In 2011, blues singer and songwriter Shemekia Copeland was crowned “Queen of the Blues” by legendary singer KoKo Taylor’s daughter, Cookie, at the Chicago Blues Festival. That special moment was a career highlight for the down home, Harlem-born entertainer with the gut-wrenching vocal chops. Yet, she was perplexed as to why she was being passed such an influential torch.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Copeland during her master class at Rialto Center for the Arts in Atlanta. “I didn’t think it was going to happen in that way. It’s an honor and blessing for them to think that I can carry this music on for my generation.”
Copeland doesn’t speak in front of an audience very often, but she isn’t fazed by interacting with people at all. The singer is extremely gracious anytime fans or other musicians give her high praises for her talent or come to hear her sing. She drops a few historical references about iconic female blues singers she looks up to, shares several stories about herself and lists some of the global artists and musicians she streams on her playlists. But nothing gets Copeland’s adrenaline going like performing for a crowd.
Singing makes Copeland light up. “The art of entertaining is still my favorite part,” she says. “When somebody gets up there and jumps inside of a song and sells you that song, you need to be able to believe them.” What makes Copeland special in this era of music is she records and performs blues with contemporary themes and subject matter. She addresses topics like domestic violence (“I Ain’t Gonna Be Your Tattoo”), date rape and religious hypocrisy.
Lyrics are important to Copeland. She knows precisely what she wants for her final product. Therefore, she prefers to write, record and perform her own songs. “They’re very risqué,” says Copeland. “They will never make me popular, but it’s an awesome feeling ‘cause I’m doing what I wanna do.” Typically gripping a tambourine on-stage and accompanied by her four-piece band, Copeland’s ripe, robust pipes may have a slight twang to it here and there.
“I jump inside that song and become that song,” continues Copeland, “I become it, know it, feel those lyrics and know what they mean.”
A straight-shooting vocalist, it’s hard for Copeland to categorize her sound because she embraces incorporating various elements into her potent rendition of the blues. “I don’t cut anybody any slack,” she says. “I get on everybody within the music. It’s a big ‘ole stew. You gotta put it all in there. That’s how you make the music and make it good.”
Copeland, who will turn 37 on Apr. 10, was predestined to perform. The multiple Blues Music Award recipient and three-time Grammy award nominee is the daughter of late Texas-born, Grammy-winning guitarist and songwriter Johnny Clyde Copeland. She made her stage debut at age nine at The Cotton Club singing one of her dad’s compositions, “Stingy.” That experience was actually corrective action for Copeland, adding that she was slightly embarrassed by her mother making her wear a dress.
“It was punishment for me,” recalls Copeland, insisting she knew she would be called up to sing. “I’d gotten in trouble at home. I was supposed to be behaving myself. I started shaking, but I finally got up there.” Since that memorable evening, Copeland has worked tirelessly to forge her path as an accomplished musician in her own right. It irritates Copeland that her voice doesn’t resemble many of her favorite male (and some female) singers.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to sing like a man,” she says. “I was pissed. I couldn’t get that raspy.” Copeland traveled to Europe and throughout the New York area several times with her dad as a background singer. At times, she performed the entire first set of his show on her own. Before long, she was regularly booking solo gigs throughout New York even though she was barely old enough to set foot inside certain venues.
Right after her father’s passing in 1997, Copeland stepped into the spotlight full-time and chose to forego getting her college education. The following year, Copeland, at the time 18-years-old, released her debut LP, Turn the Heat Up. She was invited to tour with B.B. King and Dr. John for several months. “I became a little more serious about getting up there and singing,” says Copeland. “At first, I would sing a song with my daddy. He wouldn’t be there, so I would sing with his band.”
Copeland has released eight full-length studio projects, the most recent being 2015’s Outskirts of Love. She has shared stages along with Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, KoKo Taylor, Ruth Brown and Carlos Santana. The opportunity to join legendary talent came with a few hard lessons for Copeland about preparation.
“They don’t cut you no slack,” warns Copeland. “You gotta go up there, and do it. You gotta bring it. They won’t invite you back if you don’t.” Another pivotal moment for Copeland was performing along with B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, Keb Mo and Mick Jagger for the Obamas at the White House. Each performer participated in a “Blues for Schools” program for younger kids. Although she was the youngest act in the mix, Copeland appreciates being a part of that ensemble performance.
“These guys are great,” she confirms. “They don’t mind sharing their stage, especially with up-and-coming folks. The artists are all big fans of the music.” Almost immediately, Copeland shares another moment about performing with The Rolling Stones. She opened for the iconic rock band for a show in Chicago, later accepting a random gift from Jagger. “He sent me a bottle of champagne, and that’s my favorite” remembers Copeland. “I don’t know how he knew.”
Copeland reiterates countless times how her career has allowed her to be exposed to an influx of musical styles and places across the globe. She really takes it to heart anytime members of the audience share their personal stories about how her music has affected them. It may irritate Copeland that she hasn’t earned a Grammy just yet, but she’s incredibly moved when she can inspire her listeners.
“Every night, you just never know where you’re gonna be, who you’re gonna touch or who’s gonna hear you,” says Copeland. “What I put out into the universe is so important to me. You never know on any given night.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.