Mavis’ Medicine for the Soul

Issue 230

The Gospel and R&B legend once again plants her flag in the resistance.

Brady O’Callahan Nov 17, 2017

“It’s time for more love.” At least Mavis Staples seems to think so.

It’s been a little over a year since Donald Trump elected President and I, at least, think reasons to be happy are few and far between. Everyone on both sides is rehashing and relitigating the 2016 election. We can’t agree on much, except that we all can’t believe we’re where we are. I feel as if every piece I’ve written or read in the past few months has included the phrase “in a country so divided.” How do we make it out of this crisis? Hell, how do we make it out of 2017?

“I’ve got love to give and it’s time for more love,” Staples sings.

“Thank God for Mavis,” I say to myself.

A gospel and R&B legend, Staples has been performing for more than 60 years. Bob Dylan called her singing voice “the most mysterious thing I’d ever heard” and proposed to marry her in the mid-1960s. She and her family were also close with Dr. Martin Luther King and Staples’ connections to the civil rights movement make her latest album that much more poignant.

With If All I Was Was Black she once again plants her flag in the resistance. Written and produced by Jeff Tweedy of the bands Wilco and Tweedy, the album is a unique entry in the growing list of recent artistic expressions of dissent. It doesn’t come across as particularly angry. It doesn’t name names or point fingers. It proposes resistance through love and understanding.

“We Go High” borrows its central phrase from Michelle Obama’s famous speech. Staples proclaims, “I know they don’t know what they’re doing when they tell their lies, spread around rumors. I know they’re still human and they need my love.”

The songs on this album probably aren’t going to reach the ears of anyone who didn’t walk away from Michelle’s speech with a sense of hope. Staples is trying to reach the people who align with her politics. She wants to talk them off the ledge. This won’t be the album that unites us. Rather, it’s a gentle urging to liberals and lefties to reach out and try to bring our conservative brethren up to speed.

Nowhere is this more resounding than the standout track “Build a Bridge.” Staples mourns the fact that in a country so divided, we sequester ourselves: “I’m tired of us living so lonely.” And she presents a seemingly impossible solution. “Gonna build a bridge right over the ocean, so you can walk right over to me,” she sings, her voice elevated by a supporting chorus in an arrangement that seems to indicate this will require a group effort.

Tweedy does a fantastic job showcasing Staples’ voice throughout the album. The instrumentation adds only what is needed. And though Staples’ pipes aren’t as powerful as they used to be, her spirit is as fierce as ever. Make no mistake here: Staples is the star of the show.

If If All I Was Was Black lacks the punch of recent albums that tackle politics head-on, name names and make enemies, that’s because this album doesn’t care much for punching. It’s good medicine, even if I can’t tell whether it is meant to heal us or novocaine to overcome the pain.

Maybe it’s both.

By omitting any real specifics about our current grievances, Staples adds a certain nuance and timelessness to these songs. Staples is 78 years old and the problems confronting us today are older. There’s something remarkable about someone who is still willing to show up, time and time again, to try harder as Staples does here. What excuse do we have?

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Illustration by Charlyne Alexis.

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