“Bullets flying, mothers crying ... What good is freedom if we haven’t learned to be free,” Mavis Staples sings at the outset of her new album, “We Get By” (Anti).
It’s a tough-as-nails gospel-blues, written by producer Ben Harper, that voices a central tenet of the singer’s 70-year music career: The lessons and sacrifices made over the centuries in the name of equality will be in vain if future generations don’t learn from them.
“People forget the history or some don’t know it at all, that’s why I have to be the history,” says Staples, who turns 80, in July.
She first started performing with her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and siblings as the Staple Singers in Chicago churches when she in grade-school during the 1940s. The family marched and sang with their friend Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights protests of the ’60s. Recent images of fascist rallies in Charlottesville, Va., or caged children along the border with Mexico remind her that the struggle is far from over.
“My music is a reminder that the work Martin Luther King did, what my father did, can’t be forgotten,” Staples said.
In some ways, Jamila Woods’ latest album, “Legacy! Legacy!” (Jagaguwar), is the latest sign that a new generation of artists is heeding the call.
The album presents 11 snapshots of minority artists who devoted their lives and work to rising above oppression, from Eartha Kitt and Octavia Butler to Sun Ra and Nikki Giovanni.
“I think they forget what our history is, what we do, what we made,” Woods sings on “Muddy,” a song inspired by Kevin Coval’s poem “Muddy Waters Goes Electric” about the blues legend who fled the sharecropping life in Mississippi, moved to Chicago, established the electric blues, and watched as his music was appropriated by white artists.
“I love what Mavis was saying (about ‘I’ll be the history’),” Woods says. “With #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, we’re on the same page (as a community) with these words about how to talk about something, and that could be a breaking point, a sign that we’re making progress.
“But it’s not like it’s a new fight. If you ever think it’s so bad now, your ancestors faced the same and probably worse. That’s humbling and should give us strength. They taught us that progress is a process that is messy, a constant renegotiation of power and space.”
Vigilance has been a hallmark of Staples’ music, and underlies the work of Woods in her multiple roles as a poet, teacher, activist, songwriter and singer. The 29-year-old multitasker is part of a generation of Chicago artists — including past collaborators such as Chance the Rapper, Saba and Noname — who are advancing a broader vision in their work that encompasses not just their art but their citizenship.
“Those are the types of artists that I really admire,” Woods says. “I think about Sun Ra — there isn’t a clear line between his art and the way he lived. What is so inspiring about these people is they were being authentic to themselves no matter the cost. That gives me the strength to be authentic too.”
Staples is one of those giants on whose shoulders a new generation of artists stands, as evidenced by a series of birthday concerts this month in Nashville, New York and Los Angeles. Artists such as David Byrne, John Prine, Jason Isbell, Elle King and Margo Price have come out to pay tribute.
The cover image of “We Get By” captures a moment in that epic history. It’s a Gordon Parks photo from the same year Staples first set foot on the stage of the Apollo.
It shows three African American girls peering through a wire fence into a park playground, outside looking in.
“When I saw that picture, it grabbed my heart — I knew that had to be the album cover,” Staples says. “Those girls made me think of me and (her late sisters) Yvonne and Cleedie (Cleotha) back then.”
For Staples, she felt the weight of that legacy as she sang some of the new albums most poignant songs, including “Heavy on my Mind” and “Hard to Leave.” The singer refers to the vocal booth at the Los Angeles studio where she recorded the album as “the prayer room.”
“I would tell Ben (Harper) that Yvonne (who died last year) was in that prayer room with me,” she says. “Sometimes I would almost come to tears in there. I would think about Martin Luther King, Pops, Yvonne, my brother Pervis, how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.”
In the same way, there’s nothing nostalgic about the artists who inspired “Legacy! Legacy!” The past is as present in Woods’ recording sessions as it was in Staples’ prayer room. The album title was inspired by Margaret Burroughs’ poem “What Will Your Legacy Be?”
“It feels like call to action,” Woods says of the poem. “It says you don’t exist in a vacuum, you need to think about who came before and will come after.”