OK, the first thing you need to know about Shemekia Copeland is that the “I” in “Shemekia” is silent.
“It’s my parents,” says the Harlem-born, Chicago-based Copeland, on the phone from the road. “They put that ‘I’ in there, and it’s basically nonexistent.”
Her daddy, the late Texas blues guitarist Johnny Copeland, may have cursed his little girl with an easily mispronounced name, but he made up for it by taking her out on tour when she was 16, helping her establish herself as a blues act before he died in 1997. She dropped her first album, “Turn the Heat Up!” in 1998. She went on to release albums produced by such legends as Dr. John and Steve Cropper, and perform alongside many greats. Earlier this year, she took the stage with Mick Jagger, B.B. King, Jeff Beck and others performing for President Barack Obama at the White House.
Despite gaining a rep as one of the most fiery blues vocalists out there, she sees herself as more. “I look at myself as an artist who has something to say, and I just try to say it in my music,” she says. “I just have something to say, you know, that’s uplifting ones who need to be uplifted, and tell people just the truth.”
Her latest album, “33 1/3,” chronicles her growth from a former underage prodigy to the mature, honest blues vocalist she is today. “I feel like I’ve progressed a whole lot just because of my age,” the 33-year-old (you get it?) Copeland says. “I mean, when you start making records when you’re 17, 18 years old, you just have a natural growth. And, for me, my growth has been natural. Life happened to me, and I’ve been able to put it out there, which is kind of cool.”
Copeland picks several original and previously released numbers to spotlight her progression as a serious artist. “Lemon Pie,” the opening track, has her riffing on the working poor or, as Copeland calls them, “people who work their entire lives in the hopes of the American dream – which is the middle class – that their ancestors built this country up on their backs for.”
“Ain’t Gonna Be Your Tattoo” has her talking about domestic violence. “I wanted to talk about it, because I’ve done some work with sexual abuse clinics and things of that nature.”
The album isn’t all dead serious. She covers Sam Cooke’s “Ain’t That Good News” and Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” as romantic odes to her husband, Buddy Guy bassist Orlando J. Wright. “My husband and I are both musicians, so we don’t get to see each other much,” she says. “So when we do, it’s good news. So I wanted to do that for that reason.”
They met when they were performing for U.S. troops in Iraq and Kuwait, which Copeland counts as one of the more defining, eye-opening moments in her life. “That was life-changing for me, because so many American people think they have a clue about what’s going on, and they really don’t,” she says. “They know nothing.”
Ultimately, Copeland is proud of the career she’s established as a blues artist. She only wishes other successful blues artists felt the same about themselves. “With blues as a whole, you see that the top people in the business, you know, are not blues artists at all, nor would they ever want to be called blues artists,” she says. “I’m happy to be called a blues artist, and I don’t feel like it limits me in any kind of way. But some of these folks that are out here who are successful in the blues – if you call them a blues artist – it would be like the equivalent of calling them a, you know, crack whore or something like that. Because they don’t want to be associated with it, and I think that’s really sad, you know.”