjamin Booker is getting ready to drop his new album Witness in early June. The title track is a jazzy, gospel-tinged event with Staples as the leading voice of the chorus. A choir follows her lead in the background. “Witness” is an on-the-nose anthem for Staples, considering she has been proclaiming herself as such for years, specifically to the ongoing fight for equality. Booker elaborated on the origins of “Witness” on his website. He begins by telling the story of his journey and stay in Mexico evading the chaos of racial animosity in America and looking for peace of mind. “I spent days in silence and eventually began to write again. I was almost entirely cut off from my home. Free from the news. Free from politics. Free from friends. What I felt was the temporary peace that can comes from looking away.” After writing his album and coming back to the states, Booker realized the flaw with our relationship to the current media events. “This song, ‘Witness,’ came out of this experience and the desire to do more than just watch,” he continues. “‘Witness’ asks two questions I think every person in America needs to ask. ‘Am I going to be a witness?’ and in today’s world, ‘Is that enough?’” Staples is right there asking along with him.
9. Gorillaz’s “Let Me Out”
In an interview with Zane Lowe earlier this month Pusha T, who is featured alongside Mama Mavis on Gorillaz’s last single “Let Me Out,” explained the mindset that Damon Albarn inspired when recording the track. “When I get over there, Damon begins to tell me the album’s a party for the end of the world if Trump were to win. This is conceptualized as a party for the world if Trump wins. I didn’t even want to think about it, but it did give me a colorful backdrop into just being like, ‘Say anything’ and attack all issues that I wanted to attack,” he says. It’s fair to say that Staples’ appearance is appropriate as she is a musical activist cornerstone. After standing side by side with Dr. King and growing up in the Civil Rights Movement, she knows a thing or two about steadfastness amidst adversity. In the time of the Trumpocalypse, her wisdom and guidance is as necessary as Pusha suggests on “Let Me Out.”