Title: If All I Was Was Black
Artist: Mavis Staples
Formats: CD, LP, MP3
Release Date: November 17, 2017
Mavis Staples ushers in her eighth decade of singing truth with the call-to-compassion album If All I Was Was Black, her third collaborative project with songwriter, producer, and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. Their first partnership in 2010, You Are Not Alone, won a Grammy Award for Best Americana album. Their second effort together, One True Vine, was a Grammy nominee. But If All I Was Was Black marks the first time Tweedy has composed an entire album of original songs for Mavis’ legendary voice and a nation she’s uniquely poised to address. As a witness to both past and ongoing American civil rights issues, Staples feels that, in many respects, “nothing has changed…we’re not loving one another the way we should.”
The album’s first track, “Little Bit,” firmly establishes this work as a conscious ode to the déjà vu mood gripping the nation of late. A driving guitar hook sets the tone immediately at the open, with Staples’ vocals rasping out an early downbeat of “This life surrounds you, guns are loaded. This kind of tension, hard not to notice.” Throughout the song, Mavis leads listeners through call-and-response vocals in a soundscape that recalls Sly & the Family Stone’s mix of joy and social criticism unfolding over a funk-edged rhythm section. Following is the title track, an upbeat, joyous groove that continues the album’s humanistic theme of understanding and acceptance. Directly addressing those who respond to someone’s race without seeing their shared humanity, Staples expertly croons, “If all I was was Black, don’t you want to know me more than that?”
Current events appear on the record obliquely, reflecting a commitment to a universal approach that shines a comparative light on the past by suggestively addressing today’s events. As Mavis explains, “We didn’t make the songs point to a specific person. If you follow the lyrics, it’s about yesterday and today.” “We Go High” borrows its chorus from Michelle Obama’s speech on the first night of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, and the track “Build a Bridge” parses exactly which lives matter and how we can begin to talk about it.
Staples’ darker tone can be glimpsed in both “Who Told You That?” and “Try Harder.” Alluding to the frustration and realism of today, her telling line “There’s evil in the world, and there’s evil in me” signals harsh undercurrents of danger. Despite these elements, the mood ring on Mavis’ 2017 call-to-action is set to love, running through and over the occasional fury and pragmatism. The songs move like an ocean tide, ebbing and flowing, with Mavis countering the anger with an eye toward the work that is required to bring change. In the end, the answer lies in lifting each other up, Staples style. She’s not embracing the anxious hesitation of respectability politics but rather the possibilities of love.
Try Harder. Two small words, containing the biggest potential imaginable. To Mavis Staples, this phrase is key to substantial change if society will take her lead and lovingly follow through.
Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi