Getting the music right for Obama's Inaugural

You start with the obvious choice, Mavis Staples. Then there's the Chicago connection, and world music.
Crosscut archive image.

Mavis Staples at Rockefeller Park in 2007.

You start with the obvious choice, Mavis Staples. Then there's the Chicago connection, and world music.

Obama's inauguration team hasn't announced its musical performers yet, but there's one artist they would be crazy not to invite to the festivities: civil rights icon Mavis Staples.

Staples, 69, has already performed at the Carter and Clinton inaugurations. She represents the best of the civil rights legacy as a former member of The Staples Singers, who toured church houses of the South in the 1950s and accompanied Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. She's a longtime member of Obama's former church, Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ. Inviting her could be a peace offering to the congregation he left in May.

But Staples' music stands on its own, regardless of her biography. With a deep, rumbling voice she can belt out freedom songs with an authority few can match.

"I saw New Orleans, saw the people left for dead," she sang on the post-Katrina "My Own Eyes," making socially relevant music once again. "I heard every bald-faced lie you politicians said'ꀦWith my own eyes/I saw it with my own eyes/With my own eyes, so I know it's true."

The song appears on "We'll Never Turn Back," her 2007 collaboration with roots rocker Ry Cooder. With Cooder producing and playing guitar, Staples breathed new life into civil rights standards such as "Eyes on the Prize" and "We Shall Not Be Moved." Like Obama's speech on race in Philadelphia in March, her music calls racial injustice for what it is, yet affirms the humanity of everyone involved. That the album wasn't nominated for an Album of the Year Grammy only proves the irrelevancy of the awards. Bringing her to Washington, D.C., where she's traveled both as protester and a guest of honor, would be an even better reward.

While I'm at it, here are some more unsolicited suggestions for the inaugural lineup:

Common. The socially conscious Chicago hip-hop veteran has been supporting Obama in videos and songs for a while, so he deserves some love in return. How about "The People" or "The Corner"?

Steve Earle. Somehow, George Bush forgot to invite this leftie alt-country Texan to his victory celebrations. Earle responded with biting, hopeful protest songs while avoiding the one-dimensionality that so often plagues the genre. Performing "Rich Man's War" at the National Mall might be too much, but his stirring ode to peace "Jerusalem" would fit even better.

Wilco. Obama's reportedly a fan of the most innovative rock band around, and he's even introduced them at a concert. The elegiac centerpiece of their Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, "Ashes of American Flags," probably wouldn't strike the right note. But "I'm the Man Who Loves You," "War on War," or their Woody Guthrie cover "Airline to Heaven," would fit just fine.

M.I.A. Obama could signal a return to diplomacy with the hottest world music act around. The Sri Lankan refugee M.I.A. (Maya Arulpragasam) draws on Indian bhangra, Brazilian funk, Jamaican reggae and U.K. hip-hop in tunes that can pack any late-night dance floor, even in D.C. The ridiculously catchy "Paper Planes" taunts one obsessively secretive government — "I got more records than the KGB" — and it would provide a perfectly danceable way to mark the end of another.


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