Listen to this track by message music maven and one-time Staple Singer Mavis Staples. It’s “Fight” a brand new single as taken from her 2015 EP Your Good Fortune. The EP was produced by none other than Anti-Records labelmate Son Little, also an artist with a feel for music with a message. This song is a kind of artistic mobius strip, with one artist who followed in the footsteps of another making footsteps of his own for her to follow. Saying that, there is more than just a turnaround between two artists with a similar set of motivations.
“Fight” seems to capture the anger related to any number of systemic aggressions against black people specifically and poor people in general as perpetrated by those who’s job it is to protect them. These events have alerted us to a social crisis that is not isolated to a few areas in our society. Songs about struggle and rage are appropriate in 2015 to say the least. I think essential may be the more precise word.
“Fight” pulls no punches about the times in which it has been made, even if its textures and tone seems pretty timeless. There have been a number of events to help to frame some of the themes it evokes. Even in recent months, the riots in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray who was in police custody at the time is certainly one undeniable example. Last year’s riots in Ferguson after 18-year old and unarmed Michael Brown was shot and killed and the lasting effects that event caused is another. But, these are only two of the most high-profile examples that have made the news. Disturbing statistics suggest that violence against black people by police officers in the United States are significantly disproportionate in general, including during custody procedures.
When a song like this coming from a person like Mavis Staples who spent a portion of her youth singing and marching during the earliest period of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, there is an added potency to be found here. With her voice at the forefront on this song as an artist who helped to give voice to modern protest music as we know it today, the fact that we haven’t marched as far as we thought from Selma (an event at which Mavis was present), or from stunted social evolution when it comes to racial equality, economic and social mobility, and the elimination of systemic prejudice seems palpably apparent. But with Mavis on this song, all is not lost.
In this song, there’s still plenty of fight left in a population that is kept down thanks to an economic approach that needs a change, but will not get one while CEOs are still getting raises. It also shows that people under the boot of an oppressive system today are not unaware of the root causes of their situation, and know how that system operates much better than we who do not experience those root causes directly. The rage over these social forces played out in scenarios we’ve seen on the news is not blind. This is an important idea for us to understand, we who observe from positions of privilege in the mainstream.
Amid all of the calls of thuggery by politicians and by news outlets toward the people who have engaged in sometimes destructive and even violent protest, we’ve also seen (if we’ve looked beyond mainstream media) examples of community leadership from the ground level, keeping anger focused on these underlying set of social dynamics that give way to justifiable rage. This song is an anthem to those who engage in this work of revealing injustice and who help to bring focus to the significant and important anger that it causes in defence of their communities and identities. The fact that this song comes from one of Mavis Staples’ stature, with the weight of her own history with civil unrest behind her only makes its themes all the more vital. They are connected to struggles that have been going on for decades, and even longer.
Music like this is vital in 2015 for more reasons than the emerging importance of the protest song as delivered by one of the giants in the field like Mavis Staples. It is a reminder that the news is not to be judged at face value, and that sometimes the truth is best found when we who look from the outside in withhold our judgements and decide listen to the stories of those who are living it out every day rather than to default to the reactionary biases that mainstream culture would have us take on.
It’s also a reminder to we who are privileged that there are people in our society who really do have to fight, and in ways that we do not . This isn’t because those marginalized in our society feel entitled to any more than anyone else. It’s certainly not because they’re thugs, and more prone to violence than others. It’s because there are forces in our society that call their full humanity into question on a daily basis. This forces them into the position of having to constantly justify the worth of their lives instead of that worth being a given. How tiring that must be. How infuriating. How sad.
It is this terrible reduction of humanity which lies at the heart of every kind of injustice everywhere. Therefore the fight against dehumanization in any form should be everyone’s, guided by empathy, humility on the part of those in positions of power and privilege, and a with willingness to listen to and believe people’s stories first before believing the socially accepted narratives we’ve always been taught. Stories, and songs for that matter, can have the power to inspire transformation in people and in society once action is taken to initiate it. And if there ever was a need for transformation with as many hands put to the tools of social change, it’s now.
Check out the original posting of this song on Okayplayer.com.
Learn more about Mavis Staples, including her history as an artist on the scene at historic civil rights events, at mavisstaples.com.
For more on the issues of race and privilege with greater insight than I can provide here, I urge you to read this article by Princeton graduate and middle-school teacher Julia Blount. The piece is about what it is like not to have the option to ignore racial bigotry and systemic racism, with a call to a white audience that does have that option to shed cultural biases and listen with empathy instead.
Further, here is a piece by Baltimore-born author of The Beautiful Struggle and cultural and social commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s about violence at the protests in Baltimore, and how condemning the actions of the participants isn’t quite as straightforward as the media are currently portraying it.