Shemekia Copeland is a woman who knows the blues. She grew up listening to it every night as a child in Harlem at a time when most of her friends were stuck on hip-hop. "I used to get in trouble when I was a kid for coming to school singing dirty Koko Taylor songs," she says, laughing via telephone from her home in Chicago. But her parents were never mad at her. "My father once told my teacher: 'How many students do you have in your class that know anything about the blues?'"
The 29-year-old loved the Southern genre so much that she's made a career out of belting out soulful blues songs night after night for anyone who will listen. Since getting her start, she's won three W.C. Handy Awards (the blues equivalent of winning a Grammy), and her second album, Wicked, was nominated for an actual Grammy. She's come a long way for a young female blues singer, but it hasn't been easy to succeed in a genre dominated by men. Still, she doesn't complain.
"The way has been paved for me by so many [women] that came before me," she says. "I didn't have to experience what Koko Taylor or Ruth Brown went through. They made it easier for me to come along now. But I still face my share of difficulties as a female."
Still, Copeland did have at least one major advantage. She's the daughter of Texas blues legend Johnny Copeland. The same Johnny Copeland who won a Grammy in 1987 and worked alongside fellow blues greats like Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Mama Thorton, and Freddie King during his heyday. When the elder Copeland realized his daughter had a gift for singing the blues, he took her out on the road with him, from the time she was 16 until he died, a month after Shemekia graduated from high school. While they didn't tour together for very long, he established her as an up and coming version of Etta James, and the blues world was glad for the introduction.
Robert Plant labeled her the next Tina Turner, and she even performed with B.B. King on the David Letterman show two years ago. I asked her why she thinks more talented young black singers drift toward R&B instead of the straight-ahead blues.
"People gravitate toward the money, and they gravitate toward what they see. Unfortunately, most people, they go out and buy what's right in front of them. Me, you have to search for me. You won't hear me on the radio, I don't have a video on Vh1 or MTV. And people think blues is so drab and bad... a down kind of music. People don't realize that it's evolved."