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Thursday, May 31st, 2007

Mavis Staples Joins the Fight

LA Weekly Anger can be power

By ERNEST HARDY A few weeks ago, while tinkering with her MacBook en route to speak at the Porter Colloquium — an arts conference for black visual artists — at Howard University in D.C., art historian Phyllis Jackson weighed in on the then-raging Don Imus controversy. “The fact that those girls [the Rutgers basketball team] were shocked and surprised by Imus saying what he did lets me know that there has somehow been a real failure on our part to really teach this generation, to communicate to them the realities of this country. They should be angry, yes. But shocked? Floored? We knew we were at war. They don’t know. I sometimes wonder, what country do they [post-civil-rights era black kids] think they’re living in?”

“They had a hunting season on the rabbit|?If you shoot him, you went to jail/Season was always open on me/Nobody needed no bail . . .” sings Mavis Staples on the second verse of “Down in Mississippi,” the opening song on her fantastic new Ry Cooder–produced CD, We’ll Never Turn Back. The collection is a genre overhaul of Negro traditionals (“We Shall Not Be Moved,” “Eyes on the Prize”) and gospel standards (“99 and ½”), as well as a showcase for powerful original songs (“My Own Eyes”). With backing vocals provided by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Cooder and Staples revitalize some old freedom songs, many of which have been the soundtrack to Negro resistance in this country since before the civil rights movement of the ’60s, and most famously during, and create some new ones while they’re at it. But with biting references to Hurricane Katrina, the enduring practice of police brutality, ongoing poverty and more racialized ills, they also make clear how painfully relevant this protest music still is. Nappy headed hoes stand up!

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