Commencement 2021: Mavis Staples's Address to Graduates

Mavis Staples ’21 Hon. DM sent these words of thanks in response to her honorary degree.

Thank you to the New England Conservatory of Music for this amazing and humbling honor.  

When I was growing up on the south side of Chicago, I was just a little girl that loved to sing. I’d never studied music or was taught what to do but music was something where I just couldn’t help myself.

Music made me so happy. It still does today. 

And it’s so exciting to me to see so many young people, like all you graduates, have that same connection and passion for music.

Music is spiritual AND powerful. 

Now when I started out, I was just a child. Eight years old. My father, Pops Staples, was in a five-piece all male vocal group. And they would have rehearsals — sometimes four of them would show up for rehearsal; sometimes three of them would show up for rehearsal. And my father got fed up. So one night, he came home and he grabbed all of us kids — my sisters Cleedi, Yvonne and my brother Pervis — and sat us on the living room floor. And he taught us “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.”

That next Sunday, we went down to my Aunt Katie’s church and we sang that song. And the crowd loved it! They loved it so much that they cheered us back out and asked us to sing another one. So we sang “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” again! And they called us back out one more time. And we sang “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” a third time. It was the only song we knew all the way through! So my father said “these people like us. I think we gotta go home and learn some more songs…”

But that experience sent me off on my journey and my career with music. And it’s one that I wouldn’t change for the world.

We were a gospel group and we toured all through the south. Now this was the Jim Crow South, which…well, I have some stories. But Pops had always taught us: don’t start nothing. But don’t take nothing either. 

Portrait of Mavis Staples on overhead projector, while Hankus Netsky stands at the Jordan Hall podium wearing Commencement regalia.
Mavis Staples's Commencement address was delivered on Sunday, May 23 by Contemporary Improvisation Co-Chair Hankus Netsky.

Now as we’re out touring around singing our gospel music, we started to hear protest songs. Songs like Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind. And those songs stuck with us – they hit home because of what we were seeing on our tours. “How many roads must a man walk down, before you can call him a man?”  

One day, Pops went to go see Martin Luther King speak. He came home that night and he told all of us “I really like this man’s message. And if he can preach it, we can sing it.”

And that started our journey singing message songs. Songs that we used to try and make a difference in the world. 

So, we wrote songs like “It’s A Long Walk to DC” and Dr King’s favorite, “Why Am I Treated So Bad.” We would be at rallies with Dr. King and he would turn to my father and say “Stap — you gonna sing my song, right?” And Pops would reply “oh yeah, Doctor, we’re gonna sing your song…” Dr. King loved that song. So we ended up performing all around with Dr. King. 

Now at this time in the south, we couldn’t go into certain bathrooms. We couldn’t go in certain restaurants. We couldn’t stay in certain hotels. That was the Jim Crow South.

But by using the voice that we had, by singing, by using music, we were able to help implement real change in the world. Music became an essential part of the movement for change. 

Now as the past couple years have really brought to light, even though there has been some big changes, we’re obviously not where we need to be. But you, this young generation, can change that. And you can use your voice, and your music to make that change.

So, as I sit here today in front of all you young people, I want to just tell you — 

When we started singing our message songs, I was just in my twenties. Probably just like you.

So remember, that music is powerful. Your voice is powerful. And if you put the two together, you can change the world.

And I hope you do. 

Thank you so much for this honorary doctorate. From the bottom of my heart, I am so honored and grateful to be receiving this. Thank you so much. 

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