Mavis Staples

Gospel music legend, Rock & Roll Hall of Famer and civil rights icon

Hailed by NPR as “one of America’s defining voices of freedom and peace,” Mavis Staples is the kind of once-in-a-generation artist whose impact on music and culture would be difficult to overstate. She’s both a Blues and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer; a civil rights icon; a Grammy Award-winner; a chart-topping soul, gospel and R&B pioneer; a National Arts Awards Lifetime Achievement recipient; and a Kennedy Center honoree. She marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., performed at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and sang in Barack Obama’s White House, and she has collaborated with everyone from Bob Dylan to Prince.

She was an integral part of her family’s gospel group, The Staples Singers, led by her father Roebuck “Pops” Staples. With Mavis’s voice and Pops’ songs, the group evolved from enormously popular gospel singers to the most influential spirituality-based group in America. Their songs, like “Freedom Highway” and “Why Am I Treated So Bad,” provided part of the soundtrack of America’s civil rights movement.

Mavis is a respected elder of soul and gospel music, a successful solo artist and beloved collaborator with rock musicians—but she’s no static symbol of the past. As Staples describes, “I’m the messenger. That’s my job—it has been for my whole life—and I can’t just give up while the struggle’s still alive. We’ve got more work to do, so I’m going to keep on getting stronger and keep on delivering my message, every single day.”

At a time when most artists begin to wind down, Staples ramped things up. Since 2004, she’s released a series of fresh, powerful solo albums that feel vital and present. Recent collaborations include Ben Harper, Arcade Fire, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Hozier, Neko Case, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Tune Yards, among others. She has blown away countless festivalgoers from Newport Folk and Glastonbury to Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, performed with The Band at The Last Waltz, and graced the airwaves on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Austin City Limits, the Grammy Awards and more.

When listening to a voice like Staples’—which Pitchfork raves “has only gained texture and power over the years”—it’s impossible not to contemplate all she’s been through in her life. “I sing because I want to leave people feeling better than I found them,” Staples concludes. “I want them to walk away with a positive message in their hearts, feeling stronger than they felt before. I’m singing to myself for those same reasons, too.” Even the messenger needs a reminder every now and then.

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