When it comes to blues, Shemekia Copeland is nothing short of a master of the craft. She sings with unmatched soul and, as the recipient of multiple Blues Music Awards and Grammy nominations, she has the critical song of praise, too. Forbes calls her “The Queen of Blues” while Rolling Stone has dubbed her a “superstar.” Jason Isbell, Emmylou Harris, and Mick Jagger are just a few of the many musical icons she has performed and collaborated with over the years. Her most recent full-length release, Uncivil War, has solidified her as voice of our times, with Copeland tackling concepts like gun violence, America’s history of slavery, and socio-political division without missing a beat. Her vocal talent, coupled with her impactful words, create a music experience that is equal parts sonically pleasant and emotionally moving.
She was born Charon Shemekia Copeland in Harlem, New York to Johnny Copeland, a Blues Hall of Fame Inductee. With the blues running through her veins, it comes as no surprise that Copeland has cemented herself as a blues powerhouse in her near quarter-century of performing music. However, despite her natal connection to the world of blues, Copeland is a star in her own right.
She landed her first recording contract in 1998, then only 18 years old, and put out her debut album, Turn Up the Heat, through Chicago-based Alligator Records. Even then, she had a voice that cuts right to the listener’s core. She by-passed the stage of dime-a-dozen love songs and angsty teenage heartbreak ballads typical of many young, beginner performers and went straight in for the punch. “Ghetto Child,” is a simple but soulful track originally penned by Copeland’s father that tells the humorlessly ironic story of a young, impoverished girl’s hardships in this “so-called free land.” “Married to the Blues” is a slow burner that sees Copeland quietly lamenting her lonely, love-lorn life until the track builds to a satisfying crescendo of brass, piano, drums, and, most notably, belting vocals.
Peppered throughout her discography are songs that involve social commentary, but 2020’s Uncivil War – no pun intended – really turns up the heat. She does not shy away from, nor sugar-coat, the realities of 21st century American life. The album’s bold opener, “Clotilda’s On Fire,” starkly references the last known ship to carry enslaved Africans to the United States in 1859—over fifty years after the transatlantic trade of enslaved people was abolished. The captain of the ship ordered it to be set on fire upon his return to American soil in an effort to conceal the evidence of his illegal activity. The burnt remnants of the ship were found in the Mobile River in Alabama in 2019, shortly before the release of Copeland’s album. Using the Clotilda as a symbol for slavery at large, Copeland expertly intersplices the ship’s sordid history with observations about the lasting impact of America’s great shame. “Clotilda’s on fire / Off the Alabama Coast / Clotilda’s on fire / We’re still livin’ with her ghost.” Without ever straying from the somber truth of the song’s subject matter, Copeland takes a moment towards the end to offer a glimmer of hope: “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.”
Folksy title track “Uncivil War” allows Copeland’s voice to shine in a new way. Trading in her signature bluesy belts for a simple croon, the singer is eventually joined by a backing chorus and drums as the song works towards a big finish. Copeland addresses the division in the nation and calls for unity. In another reference to America’s ugly past, she harkens back to the Union and Confederate troops of the Civil War: “The spirits are back, in rags blue and grey / Thought they were gone, but they won’t go away.” Following this is an acknowledgement of the cyclical nature of history, as she wonders when we will learn that the past is doomed to repeat itself until we can find a new way forward. “How long must we fight this uncivil war / The same old wounds we opened before / Nobody wins an uncivil war.”
“Apple Pie and A .45” is a guitar-heavy, electrifying tune so catchy you’d miss the significance of the lyrics if they weren’t so poignant. Juxtaposing Norman Rockwell-style scenes of American life with callous depictions of both accidental and calculated death by firearm, Copeland calls attention to the ongoing crisis of gun violence in America and the lack of concern too many citizens feel towards it.
Despite being a blues artist in her heart of hearts, Copeland makes room for plenty of joy on this album. “Love song,” the album’s closer, is, as the name suggests, a simple love song, tipsy with sweetness and a little humor. Girl power anthem, “She Don’t Wear Pink,” will have you struggling to sit still with an opening beat reminiscent of Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose.” Even the more mournful tracks generally contain a silver lining, or at least a sense of humor. In “Money Makes You Ugly,” after calling out the rich for their self-centered spending on things like Botox and cosmetic surgery in the face of a global climate crisis, she claims, “Money makes you ugly, that’s why I’m glad to be poor.”
With ten studio albums under her belt and a track record of live performances that will make every hair on your body stand on end, Copeland is a modern blues genius and a pure-bred talent. Don’t miss your chance to see her perform at Roots N Blues Music Festival in Columbia, MO at Stephens Lake Park on Sunday, September 26, 2021. Don’t miss your chance to hear this force of sound and light – purchase your pass here: https://rootsnbluesfestival.com/tickets/