Mavis Staples reflects on activism and music, past and present

Mavis Staples, a Grammy Award-winning singer known for her pop and gospel music and civil rights activism, is a guest at UC Berkeley on Thursday (Oct. 30), when she will participate first in an “On the Same Page” panel discussion on music and activism, then perform at Zellerbach Hall presented by Cal Performances that evening. She spoke with the NewsCenter about her blending of activism, music and hope.

NewsCenter: It seems to be anniversary season. At UC Berkeley we are observing the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, which was closely linked to student and faculty experience in the Civil Rights Movement and its inspirational music. And you’ve got a 75th anniversary your own coming up in a couple of weeks in Chicago.Taking this occasion to look back, what songs or actions are you proudest of from the Civil Rights and Free Speech eras?Staples_Mavis

Staples: In December it also will be the anniversary of my father’s 100th birthday! I’m proud that my family was there during the movement, that we saw Dr. King preach at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and met him, got to travel with him, listening to him speak every night. Just moments I will never forget, and I was with my family. We were together. It was history and it was special.

How have things changed since then?

I know things are better, Obama got elected and it’s a new century, there are different attitudes, opportunities. But these songs we recorded back then, are very relevant. You know, I’m still singing them today, every night. And I’m not singing about something that’s past and gone. I’m singing about today.

When you’re here on campus, you’ll participate in a panel discussion sponsored by our On The Same Page program and featuring the president of Arhoolie Records; a Ph.D. candidate in UC Berkeley’s History Department, who also is a jazz and blues stylist; and Waldo Martin, a professor of American history and citizenship who is an authority on civil rights and African American history. Can you talk about the role music plays in inspiring change?

After we saw Dr. King preach for the first time, my father said to us, “If he can preach it, we can sing it.” I think that really sums up the power that song, music has.

In a recent magazine interview, you said you want to move on from the protest and freedom songs. Where are you headed next?

Well. I have to sing what I know. I’m too old for love songs anyway! I am recording some new songs, I just did one where I sing “I’m tired, but this can’t wait.” The world still needs music with a message, for people to be uplifted and know someone is with them. I’m trying to make you feel good, to make you feel comforted. This is good-news music, and this is what I know how to be.

UC Berkeley has developed a reputation for work in the area of inequality and diversity. It seems like some of your latest tracks on your new albums reflect concern about these issues. Can you talk about that?

A lot of time, I feel like I want to sing at least one or two of my father’s songs on everything I do. So a song like “I Like the Things About Me,” Pops wrote that back when some black people felt ashamed of their hair, the way they looked. And I really don’t think it is that way now. But a song that 40 years ago was for that certain audience, today I think anyone can relate to it and be lifted.

What are you most looking forward to at your Zellerbach Hall debut?

I love to see young people, the fresh faces, the new generation. At the festivals I sing at, Newport Folk and Hardly Strictly (Bluegrass), it really does remind me of the ’60s — the energy and the way the young folks enjoy the music and give back their energy. Even the younger musicians. So I hope there are a lot of young people at the hall.