When Alligator Records president Bruce Iglauer first saw a teenaged Shemekia Copeland perform, he predicted, “I think she will be the next great female blues singer…. The blues world has been waiting for someone like Shemekia for a long time.” He couldn’t have been more right. Over 20 years later, the one-time teenage sensation who announced her arrival on the national music scene with such force is a full-fledged blues superstar, having performed at many prestigious venues, including the White House. Heir to the rich tradition of blues divas like Ruth Brown, Etta James, and Koko Taylor, Shemekia was presented with Taylor’s crown by the late blues singer’s daughter, Cookie, at the 2011 Chicago Blues Festival, when she was given the honor of the new “Queen of the Blues” by official proclamation of the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois.
Daughter of the late Texas blues guitar legend Johnny Clyde Copeland, Shemekia made her stage debut at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club at age eight. At that time, shy embarrassment outweighed her desire to sing, but when she was 15, her father’s health began to fail, and she received the calling. “It was like a switch went off in my head,” she remembers, “and I wanted to sing. It became a want and a need. I had to do it.” Her passion for singing, matched with her huge, powerful voice, subtlety, and impeccable timing, gives her music a timeless appeal and power that has been achieved by only a few before her. At 16 she went on the road, opening shows for her father. With the release of her 1998 debut recording Turn Up the Heat, Shemekia Copeland fulfilled not only the predictions of Bruce Iglauer, but more importantly, her father.
Despite well-founded comparisons to Taylor, James, and Brown, not to mention Aretha Franklin, Shemekia—now in her forties and a parent herself—sings her own brand of the blues. “I listened to Koko Taylor, Katie Webster, Trudy Lynn, Etta James. But I don’t try to copy them. I just take little things from each one and add them to my style.” Motherhood has given her music a new maturity and inspired her 2019 album, America’s Child, named Album of the Year by both Living Blues and the Blues Music Awards. Living Blues also recognized Shemekia as the Most Outstanding Blues Singer in 2019. She followed that in October 2020 with the critically acclaimed Uncivil War, an urgent call for the nation to overcome an era of divisiveness, and to “remind us who we are.”
Schooled in Texas blues by her father and raised in Harlem, she creates music that reflects gritty urban realities and weaves together blues, soul, and rock and roll. “As long as I’m here, the blues will always be in me,” Shemekia declares, “and I’m gonna be spreading it around the world…. I’m going to keep on doing this and make my daddy proud.”