Black History 365: Shemekia Copeland
Interview with Shemekia Copeland
By Martine Ehrenclou
Multi award-winner, four-time Grammy nominee Shemekia Copeland is considered one of the great blues and Americana vocalists of our time.
The daughter of the legendary bluesman Johnny Clyde Copeland, Shemekia Copeland made her debut at The Cotton Club at the age of 10. When she turned 16, her father took her on tour as his opening act. Her debut 1998 album Turn The Heat Up on Alligator Records, kicked off an impressive career.
Ten albums and eight Blues Music Awards later, Copeland has been praised by The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Forbes, NPR Music, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, among others. She has appeared in films, on national television, and has performed with Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards, Carlos Santana, Dr. John, James Cotton, Buddy Guy, Gary Clark Jr. and others, including a performance at The White House for President and Mrs. Obama. She continues to host her popular blues radio show on SiriusXM’s Bluesville.
Copeland’s new album, the Grammy nominated Done Come Too Far out on Alligator Records, features guests Sonny Landreth, Cedric Burnside, Charles Hodges, Kenny Brown, Oliver Wood, Pat Sansone and Aaron Lee Tasjan and is produced by Will Kimbrough. The songs were written by Kimbrough and John Hahn.
After congratulating Shemekia on Done Come Too Far and sharing my enthusiasm and appreciation for the album, I said, “You must be excited about the Grammy nomination. You’ve been nominated several times before, but this album feels pretty special.”
Shemekia said, “I’m very excited and this is a special album. I’m really surprised sometimes when you tell your whole truth, when people actually get it, take it in and accept it. I love it, I mean this album is all of my personality, the good, bad and the ugly, right? It’s all in there.” (Laughs)
Laughing, I asked her what it felt like baring it all like that.
“It felt great. I mean, it’s who I am,” she said. “I’ve got my serious side. I’ve got my very funny side. Everything is there in this record and that’s what I love about it. It’s how I feel about what’s going on in the world. It makes me really proud and it makes me proud to not be afraid to put it that out there like that.”
Continuing, Shemekia added, “This has been a journey for me. I started doing this since I was a kid. In the earlier part of my career, you find me talking about the social injustice. You find me talking about religious hypocrites, rape, domestic violence. I’ve always touched on issues in a particular way, so I’ve never been afraid to do that. But these last three albums are really special because it all started with having my little guy who’s almost six now, and wanting to make records that he would be proud of and say, ‘My momma is brave. My mom said this when it wasn’t popular.”
There’s deep soulfulness combined with unflinching bluntness in Done Come Too Far, funny and lighthearted tunes too. Her powerhouse vocals and the record’s top-tier musicianship and songwriting make for a compelling mix. Shemekia speaks with the same honesty and confidence that comes through in her singing. Throughout our conversation, her devotion to her young son was apparent.
“When I had him, I wanted the world to be better for him,” she said.
From America’s Child (2018) and Uncivil War (2020) to Done Come Too Far, the trilogy ignited a spark for Shemekia, a commitment to incite change, to inform, and to reflect some of society’s ills in her music. Not political, she claims to mirror what’s going on in the world.
About her decision to record another album that addressed society’s problems, something she hadn’t planned on, Shemekia said, “Then, of course, we all know what happened in 2020. I mean, It was like, what the hell? (Laughs) 2020 was a whole mess. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I guess we’re just going to have to keep on with this.’ (Laughs) And this album, I don’t want to use the word dark because it’s not dark necessarily, but I think it’s the darkest of the three. Because of all the things that happened in 2020 that needed to get touched on. You know what I mean?”
“I do. Your songs and your voice, your delivery, reflect the hard truths about what’s happening in our country. Lighthearted things too. There’s a couple songs on the album that made me laugh. How do you decide which topics to sing about and which go on your record? Is it just what moves you the most in the moment?”
“For me,” Shemekia said, “I feel like in order for blues music to evolve and grow, and to be contemporary, you have to talk current events, current issues and things that people can relate to. I try to do some of that. But I also really love history. On these last records, I’ve been touching on historical things and that makes me happy. For whatever reason, people don’t want to learn about their history. And I’ve always been taught when you know better, you do better. Right? We don’t want history to repeat itself.”
She added, “That’s why we should know about it. That’s why I wanted to do ‘Clotilda’ on the last record. And on this record, we talk about the Gullah people (“Gullah Geechee” a percussive, raw song about slavery with a gospel flavor). Our America’s so rich in culture, it’s pretty amazing. But a lot of people don’t know about it. When I find out about it, I’m like, “Oh, I got to put this out. So everyone can know about it.”
I asked, “Have you always used your voice to speak the truth and break down barriers? Have you always been a courageous person?”
“I have,” Shemekia shared. “From the very beginning I’ve always talked about women’s rights and social injustice and things of that nature, religious hypocrites. I’ve always used my voice in that way. But I think these last three albums, I’ve done so much more of that.”
I asked her about her song “The Talk,” a moving, edgy blues track about the conversations women of color have with their sons about how to behave if stopped by the police. Shemekia sings, “Words no mama wants to say, But I don’t wanna lose you someday, It’s as cruel as life can get, When a child looks like a threat, If you’re walking down the street, Or drivin’ in your car, When you get stopped, Remember who you are, And if your nerves start to crack, Whatever you do don’t talk back.”
As a singer, Copeland puts those thoughts into the heartbreaking ballad, singing with deep emotion. I asked if she’d had this talk or was planning to have it with her son.
As we talked by phone, Shemekia was packing up for her trip to Arizona to do her last gig of the year. She said, “I’ve been doing that. His whole life, I’ve been telling him that discipline’s going to save your life one day. Knowing what to say. Knowing what to do when you’re pulled over, knowing how to speak to people.”
She shared that she has a deep respect for law enforcement and talks to her son about the fact that the police are out there risking their lives every day to keep us all safe. But as with anything, she states, “There’s some good and there’s some bad. You just want to hopefully always be in a position where you run into the good ones. He has to be aware, has to understand how he needs to act.” And adds, “We also teach him to be respectful to law enforcement.”
Done Come Too Far continues in that vein with songs such as “Too Far To Be Gone” which refers to Martin Luther King Jr and Rosa Parks, slavery with the song “Gullah Geechee”, and childhood sexual abuse with “The Dolls Are Sleeping.” “Dumb It Down” addresses the dumbing down of America by way of reality TV and mass media, but with sly humor.
Copeland’s song “Pink Turns to Red”, is a bluesy rock and roll tune about gun violence and mass shootings in schools. Slide guitar adds to the power of this tune, and the visual lyrics speak of having nowhere to run, about children in school with a gunman on the loose. Since it’s such an important issue to her, to most everyone, I asked her if she had ideas about preventing gun violence.
Shemekia got right to her point. “It’s such big business. Everything in this country is fueled by money. It doesn’t matter if it’s guns, pharmaceuticals, insurance. It’s all about money. And I would say that once greed is taken out of play, we’ll be okay. Because at the end of the day, they want to make it about, oh, well, they’re buying these in the street and they’re getting them illegally. They’re getting them from somewhere.”
I asked for her thoughts on gun laws.
Shemekia replied, “Well, we have plenty of gun laws in lots of places. That’s not helping. When they want something to be done about all these things, they will do it. I was scared to send my baby to school. I almost didn’t. But then I thought about his social development.”
She added that she’s not anti-gun, that her husband is from the Midwest and grew up hunting. “My child will grow up learning about guns and respecting them and understanding how, what to do with them. It’s important to learn about these things so that when you know better, you do better. Johnny knows that this is not a toy that you should be playing with.”
“You mentioned your son Johnny. Is he named after your dad?” I asked.
Shemekia said, “Yep, and my father’s dad and his father’s dad. For John Hahn, who is his papa.”
One of the highlights on the album is the love song, “Nobody But You” by Copeland’s father, blues singer and guitarist, Johnny Copeland. I said, “You include one of your dad’s songs on each of your albums. How did you choose this one?”
“It’s kind of ironic in some way that I picked that song,” Shemekia shared. “It’s always tough to pick one of my dad’s songs. But my mom passed away on the day that this album came out and it was devastating for me. Devastating. I miss her every day. But my dad wrote that song about her, and that’s the one I chose.”
Circling back to Shemekia Copeland’s mission to make the world a better place, I asked her about a woman who came up to her at a concert and said that one of her songs about racism changed her life. I said, “That can’t be an isolated incident.”
Shemekia admitted, “Stuff like that happens to me all the time. I was doing a song called, ‘Would You Take My Blood?’ After the show, she came up to me crying and said, ‘Me and my husband have these conversations all the time at home. He says things that I don’t like. And it really upsets me. And when you did that song tonight, I felt a change, a shift. And I just want to say thank you for that, because it was so simply put that he could really wrap his head around it.’ And she was just grateful.”
Continuing, she said, “I’ve also had a woman come up to me and say, ‘I had been in an abusive relationship physically and mentally, emotionally, for a very long time. I was leaving his house one night and XRT’ (a radio station in the Chicago area) ‘played your song ‘Ain’t Going to Be Your Tattoo.’ She said, ‘After I heard that song, I never went back to him again.’ She introduced me to her new beau, and oh, my God, we were crying. It was just amazing. She said, ‘You saved my life.’”
“I always say it’s not about the masses for me,” Shemekia said. “If I could change one heart, one mind of one person, that’s enough for me. And I’m one person at a time kind of gal. And I’m good with that.”
For more information about Shemekia Copeland see her website Here