Cover photo © 2022 Joseph A. Rosen
The past two years have been fraught with difficulties for musicians at every level. No matter whether you’re a weekend warrior or one of the biggest names in the business, life’s been tough for everyone. And that includes Shemekia Copeland, the reigning Blues Music Association entertainer of the year, too.
Despite her upbeat attitude, seemingly Teflon-coated success and the fact that she’s been brightening spirits around the globe through sporadic live appearances and her five-day-a-week show on SiriusXM’s B.B. King’s Bluesville, she’s struggled right alongside everyone else.
She’s been forced to deal with a major medical issue and COVID-19, too. The trouper that she is, though, as Blues Blast learned in a recent interview, she’s bounced back stronger than ever and has big plans afoot to continue delivering more of the seriously powerful, socially relevant music that’s become her trademark in recent years.
Now based out of California after a long run in Chicago, she was actually born in New York City and raised in Harlem, where her father, Blues Hall of Famer Johnny “Clyde” Copeland, was based, and social issues always played a major role in her life even back then.
An exceptionally talented guitarist who enjoyed success late in life with Showdown!, the Grammy-winning 1985 Alligator release on which he squared off with Albert Collins and Robert Cray, Johnny was born in Haynesville, La., and recorded a succession of 45s for Duke and a series of minor labels out of Houston from the ‘50s to the mid-‘70s, when he uprooted his family for the Big Apple in an ill-fated attempt to cash in on the disco craze.
But he eventually became a darling of the blues world after signing with Rounder Records, where he earned three contemporary artist of the year trophies at the recently launched W.C. Handy Awards in addition to album-of-the-year honors for Copeland Special, his first release on the imprint in 1981.
Shemekia was just ten years old when she joined her dad on stage for the first time in 1989 at a later incarnation of the Cotton Club in Harlem. And she started assuming an increasingly important role in his performances in her mid-teens because of Johnny’s declining health. Born with a congenital heart defect, he eventually underwent a heart transplant in the winter of 1996 and succumbed to complications from the surgery at age 60 about six months later.
By the time she was 18, Shemekia was a star, too. Following in her father’s footsteps, she signed with Alligator, released Turn the Heat Up two years later and immediately started drawing praise from the New York Times, CNN and other news outlets before going on to earn her first W.C. Handy nomination for best new artist debut, too.
And it didn’t hurt that Koko Taylor took her under her wing, too.
“She was enormously important to me,” Copeland says today. “She always gave me lots of practical advice. She called me to check on me. Koko would talk to me for three minutes. She’d go: ‘How you doin’, baby? Everything all right?’ I’d go: ‘Everything’s fine.’ Then she’d go: ‘Lemme speak to your mama’ (laughs) because she knew she was gonna get the real story.
“She once told me: ‘I love you and appreciate that you’re not trying to be like me — that you’re keeping the tradition going by doing your own thing.’”
Both B.B. King and Buddy Guy helped her along the way, too, stressing the importance of being patient in her career because they knew for certain that her time would come. And Dr. John told her: “Just be yourself and make music you like. Everything will work out.”
And, boy, did it ever!
Her follow-up, Wicked, included a duet with another childhood hero, Ruth Brown, and Dr. John and Steve Cropper produced her next two, Talking to Strangers and The Soul Truth.
Copeland’s place as a major player in the blues hierarchy was already established in her early 30s – so much so, in fact, that Cookie Taylor, Koko’s daughter, presented her with her mom’s crown at the 2011 Chicago Blues Festival and anointed her as the true Queen of the Blues, a title that others had pinned on Koko for decades.
As great an honor as that was, however, Shemekia has never used it to her own advantage.
“Cookie and Koko, they both loved me,” she says fondly. “And I believe the reason that they loved me was that I was not trying to be like Koko. I was smart enough to know that I couldn’t (chuckles).
“I can’t be no Koko Taylor. I can’t be no Etta James. I can’t be Odetta or Ruth Brown. All I can be is the best version of Shemekia that I can be. That’s the only thing I’m capable of. I was smart enough to get and understand that.
“People got in such an uproar about it, but I’ve never called myself the queen of anything. If people ask me, I always tell ‘em: ‘Koko is and always will be the Queen of the Blues ‘cause she was my queen!’ She never called herself that either, and she knew I wouldn’t run around with a crown on my head and I’d never ever run around sayin’: ‘Oh, I’m the Queen of the Blues.’ And I haven’t!”
Despite her reluctance to accept the title, Shemekia’s track record proves without a doubt how deserving she truly is. The most honored female artist of her generation, her trophy case – if she has one – includes 12 Blues Music Awards after earning about 40 nominations in the past 24 years – something that’s even more amazing when you consider that she’s only in her early 40s. And that doesn’t include her four Grammy nominations!
One thing that separates Copeland from the majority of other vocalists these days is her increasing desire to deliver songs that deal with the human condition and – more recently — that shed new light on important events in black history that have been previously shrouded by time and prejudice.
There was a time in the blues – when the acoustic country musicians emerged from the cottonfields to play on the biggest stages in the world in the ’50s and ‘60s – that protest songs and others dealing with the struggles of African-Americans appeared frequently in their playlists. That came to a halt as the older artists died off and changes created by the Civil Rights movement and the Summer of Love took hold and changed society as we know it.
You don’t have to be a blues historian to recognize that the old themes surface in new material occasionally today, but it’s also true that the great majority of hits across the past 50 years have dealt with the ups and downs of romance — Johnnie Taylor’s “Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone” for example, praised good barbeque and great nights out or – like Z.Z. Hill’s “Down Home Blues” and Little Milton’s “Hey, Hey, the Blues Is Alright” – simply celebrate the blues itself.
As America’s sociopolitical climate has shifted in the past decade, however, the younger generation of blues artists, Shemekia included, have been releasing a growing number of songs drawn from the struggles of life in the modern world.
For Copeland, it crystalized full force in America’s Child, an album that pays tribute to the nation by describing some of the blessings it offers but also bares the blemishes that tarnishes its image, too. Produced by Will Kimbrough and featuring appearances from John Prine, Cropper, Rhiannon Giddens and Emmylou Harris, among others, it was the first album Shemekia released following the birth of her son, Johnny, and serves up a smorgasbord of the problems she knows he’ll be facing as he grows up.
Her latest release, Uncivil War, blends blues, R&B and Americana as it explores 21st century life and demands change for all of the problems it presents. With guest appearances from Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Webb Wilder, Duane Eddy, Jason Isbell and others, it addresses gun violence (“Apple Pie and a .45”), civil rights (“Walk Until I Ride”), lost friends, romance and more.
She delivers a little history lesson, too, with the cut “Clotilda’s on Fire,” which puts the spotlight on the true story of the last slave ship to America for the first time in 160 years. The ship carried as many as 160 tortured souls and was set ablaze in Mobile Bay in 1859 – five decades after the slave trade was outlawed — to destroy the evidence of its passage. It remained a forgotten relic until 2019, when it was rediscovered in the mud off the Alabama coast.
Shemekia insists that the change in the subject matter of her songs evolved naturally. “When I started in this business, I was just a child,” she says, “and the things that affect me as an adult didn’t affect me when I was a kid. I didn’t even think about it. It wasn’t even on my radar.
“I was born and raised in Harlem, and we had a lot of social issues goin’ on at the time. It was pretty dangerous to be there…it was not the safest of areas. But I want to say that I had a not-so-normal upbringing because I had both my parents and an household that was different than all the other kids’ who came from broken homes…lots of drug issues and stuff.
“I had a very solid foundation even though where I grew up wasn’t that great. We dealt with social issues all the time. That’s why my father recorded the song ‘Ghetto Child’…woo!…in the 1950s or early ‘60s. He recorded that about kids growin’ up in his neighborhood (in Houston), and here I am growin’ up in the ‘80s and ‘90s in New York and I’m dealin’ with the same stuff.
“I fear that my little boy, if he grows up to be a singer, he’ll be singin’ the same songs. It’s really sad to me.”
Becoming a mother, Shemekia says, had a profound affect on her choice of the material she writes and sings, noting: “As you live…as you get older…things start to get to you.
“Goin’ wa-a-ay back, when I did Never Going Back (her 2009 on Telarc, where she released two albums before returning to the Alligator fold), I did a song called ‘Broken World.’ I had gone to Iraq and Kuwait to entertain the troops. I was still in my late 20s, and all of those kids there were younger than I was. I was sayin’ to myself: ‘Gosh, you can’t buy yourself a drink, but you can come over here and risk your life!
“We were right in the middle of a war. It was very crazy – and very eye-opening for me! I think it started there for me wanting to do songs about social issues.
“After that, I started doing songs about domestic violence, date rape, religious hypocrites…things like that. And after I had my little boy in 2017 and did America’s Child, I didn’t want to complaint about the world as much as I wanted to fix it in a small way. I wanted to try to put out material that would make people think…like ‘we ain’t got time for hate…why are we doing this shit?’
“And then it continued with Uncivil War because I thought nobody heard me (chuckles).”
And listen they did! Like its predecessor, it’s currently a Grammy finalist for contemporary blues album of the year.
“That really makes me happy,” Shemekia says, “because it proves to me that I’m not the only person that wants unity, that wants us to come together.
“I feel like if we all turned off our televisions and stopped listening to people telling us what we ‘should’ be thinking or feeling about other people and started going out there and talking and meeting people and not being all ‘judgey’ of people, we’d actually learn about one another and realize we are all the same!
“It’s us against them. It’s us against the politicians. And when I say ‘us,’ I mean all of America.
“They are masterful of getting us to fight against each other over silly stuff while they’re in the background doin’ whatever it is that they wanna do! If we stopped allowing them to get in our heads and pit us against each other, man, we would be in such a much better place as a people. We all need to stick together…all shades, all kinds, all of us.”
Shemekia’s been laying the groundwork to continue her message as coronavirus has raged around her. And her voice has reached multitudes through her work as a deejay on SiriusXM’s B.B. King’s Bluesville, a job she took on a year prior to the world spinning to a halt. It’s something that’s brought her joy – especially, she says, “because I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t have that to lean on.
“I’ve had a rough couple of years,” Shemekia admits – and it goes far beyond her inability to tour and perform before her legions of adoring fans.
As difficult as the world was for her as a touring musician, she’s faced her own medical challenges in the past year. As she was getting set to launch a summer tour, doctors diagnosed her with a rare form of kidney cancer that often affects people in their 40s and 50s and creates tumors that affix themselves to the lining of the tubes that filter impurities from the blood.
“For me, it was a very strange thing because there are no kidney issues in my family. I ended up with a tumor. But the good news is that it’s pretty curable. They removed the tumor along with 20 per cent of my kidney, and now I’m good. And fortunately, I didn’t have to have radiation or chemo or anything like that.
“I’m feeling pretty grateful for all that.”
Shemekia bounced back quickly and was able to tour again during the fall, but that was fraught with issues, too. She was already in Florida – fully vaccinated and boosted — and getting set to sail on the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise last November — literally getting ready to board the ship — when she was diagnosed with COVID herself.
“You don’t wanna be that person when they call your name,” she jokes now. “That’s what’s so scary about this stuff. I just thought I had some allergy issues. I certainly didn’t think it was that…but it was.”
Fortunately, her symptoms were mild. She lost her sense of taste and smell for a couple of weeks before returning to her old self.
Now, it’s on to bigger and better things for Copeland as she tries “to put the ‘United’ back into the United States” once again through song. “I miss the days when we treated each other better and could come together despite our differences,” she insists. “That’s what really makes America beautiful.”
If you like the messages she delivered in America’s Child and Uncivil War, you’ll really love what Shemekia’s planning next. “It’s gonna be a trilogy,” she says, “and I’m so-o-o excited!
“Nobody else ever has to worry about me bein’ in competition with them because I’m in constant competition with myself to do better than I did before. I’ve already done a lot of it, and I’m working with some artists that I love and respect so much. Cedric Burnside is one of ‘em.
And if you think that Shemekia’s going overboard to stress her message, she’s got a few words for you.
“I think that some people who listen to my records say: ‘You’re becoming very political,’ and I completely disagree with that,” she insists. “They almost had me convinced, but I don’t believe that at all. I’m just talking about what’s happening in this country, and some people – not all – just don’t want to hear that.
“A lot of folks are professionals about wanting to sweep everything under the rug. It’s like guns and stuff like that. I hate the words ‘gun control.’ It’s a media thing. When you say that instead of using different language, it immediately puts all of us in an armed war.
“I own one myself. I’ve got my conceal-and-carry. I believe in gun ownership. My husband was brought up to hunt and all that stuff, and I’m hopin’ he’ll teach our son, too. It’s important. It’s part of life. But we can all agree that we don’t want crazy people to have ‘em.
“But instead of goin’ on television and sayin’ that, they talk about ‘there’s gotta be gun control’ – and immediately, the whole world is in an uproar because they’re trying to take away somethin’ – which, by the way, has never happened. People just wanna fight.”
The first disc in the project should reach listeners’ ears by the fall. Meanwhile, Shemekia’s slated for a series of concerts in Texas at the end of January, then a week in the Northeast before sailing on Joe Bonamassa’s Keeping the Blues Alive at Sea cruise in February. Other plans include appearances at the Notodden Blues Festival in Norway and the Big Blues Bender in Las Vegas.
“Maybe by the end of January we’ll have more plans,” she says. “Right now, though, it’s better that we all live in the present and hope for the best! But one thing’s for certain: I’m so grateful for all the people who support us. We couldn’t do any of this without them!”
Check out Shemekia’s music and where she’ll be playing next by visiting her website: www.shemekiacopeland.com