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American Routes Shortcuts: Shemekia Copeland

Shemekia Copeland
Shemekia Copeland

Shemekia Copeland's dad, Texas guitarist Johnny Copeland, moved his family to Harlem, where Shemekia was born and grew up surrounded by hip-hop, but dedicated to the blues.  She's been in the blues scene since she was a little girl singing at her dad's shows.  All grown up she's recorded nine albums and won numerous awards for her music.  We began back in those early days, on stage, with her father.

Shemekia Copeland: My dad had songs for me. He wrote a song called "Stingy." [singing] I got a boy, sweet as he can be. The only fault he got that I can see, he's too stingy, stingy with the love for me [end singing]. You know, I was like ten singing that, but- and then, as I got older, it just started happening a little bit more. When his health started to, kind of, fail, I would go out with him, sing, do the first set with his band, and then he would come out and do the second set. And that's how I got started.

Nick Spitzer: At what point did you feel like: I'm going to do this for a life, for a career?

SC: You know, I feel like I got a calling. I was probably about seventeen years old or something like that, and I knew that this is what I was going to do for the rest of my life. And it just kind of happened over night. You know, I had other things that I thought I might do. Become a therapist or you know, psychiatrist, something like that. That was the field my mom went into, but I just knew that music was it for me.

NS: Isn't blues, isn't song-making, aren't the lyrics kind of about psychotherapy?

SC: It is, that's what my friends tell me all the time. They're always like, "You are a therapist. You help people through music," so I'm like, "Alright, good, I'll accept that."


SC: I've always felt like blues music should evolve and grow. In order for that to happen, you have to talk about what's happening in the now, and so that's why I want to talk about these issues, because it's what's going on, you know? It's not just relationships anymore, love and stuff like that. There's so many things going on around me, and I love being able to bring those up. You know some people say, "Oh my God! You've gotten really political," but I don't think that it's political as much as it's about humans and human behavior, and how we should behave towards one another, and it's about love and bringing people together.


SC: If you don't know your history, and you don't know where you came from, it's kind of very difficult to move forward and be successful. I think what's happening now is a beautiful thing that people are actually learning their history or wanting to learn their history. And it's tough, because we were written out of the history books in a whole lot of ways, you know? It's like, I did this song about Clotilda, the slave ship that was found off the coast of Alabama. So many people didn't know about that; they don't know about Africatown and all the people that still live there. The descendants of Clotilda.

NS: Who had oral tradition memories.

SC: Exactly.

NS: Several generations back.

SC: So- exactly, so, I think that that's–I want to be a part of education people about these things as I'm learning about it.

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.