Lost among the hoopla of the Inauguration of Barack Obama — among the celebrity sightings, the musical guests, and the soaring rhetoric — was the conspicuous absence of one civil rights icon. Where was Mavis Staples, the woman whose soulful baritone led the legendary Staple Singers? With her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples and her siblings, Mavis had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, and had provided the musical rallying cry for the movement that paved the way for Obama’s election. She had performed at the inaugurations of Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton, too, so she knew the routine. She was even from Chicago, same as the new President. But as the afternoon wore on, it became apparent that she wasn’t going to perform. It turns out she wasn’t invited at all.
“I was here in Chicago with a bowl of popcorn and a little bucket to catch all my tears,” Staples says. “I was there in spirit, though.” Still vibrant at 69, Staples has experienced a career renaissance in recent years, releasing two widely acclaimed solo records on the hip label, ANTI-; 2007’s We’ll Never Turn Back, and a stirring live album called Live: Hope At the Hideout, that was timed to release on the day Obama won. As a career-spanning collection of spirituals and protest songs, it’s a brilliant reminder of the role music once played in rallying hope in those who had known nothing but hardship, and stirring courage in those who had every reason to be afraid. But Staples is not simply a relic of an era whose moment seems to have arrived; she’s an example of how to continue living with humility and grace, how to stay grounded through trials and triumphs.
BustedHalo: So what were some of the emotions you were feeling while you were watching all that happen?
Mavis Staples: Just joy at how believable it was, and [I was] thinking about Dr. King and my father and what they would be saying. I know my father would be tinkled pink. I was thinking back to visions of the movement. I first heard Obama speak at Kerry’s campaign in 2004, and I looked at him and I said, “This guy is amazing! Whoever he is…” And he was from right here in Chicago, and I didn’t know him. From that point on, I started seeing him more and more, and I knew something good was going to come of it. I tell you, I cried and I laughed, and my phone was ringing off the hook. Just good feelings.
BH: Back in the 60s and during the civil rights movement, could you have ever imagined this?
MS: No, I didn’t. I never thought — I never dreamed, even — that I would witness this. You just don’t think it can happen. Obama, the way he speaks and the way he carries himself, you could just see in him that he was for everybody. For America and all over the world. People just love him. When he won and was president-elect, I couldn’t believe it. I just bawled. I tried to do a cartwheel, but I can’t get up there! I was just beside myself. It was unbelievable. That night at Grant Park, it was just so joyous. I’ve been so elated and so picked up. I even feel like I can go out and lose weight now! I want to do things. I want to make sure I do everything right now. I’m just so happy I don’t know what to do. I try to see everything he’s doing on the news and whatnot, and he’s easy on the eyes! When I first saw him, I said, “This dude, he looks so much like Sam Cooke. He walks like Sam.” I knew Sam from a kid. We grew up together. I don’t know if he can sing. I don’t think so. But I’m so happy. I know Dr. King is happy, and my father, Pops, is happy. I see this as part of Dr. King’s dream coming to pass. We sing “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” and I feel like this is part of our prize. It’s not all here yet, but this is part of it. Now all of a sudden, they started showing this footage of Dr. King that I’ve never seen. And it’s him saying, “Oh, yes, I think we’ll have a black President. And it might be in 25 years.” I never saw that. I think he was holding out on us! But, Dr. King, he knew it all the time, and I’m so sorry that he’s not here to witness it. I feel that wherever he is, which I believe is in Heaven, that he knows. It’s just a good time.
BH: Over the years, was it difficult to stay hopeful and dream of this day?
MS: You know, I never hoped for a black president. What I always worked towards was making the world a better place through my songs and our travels and the forums and speeches I do. I never thought we’d have a black president, so I wasn’t looking forward to that or dreaming about it. After [Obama] started campaigning, I could see it. I said, “This young man is going to win this thing.” He wouldn’t let them make him angry. He would never change his demeanor. This guy on the news, Chris Matthews, said, “I want to see him get mad!” I knew you weren’t going to see him get mad, because he doesn’t have to. He’s tough, but when he gets angry it comes out a different way. It still comes out intelligently. You’re not going to hear him going around raising his voice and saying things that don’t sound good. He’s amazing. He’s a godsend. We, as blacks, we’ve not had a leader since Dr. King — nobody to speak for us. And Obama, he’s not just speaking for us, he’s speaking for everyone. We had as many whites marching with us as there were blacks, so I knew that back in the 50s and 60s that all white people weren’t bad. It was just the prejudice of Southerners, and some Northerners, too.
But I really feel good, and when I sing my songs now, sometimes I have to cry on stage, because I can visualize them. I can see everything that was happening all over again that I was singing about. Now I sing them with so much pride, and it’s almost time for me to stop singing those songs. We’ve got to move forward now. We can’t linger on the past. I’ve got to write some new songs. I’ve got to write some songs about a brighter day ahead. I think I’m happier… well, I can’t say than I’ve ever been, because I was so happy to be with Dr. King and his crowd, but I have that proud feeling now. I’m happy to be alive and get out of bed in the morning and try to do better with different things. Like losing weight!