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Interview: Shemekia Copeland

Interview: Shemekia Copeland

Shemekia Copeland was officially crowned the “Queen of the Blues” in Chicago this past June, taking on the honor held by the late Koko Taylor. Born in Harlem in 1979, Copeland’s father was the Texas Blues guitar legend Johnny Clyde Copeland. Ms. Copeland plays the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown on February 23; Jersey Arts had the opportunity to speak with her before her set at the XPoNential Music Festival about being named the Queen, spreading the blues around the world, and the changes taking place in her old hometown.

Gary Wien for Jersey Arts: One month ago you were officially named “Queen of the Blues” in Chicago. So, how does it feel?

Shemekia Copeland: Oh gosh… news travels fast, huh? Um… it’s wild, it’s crazy, I mean it was overwhelming and unexpected. I just feel truly honored that they would even think of me in the same breath as Koko Taylor. I’m honored that they think I can carry on the tradition. It’s a big honor.

JA: You two were close, weren’t you?

SC: Yeah, I was very close to her and I miss her all the time. I miss her every day.

JA: Tell me about your New Year’s Resolution to spread the blues everywhere. SC: Oh gosh, that’s been my New Year’s Resolution every year! Just to spread the blues to as many places as I can.

JA: What’s been the furthest place for you so far? SC: Let me see… the furthest place has probably been Australia. I was in the Middle East and Turkey, Iraq and Kuwait, but I think Australia was probably the furthest.

JA: Some of the places you mentioned were performances for the troops. What was that experience like? SC: That was definitely one of the most amazing experiences in my life. It was wild and crazy because people might have some idea what’s going on over there, but until you’re over there and you jump inside and are living on base with those guys…

JA: How long were you out there?

SC: We were out there for about ten days. It’s something else. We were at ten different bases in ten days. It’s hard what they do. They were very careful with us all of the time. Every day… You never really know where you’re going to go from day to day because they have to plan that accordingly each day. So, it’s something else.I got maybe four hours of sleep maybe a day the whole while I was there. And I never was so tired in my life when I came home! I have great respect for the men and women who serve our Country.

JA: How important is it for you to do things like that?

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SC: It’s very important because I felt like when I was there and on stage for those two hours – it kind of took them to another place for two hours.

JA: You could just see the look of relief in their eyes?

SC: Yeah.

JA: I always find it interesting to talk to musicians whose parents were musicians as well. Your father obviously made his name with the guitar while you made yours with your voice. Do you think it’s almost better or easier to choose a different path like you did?

SC: I do. I mean, I have friends who are male who have had fathers that sing and play guitar and they just get compared so much. With me, they can’t make that comparison. It’s wonderful for me because I can do his songs and everything, but because I’m female and I don’t play guitar, they don’t compare me as much as they do with some of my friends.

JA: You used to have a radio show on Sirius, didn’t you?

SC: I did. I did a radio show for about 2 ½ years on Sirius. They merged a couple of years ago and things became a little different, so I haven’t done the show since then. But I had a great time doing it. I’d like to get back into radio at some point some day.

JA: Do you ever get a chance to go back to your old hometown? It’s changed a lot.

SC: In Harlem? Oh my God! Maybe about a year ago, I went back for a funeral. I had been there a few times – just driving through – but not in the neighborhood. And I couldn’t believe it. I mean, white people were jogging down the street and nobody was chasing them! It was great! There are Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks everywhere, it’s cool.

JA: It’s funny how musicians and music fans know about the city’s great history, but many don’t. With the way it’s coming back, maybe we’ll see a musical renaissance there again someday.

SC: I hope so. Hopefully it’ll get back to that. I think New York as a whole changed so much when they came up with all of those silly rules for clubs – cabaret licenses and all that nonsense. Because that’s exactly what it is nonsense. Slapping fines on clubs and forcing them to shut down. It was just a lot of nonsense and it really hurt the culture of our city in New York. I really believe that.

They’ve cleaned up the city, but sometimes when you clean up something too much it hurts the culture and it takes the life and the feel out of it. I miss all of the clubs that they had, those were great places. Tramps and Manny’s Carwash – we had some of the coolest clubs ever.

Ms. Copeland plays the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown on February 23.

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