Gospel Singer Mavis Staples On Black Lives Matter, her Friendship with Prince, and her Exercise Regimen

The last eight months—roughly the amount of time since Donald J. Trump’s Inauguration—haven’t smothered Mavis Staples’s irrepressible optimism, but it’s been palpably tempered.

She faced dark days even before the election in 2016, when Prince died that April. Staples’s feelings for Prince, her friend and onetime producer, bordered on maternal: he had two mothers, she once said, and she would e-mail him with the greeting “Hello, son!” “Oh, Lord, I miss Prince so much. I can hardly listen to him yet without breaking down,” she told me recently, briefly home from the road. Staples has photos of Prince in her house in Chicago, including a wall calendar from 1987 given to her by the man himself. “It’s from back in the day. But I keep it hanging and every month I change it.”

Prince’s love for the Staple Singers, the legendary gospel group, was genuine and deep. He opened his last concert, a week before he died, with “When Will We Be Paid,” a gorgeous, denunciatory song off the family’s 1970 album, “We’ll Get Over.” The lyrics catalogue the labor of black Americans (“We have worked this country from shore to shore / Our women cooked all your food and washed all your clothes”). When Pops Staples performed it, he would recall his grandfather, who had been a slave in Mississippi. Prince recorded “When Will We Be Paid” in October of 1999. He sent the track to Mavis, and she took the song to her father. Pops, who would be dead in a year, asked excitedly if Prince had really recorded it. “Yes, sir,” she said.

Staples’s forthcoming album, “If All I Was Was Black,” recalls the family’s civil-rights-era records. Like “Freedom Highway,” written by Pops following the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, the new songs are nakedly current. The album, recorded over a week in May with the aid of her frequent producer, Jeff Tweedy, of Wilco, is largely steeped in frustration. Staples’s voice has a strength and endurance not heard in years, owing in part to an exercise regimen begun in preparation for last December’s Kennedy Center Honors. “I decided if I want to continue to sing, which I love, I need to keep moving,” she said. Her road manager secured a trainer in Hyde Park, and now, three times a week, she walks on the treadmill and, adorned with pink boxing gloves, sweatily punches a heavy bag twenty or thirty times at a stretch.

The payoff is heard when Staples sings the first lines of the new album’s opening track, “Little Bit,” about an unnamed boy stopped by police. It effectively lays down a dark marker for the rest of the record:

This life surrounds you

The guns are loaded

This a kind of tension

Hard not to notice . . .

Poor kid they caught him

Without his license

That ain’t why they shot him

They say he was fighting


That’s what we were told

But we all know

That ain’t how the story goes.

Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland loom over the record, even as they are unnamed. This is also true of Trump, though Staples doesn’t mind saying so. “He has brought so much hurt on us,” she said. “It seems that this man has brought a rebirth; the bigotry and hate has resurfaced through him.”

What Trump and his Administration have wrought is reminiscent of the turbulence of her youth, Staples said: “We’ve gone all the way back to the fifties and the sixties. This is the President of the United States! He’s supposed to bring joy and light and love to the world. It’s all backwards, it’s backwards.” Indeed, as voting rights are restricted and bigotry of all kinds is ascendant, Staples makes clear that her loyalty remains with the oppressed. In “Build a Bridge,” she and Tweedy give a nod to one of our era’s great activist movements:

When I say my life matters

You can say yours does too

But I betcha never have to remind anyone

To look it at from your point of view.

Staples was in close proximity to the civil-rights movement—her father was a confidant of Martin Luther King, Jr., for whom the Staple Singers were often an opening act—but I didn’t take her support for Black Lives Matter as a given. After all, the movement has faced some criticism from the Old Guard. “You know, I feel good about it,” she said. “But I still say that all lives matter. When we were marching with Dr. King, there were black lives and there were white lives marching with us, too. I’m not just being sarcastic or biggity. Black lives matter to everyone, not just black people. People get that all twisted.”

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