“I’ve seen some stuff, Hozy,” Mavis Staples tells Hozier. The 80-year-old gospel legend and civil rights activist is the only person in the world to call him by this nickname. Hozier likes it.
After recording the track "Nina Cried Power"together last year — the inspiration behind the name for the Cry Power podcast — the duo have struck up a friendship. For his part, Hozier says Staples is one of the “kindest, warmest, most charismatic, funniest people I have been lucky enough to meet in my lifetime.”
The two talk in a New York City hotel room on the eve of Love Rocks NYC — a show that both Staples and Hozier performed in to raise funds to buy food for New Yorkers who can’t cook for themselves because of ill health. The pair are discussing racism in America; the power of protest music — “it can be as simple as telling the truth about something hard”, Hozier says; and how Staples first met one of history’s greatest activists.
“In Montgomery, Alabama, one Sunday morning, Pops called my sister and I to his room,” Staples tells Hozier on the fourth episode of the Cry Power podcast. Her father told them: “Listen, y’all, this man Martin is here — Martin Luther King.”
Roebuck Staples, affectionately known as “Pops” to both his family and the wider world, played the blues guitar in their family band The Staples Sisters. His three daughters sang — and became one of the best-selling gospel groups ever, affectionately known as “God’s Greatest Hitmakers.”
Pops had heard King on the radio — and wanted to go see him conduct a service in town. “We’re glad to have Pops Staples here this morning and his daughters,” King would tell his 11 a.m. congregation. Later they would all shake hands and talk.
“I really like this man’s message,” Pops told his daughters after coming home from the church. “If he can preach it — we can sing it."
Dr. Martin Luther King: "Just as nonviolence exposed the ugliness of racial injustice, so must the infection and sickness of poverty be exposed and healed." pic.twitter.com/wgqVyNnil7— Global Citizen UK (@GlblCtznUK) January 25, 2019
And so, after meeting King, the family became activists, singing at his talks and rallies as he led the Civil Rights Movement.
“I got very serious about it,” Staples says. “We were on a mission. Dr. King — I would never forget — he loved us; he loved Pops. One of Pops’ songs, that Pops wrote, was his favourite: ‘Why Am I Treated So Bad.’” She tells Hozier that King used to request it before every show.
That song was about the first group of black children to be enrolled at an all-white school in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957.
The US Supreme Court had ruled in 1954 that segregation in schools was unconstitutional. But when the kids arrived for their first day, they found their path blocked by the National Guard. A few weeks later, President Dwight Eisenhower sent in the army to escort and protect them during their studies.
It was a historic victory for a country still in the grip of the Jim Crow laws that made segregation legally enforceable. That group of school children became known as the Little Rock Nine — and in recent years, they've attended one of Staples’ concerts, meeting the star after the show. The issue of integration had always haunted Staples’ thoughts.
I’m delighted to share episode 4 of the #CryPower podcast.@MavisStaples is much more to me than an artist I look up to. She's a leader and a beacon. I was so honoured to chat with her about her life and vision.— Hozier (@Hozier) November 5, 2019
🖤 Listen + subscribe at: https://t.co/NrUtXyKknW
“It bothered me that we couldn’t go into certain bathrooms, we couldn’t go in restaurants, we couldn’t sleep in a Holiday Inn,” Staples says, explaining how meeting resistance to her activism only ever made her fight harder. She was never afraid because her father made her feel safe — and she still wants to represent his legacy.
Now, 65 years after segregation was ruled unconstitutional in the US, racism has a new face: segregation and suffrage are trumped by concerns over criminal justice reform, economic inequality, and police brutality.
“I just have to cry sometimes,” she adds. “I’m seeing stuff today that I saw in the '60s — and that’s so potent, so painful. I know that all I can do is sing my songs and try to help us come together and make a change."
Racism is especially prevalent in the issue of cash bail in the US — where a person charged with a crime must pay to be released before trial. If you cannot afford it, you go to jail — meaning for poor citizens, disproportionately African American, poverty is essentially criminalised in the US.
Staples said on the podcast that she was once arrested herself — along with her whole family. Indeed, it’s estimated that, on any given night, there are 465,000 Americans held in pretrial detention in local jails throughout the country.
Global Citizen has campaigned on cash bail, joining forces with rappers Usher and Common and working alongside local advocates, to lobby New York to pass a bill last year that eliminates cash bail for the majority of offences, a story captured in the second episode of the documentary series ACTIVATE: The Global Citizen Movement.
Criminal justice is an issue championed by the very best in hip-hop — and Mavis Staples knows it. This is a woman who was friends with Nina Simone; who turned down a proposal from Bob Dylan. But the 80-year-old comes to life on the podcast when reeling off the activist rappers inspiring her today, from Kendrick Lamar to JAY-Z — who, along with another artist Staples says she adores, Beyoncé, have all performed on the Global Citizen Festival stage in the past.
Staples is switched on to pop culture because she understands that’s where you can make change happen.
Her 2016 album Livin’ On A High Note is filled with songs written just for her by some of the world’s most progressive contemporary songwriters, including Nick Cave and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. She’s worked with Prince; been sampled by Salt ‘N’ Pepa; and even featured on a track with Pusha T on the 2017 Gorillaz album Humanz:“Oh, Mama Mavis,” Pusha raps on "Let Me Out." “Who is left to save us?”
“I feel like I’ve done what I was out here for,” Staples says. “That’s my life.”
New episodes of Cry Power will now drop every fortnight. Head to GlobalCitizen.org/CryPower to check out the latest episodes, take action on the vital issues discussed in the podcast, and to #PowerTheMovement to end extreme poverty.