Features, Print May 27, 2019

Shemekia Copeland Says What She Wants: Blues Jam Headliner Speaks Her Mind Through Her Music

by Dan England

Shemekia Copeland was pissed off on a Tuesday morning – well before many had even had their coffee. She’s a happy person, a mother who loves her child, a daughter who is proud of her heritage and a blues singer who feels blessed to sing before thousands. But she was pissed. She can’t help it. Every day, it seems, she gets angry.

This time, it was something she heard from one of President Trump’s “offspring,” as she calls him. He said something about poor people, something about how if they want more in life, they just have to work harder.

Now she warns you about nurturing this conversation. She talks to her manager and songwriter, John Hahn, three times a day, and many of the conversations go this way. Don’t get her started, she says. But here she goes anyway.

“If I could have just wrapped my hands around his little neck,” Copeland said in a phone interview. “If you’re born into privilege, that’s a blessing. Just know it, and know that there are people who who aren’t afforded the same opportunity as you. Know it and don’t be a douche about it.”

She pauses. “I’m sorry,” she said and laughed. “That wasn’t politically correct.”

Copeland may have apologized because her mother was right there, and her mother believes it’s important to be a lady. On most days, Copeland says what she wants, and she rarely apologizes for it. She’s as known for her social stances as she is for her deep, mature, outstanding blues voice.

She is recognized by many as the finest blues singer of her generation, and in early June she will headline the Greeley Blues Jam, one of many headlining spots she will hold at blues festivals across the country this summer. But Copeland also draws attention for being outspoken in a world that tends to be surprisingly silent about social issues.

“It’s kind of funny,” Copeland said. “It’s not happening in the blues, but I do think it’s a great platform for it. I think if you have any kind of platform, you should use it in the best way possible. I’m not here to alienate anyone. My songs to empower women, for example, are not to alienate men. They’re to uplift and bring people together.”

That was the point of “Ain’t Got Time For Hate,” the lead track on her latest album, America’s Child, and one of her more well-known songs. It was just one of many that came out of her daily conversations with Hahn, who many times takes those talks and turns them into lyrics. She wanted a song that stated the obvious things many of us seem to miss these days, at least in her mind: We all bleed the same blood, and what makes us different makes us special, not something to fear.

Copeland stepped up her social consciousness in 2009, with the aptly titled album “Never Going Back.” She made a conscious decision to speak for the downtrodden and the weary world with tracks such as “Broken World” and “Rise Up,” which she hopes empowers women, but she was always concerned about the world around her.

Copeland grew up in Harlem, where her consciousness began – her junior high school had metal detectors before her mother fought to get her into a better school. As she traveled around the world, that consciousness grew, especially during a trip to Iraq where she performed for soldiers.

When she had her son, Johnny, who she named after her father, a famous Texas bluesman, it inspired her to write boldly about race on America’s Child, something she hadn’t tackled before, and “Ain’t Got Time For Hate” was just the start. The second track, “Americans,” delivers a similar message, and it continues with the fifth, “Smoked Ham and Peaches.”

She credits her mother for her deep, sultry voice, but she got everything else from her father, who believed she would be a blues musician from the moment they brought her home, something Shemekia still can’t explain. She just calls his premonition a “weird thing,” but he was right: When she was 9, he brought her on stage with him, and that started her career. She was a teenager when she released her first album, the critically acclaimed Turn The Heat Up in 1998.

Her father pushed her hard and saturated her life with the blues, but Copeland soaked it in, and even today, never questions her path or her life as a blues artist. Her dad was a social activist as well, though it didn’t mark his career the way it did hers. He wrote a song, “Ghetto Child,” in the 1950s about children in a poor Texas neighborhood that she recorded and still snarls on stage as a crowd favorite, though it makes her sad to sing it.

“I’m just the ghetto child in this so-called, in this so-called free land,” the song goes. “I grew up in Harlem in the 1980s, and things hadn’t changed very much,” she said. “I’m still singing that song, and it’s still relevant, which it shouldn’t be.”

She wants her son, now 2, to have a fair shot, and to do that, she knows he will probably need to go to private school, not the public schools inside Chicago, where she lives now, and that also makes her sad. She wants him to be whatever he can be. If that’s a singer who wants to change the world, well, so be it. That’s her role in life, and she’s happy to fulfil it. This world has a lot of problems, and a lot of frustrations, and she knows it’s her role to help people through it.

“I want my live shows to be rollercoasters. You have your ups and your downs,” she said. “But I also think entertainers need to be actors a bit. You have to jump inside that song and make people feel it, and you have to feel it too.”

And Shemekia feels it. Oh, yes, she does. She goes back to those comments Trump’s son made the other day. They continue to infuriate her. Know you’re privileged, she said. Why can’t he see that?

Then she pauses again. “You know,” she said. “We were just talking about this. I think that really needs to be a song.”

The Greeley Blues Jam takes place June 7-8. Friday, June 7 features a party downtown on the 9th Street Plaza with more than a dozen groups playing in different locations including the headlining Friday Fest set. Saturday’s Jam takes place all day and well into the night at the Stampede Arena in Island Grove Park with Shemekia Copeland as the headliner. For more information and tickets, go to greeleybluesjam.org.