In this series of posts, University of Roehampton chaplaincy staff are reflecting, as part of Black History Month, on people who have inspired them. We continue with Chaplaincy Community Worker Bill Topping writing about Mavis Staples.
I’ve been lucky enough to see Mavis Staples live twice! The first time was her performance in 2011 at the Greenbelt festival and last year I saw her perform at the Roundhouse in Camden at the age of 80.
Mavis Staples is not only one of the greatest singers of all time, she along with her family and group, The Staple Singers, became the spiritual and musical voice of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Beginning in Gospel music, the Staple Singers, lead by Pop Staples, a close friend of Dr Martin Luther King Jr., were the most spectacular and inspirational spirituality-based group in America.
Staples’ voice, both thunderously powerful and gut-wrenchingly evocative, continues to wow and inspire audiences to this day. I will never forget the guitarist at the Greenbelt gig calling out to the crowd at the end of the gig – “This is Mavis Staples! This is Mavis Staples!” as if he wanted to ensure everyone there truly took in the historic significance of the person and the voice that stood before us.
Staples’ voice and songs are not only gifts from God, but products of an acute spiritual relationship with the divine that both points to and harnesses the generational oppression that has been the Black experience. As with the hymnody of the spirituals, which exhibited the power of song in the struggle for black survival, her music draws deeply on the Gospel. This tradition was brought to the mainstream through groups like the Staple Singers and singers like Mavis. That intimate connection between the joyous expression of a loving relationship with God and the institutional subjugation of Black folk runs clear as day in the music we still hear today. Mavis Staples’ contribution to this story is profound and through songs such as “Respect” or “I’ll Take You There” (The latter being in particular a song which I personally deem to be one of the greatest, poignant and yet glorious expressions of hope out there) she has captured a sense of the truth of God. Through the power of her music the reality of God’s world as a celebration of all humanity and place of justice for the oppressed is powerfully expressed.
When I watched Staples sing I was in the presence of someone prophetic, living out their calling, spreading joy and inspiring people. And her relationship with God has never wavered. In an interview with Rolling Stone she said, “I’ve prayed so much the Lord’s tired of me”. Asked about her age and the prospect of death she replied, “I don’t want to die no time soon, but if it came I wouldn’t be afraid. I think I would just be singing with the angels and singing with the heavenly choir. That’s my vision of my death. That’s what I visualize, me with my wings and singing with the heavenly choir, just running my mouth and making everybody laugh, keeping everybody happy in heaven. I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid” – pretty much what she gets up to down here.
I think back to the last time I saw her perform. Even at the age of 80 she belted out her classics with the vigour of someone who knows the truth and wishes others to see the light. Her rapport with the audience was charming, her voice mind-blowing, her message profound and her ability to inspire is spine-tingling. If you do nothing else today, spend some time listening to Mavis; it’ll make things better.
Bill Topping is Chaplaincy Community Worker at the University of Roehampton