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Gospel legend and civil rights icon Mavis Staples to return to Durham

The rhythm and blues artist Mavis Staples — a “staple” of American music — is set to perform at the historic Carolina Theatre Oct. 3.
The rhythm and blues artist Mavis Staples — a “staple” of American music — is set to perform at the historic Carolina Theatre Oct. 3.

The rhythm and blues artist Mavis Staples — a “staple” of American music — is set to perform at the historic Carolina Theatre, returning with Duke Performances Oct. 3.

Mavis Staples began performing with her father and siblings in The Staple Singers, a family band created in the ‘50s. Together, they released music that often revolved around the Civil Rights Movement, such as classic hits “I’ll Take You There,” “Respect Yourself” and “For What It’s Worth.” The family band, known for their uplifting messages and gospel style, was a personal favorite of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Staples would go on to pursue a solo career that carried on the power The Staple Singers were known to deliver. Now 80 years old, the three-time Grammy winner continues performing and recently put out a new album, “We Get By,” earlier this year.

In an interview with NPR, Staples described how her father always wanted "to sing about what's happening in the world today, and if it's something bad, we want to sing a song to try to fix it." The music of “We Get By” reflects this idea. Music tinged with nostalgia for the Civil Rights Era succeeds in commenting on America’s current social woes — we get by, but change is necessary.

Notably, Staples has also recently collaborated with Irish singer-songwriter Hozier, well known for his hit track “Take Me to Church.” In their power ballad “Nina Cried Power,” Hozier and Staples combine their dynamic, commanding voices to celebrate the work of musical artists and activists including Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Mavis herself. In the past, Staples has also collaborated with artists ranging from Bob Dylan — whose marriage proposal she allegedly rejected — to alternative rock band Arcade Fire.

Mavis Staples’ Oct. 3 concert will be a return to Duke Performances, a performing arts presenting organization based at Duke dedicated to curating a diverse lineup of world-class artists. Eric Oberstein, the interim director of Duke Performances, was incredibly excited to have Staples join this year’s season of performances. Oberstein described how he believed “audiences here in Durham and here in the Triangle really love her, and I have no doubt will be excited to greet her.”

“Mavis Staples is a living legend,” said Oberstein. “She’s been such a force in our culture, as an artist, as a singer. I would say that this is an artist not to be missed. Mavis Staples is an important artist in American culture — she’s a legend, she’s a legendary singer and performer who has been performing for many, many decades.”

Oberstein also had much to say about the Carolina Theatre, which will be the venue of the concert. The historic theater, originally founded in downtown Durham in 1926, often partners with Duke Performances to showcase artists.

Concerning the importance of having these events away from Duke’s campus and within the community, Oberstein discussed how “it really is a part of [Duke Performance’s] DNA. We think it’s important to come to the community and not just ask the community to come onto campus to attend the shows that we present.” He hopes people will make a night of the concert that “will be an electric performance, no doubt.”

Students on campus share in Oberstein’s excitement. “I think it’s important to invite artists who not only have great music but produce music that conveys a relevant message to a community,” sophomore Ami Wong said. “With Mrs. Staples’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and her roots in rhythm and blues, I feel it’s something that the Durham community will really appreciate as relevant to our culture.”

Oberstein described Staples’ legacy as simply “timeless”: “I would say timeless because of the power of her message, the power of her lyrics, and just her quality as a musician, as a performer. She is an artist that transcends time and generations. I think that her music will be powerful forever. And even though coming up as a child and as a young artist, she was very much a part of the Civil Rights Era and Civil Rights Movement.”

Oberstein relayed his belief about how “the music that [Mavis Staples] was creating back in the day and the music that she creates now is timeless. It speaks to us very directly, with a direct message and with incredible inspiration.” 

Tickets for the performance can be found at dukeperformances.duke.edu, $10 for Duke students. 

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