By Donald Liebenson
These days, “Your Mama’s Talkin’,” a song from Chicago-based blues scion Shemekia Copeland’s 1998 debut album, Turnin’ Up the Heat, has taken on a whole new meaning. Copeland became a parent in 2016, and when she isn’t wrangling her “little man,” she says she’s thinking about “the type of world I brought him into, and my concerns for him and what he will have to face.”
Those concerns are at the heart and soul of Copeland’s most recent album, America’s Child, which contains such pointed songs as “Ain’t Got Time for Hate” and “Would You Take My Blood?” “I’ve always been conscious of what I put out into the universe,” Copeland tells Ravinia. “I’ve always thought that one day I may have children, and they would hear this. You always want to make your kids proud. After having my son, it’s become even more important to me to be bold in the statements I want to make.”
In “Would You Take My Blood?” Copeland poses this question to a bigot: “If your life was fading fast, your next breath was your last / Would you take my blood? / Or would you rather die than share your life with mine?” “This is the first time I’ve ever touched on racism,” Copeland says. “My child is mixed-race, so it was important for me to make that statement.”
Her “sweet baby child” is also much on her mind in “Ain’t Got Time for Hate,” the album’s righteous opener, which has been nominated as Song of the Year at the 40th Blues Foundation Blues Music Awards [the winner has not yet been announced at time of press], and a song Copeland has used to open recent concerts. “That song needed to be done when it was done. It needed to happen,” she says.
Copeland, who has lived in Chicago for more than a decade, participated in a panel discussion at the recent three-day Summit on Race in America at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, TX, where she spoke of how she has been increasingly moved to address social issues such as intolerance, homelessness, social injustice, and date rape in her music. These are, she states, “scary times.”
Copeland writes songs, but she does not consider herself a songwriter. Nor does she direct her collaborators to deliver a song about a specific subject. “It happens organically from conversations we’re having,” she says of the process. A song she intends to record for her next record is based on a conversation she had with her manager John Hahn, who co-wrote “Ain’t Got Time for Hate” and who has known Copeland since she was 8 years old, “about something that Donald Trump Jr. said that really pissed me off.”
But though Copeland has become more activist in her songs, she emphasizes that a Shemekia Copeland concert is nothing but “a good ‘ol time,” and the Ravinia triple bill of her, the North Mississippi Allstars, and Buddy Guy will be “epic.”
To quote the title of a song on America’s Child, Copeland is not like everybody else. While steeped in the blues, she has expanded her musical horizons in recent years to incorporate roots music influences. She likes to bend the blues, she says, but not break them. “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” is a song written by Ray Davies of The Kinks and recorded by the group in 1966. “The lyrics are true to what I’m doing,” she says. “To me, it’s like my anthem.”
Raised in Harlem, Copeland was born to the breed. Her father was Texas blues icon Johnny Copeland, yet she had a wide variety of musical influences. “Living with an older brother,” she says, “we listened to whatever popular radio there was, but mainly I was a record girl. My father always brought records home. My mom also loved music. She was the oldest of nine kids, and all of her siblings lived with us at one point, so I got a chance to listen to all of their music. There was country, southern soul, and a lot of gospel.”
Johnny recognized something in his daughter and groomed her from childhood to sing the blues. Before she was 10, he brought her onstage with him to sing at the famed Cotton Club. Before she was 13, she made her solo stage debut there. As a teen, she joined him on the road as his opening act. It was not nepotism; she had the goods. But as a fledgling performer, she initially found herself intimidated by such flamboyant artists as the Chicago blues singer Big Time Sarah.
“She was a great entertainer and I loved watching her,” Copeland says, “but I remember saying to my dad, ‘I will never be comfortable doing that.’ He told me, ‘That’s okay, not all singers do that.’ I started going out and seeing other artists like Koko Taylor, who I had been listening to forever. They had their own style and I thought, ‘Okay, I can do this.’
“I miss artists like him,” Copeland says of her father. “You can’t go back, but boy those were the good old days, when Johnny Copeland, Luther Allison, and Albert Collins competed against each other. They just made each other better.”
As a song interpreter, Copeland feels a special responsibility performing her father’s songs. He died in 1977 at the age of 60, of complications from surgery related to a previous heart transplant—he was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2017. In recent years, his “Ghetto Child” has been a concert highlight. America’s Child includes “Promised Myself,” which appeared on his 1992 album, Flyin’ High. “I didn’t want to do that song,” she says with a chuckle. “That was ‘forced’ [on me]. I always loved it and said I would do it, but I never had the courage.”
Copeland has recorded seven critically acclaimed albums for Alligator Records, the same local label with which her father cut his 1995 Grammy-winning collaboration with Albert Collins and Robert Cray, Showdown!, and she has won multiple Blues Music Awards, including Best Contemporary Blues Female Artist. At the 2011 Chicago Blues Festival, Koko Taylor’s daughter surprised her with a crown, proclaiming her as “The New Queen of the Blues.” But most telling, in addition to having performed with her father, Copeland has played with several other iconic musicians over the decades.
Thinking back on sitting in with B.B. King, she says, “I adored the man for his talent; he was also such a gentleman, incredibly kind and helpful to me in my career. I want to represent this music the way he used to.” There was also Mick Jagger, whom she describes as a “vivacious and also very classy guy. He has managed to keep a rock and roll band together for over 60 years—that’s amazing. I have a lot of respect for him.” And she has remained connected to Robert Cray: “I am going out on the road with him in June. He’s one of my favorite artists; he’s like the Nat King Cole of the blues.”
Copeland also performed in the Barack Obama White House and got some treasured face time with the president and First Lady Michelle Obama. She is emphatic when asked if she would perform for the current president: “God, no. I’d rather run through a fire with gasoline drawers on.”
In 2017, Chicago Tribune critic Howard Reich, a longtime champion of Copeland, called her “unrivaled as the greatest female blues singer under age 40.” Last April, she turned the big 4-0, but she professes to be unfazed by the milestone. “It doesn’t bother me at all,” she says defiantly. “You only get better with age. I started when I was a kid. Needless to say, at any age you have insecurities, but for me, I’ve gotten more and more comfortable with who I am as the decades have gone by, and so for me the stage has become a wonderful place to be.” ▪
Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based entertainment writer. His work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Los Angeles Times, and on RogerEbert.com. The first Ravinia concert he attended without his parents was Procol Harum in 1970.