Considered to be one of the
great blues voices of our time, in 2011, at the Chicago Blues Festival, Shemekia Copeland was crowned “Queen of the Blues,” a distinction held by the late blues great Koko Taylor.
Copeland came of age in Harlem, New York. The music that pulsed all around her grew to be the lifeblood that courses through her veins.
“It’s easy to connect to it when your mom’s from Carolina and your daddy’s from Texas,” Copeland reflected.
The daughter of Texas blues guitarist/singer Johnny Copeland, she made her first public appearance at the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem before she turned 10 years old.
Through the eyes of a child, Copeland was unaware of the fabled history — where iconic black artists like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Bessie Smith had once graced the stage — or significance of a club that helped to define the emergence of African American culture during the late 1920s and ’30s.
“We lived right down the street. It was just another place my dad took me to filled with a bunch of old people,” Copeland said, innocently. “Later in life it really hit me that this place was special.”
Despite her father’s influence and mother’s passion for music, Copeland “Married to the Blues” came from another source.
“It was a calling,” she stated, without hesitation.
But a traditional marriage, it hasn’t always been.
Over the course of 11 albums, Copeland has expanded the definition.
“We’ve got banjos and fiddles,” she said, with a laugh. “It’s instrumentation that is not normally used in blues music.”
“Call me old fashioned, but I want to go back to the days where you’d go to a record store and nothing was separated by genre.”
On the title track of her latest album, “Done Come Too Far,” Copeland stares down America’s long history of racial injustice.
“It is just the truth,” she affirmed. “I’m talking about what’s happening in this country today.”
Engaging in social issues is nothing new for Copeland. “Done Come Too Far” is not a departure, but a continuation of her work.
On the title track — referencing the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — she sang, “Thought we were silenced at the Lorraine / But that voice didn’t die in vain / Its echo rings like no other / For every sister and brother / Though many are gone / Their spirits still scream / You can kill a man but not a dream.”
For Copeland the march for justice and equality continues.
“Absolutely,” she said, pensively. “We are still fighting to be free.”
Copeland is talking to Tucson Weekly on Election Day. Taken aback, Copeland saw incongruity everywhere.
Like on “Apple Pie and a .45.” — from her 2020 album “Uncivil War” — where she not only questioned America’s love affair with guns, but a value system gone awry.
“Things are really bad out there. I see so many things out on the road. Like signs that say, ‘I am Christian, and I voted,’” Copeland pondered. “I don’t even know what that means.
“Sometimes I get discouraged and angry.”
Yet, despite everything — searching for a path toward détente in this “Uncivil War” — Copeland said she believes there is still good in the world. As exemplified in her song, “Ain’t Got Time for Hate.”
“We should all love one another.”
For Copeland it all comes down to the will of the people.
“There is so much divisiveness and hate in the background, ruining our lives. But one day when everybody gets together and says, as American people, that we are sick and tired of these politicians ruining our lives, we are all going to stick together and make the changes we want to make in our country,” Copeland concluded.
Possessing a voice that can at once scream out at injustice then function as a healing salve, on “Clotilda’s on Fire” — from 2020’s “Uncivil War” — Copeland acknowledges a chapter of American history often unsung, with weight and tenderness.
In 1859, 50 years after the slave trade was banned, the last known U.S. slave ship, the Clotilda was burned and sunk by its captain to destroy the evidence. Over a decade and a half later its wreckage was discovered in the Alabama Delta, in 2019.
“When I learned of the history,” Copeland said, pensively. “I felt compelled to share it.”
On “Clotilda’s on Fire” — bringing peace to the specters of a multitude held underfoot — Copeland sang, “Her flame no longer lights up at night / Now dreams survive and hope burns bright / People still come from miles around / To praise the folks of Africatown / Who rose from the ashes of sad history / To stand unchained, proud and free.”
Unafraid to cast light on a subject that for many is a taboo best kept in the dark, “The Dolls Are Sleeping” — off of “Done Come Too Far” — acts as a sobering exposé about childhood sexual abuse.
“Something needed to be said,” Copeland said. “I’ve known too many victims of molestation.
“My albums reflect me. But I am not all serious.” As evidenced in “Fried Catfish and Bibles” and “Fell in Love with a Honky,” tracks from her new album.
Once her son was born Copeland became even more committed to making the world a better place.
“When he gets older, I want my little guy to be proud of me,” Copeland said. “To know that his mommy mattered and had the courage to speak out.”
An artist, ever evolving, the underlying thread that connects her recent work, her trilogy, is unification.
“On ‘America’s Child,’ ‘Uncivil War,’ and now ‘Done Come Too Far,’ I have been trying to put the ‘united’ back into the United States,” Copeland stated. “Friends, family and home, these things we all value.”
In the summer of 2021, Copeland was planning her return to performing, as the world was reawakening post-lockdown. But her plans were promptly sidelined when she was diagnosed with a rare type of kidney cancer: Chromophobe renal cell carcinoma. Surgeons operated.
Shortly afterward, she contracted COVID-19 and temporarily lost her sense of smell, despite being vaccinated.
“I feel fine, so far. It’s not recurring,” Copeland said, optimistically. “So, I’m just going to hope and pray that that’s the case with me. I am just going to wait and see what the next months bring.”
Of indomitable spirit, Copeland — who lives near San Diego with her husband and young son — is pressing on with a series of North American tour dates that will take her into the New Year.
One of those stops is in Tucson.
“I will be performing songs from all of my albums.” Copeland enthused, “It is going to be a great time.”