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Shemekia Copeland Proves That All Genres Are Rooted in the Blues 

Wednesday, Jan 6 2016
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Shemekia Copeland grew up in Harlem during the heyday of early rap and hip-hop in the '80s, when artists such as Doug E. Fresh, Biz Markie, and Kurtis Blow dominated the local scene. Her father, Johnny Copeland, was a Grammy-winning blues singer who encouraged his daughter to get into the family business. When she was eight, he invited her to perform onstage at Harlem's legendary Cotton Club ("It was nerve-racking," she says), and by the time she was a teenager, she was opening for his tours. While she could have pursued any genre, the blues called to her, as they had to her father. "This is just in me," she says. "I was blessed enough to figure out early on what I was supposed to be doing."

She released her first album, Turn The Heat Up, when she was 18. As of now, nearly two decades later, she's dropped seven more albums and earned two Grammy nominations for Best Blues Album, along with a slew of Blues Music Awards. She's entertained U.S. troops in Iraq and Kuwait, opened for The Rolling Stones, and sung alongside Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, and Eric Clapton, to name just a few. In 2012, she even performed for the Obamas at the White House.

"The blues is universally appealing," the 36-year-old says. "It's about telling your story, and everyone's got a story to tell."

Copeland's latest album Outskirts Of Love — a 2016 Grammy nominee — is a fitting example of her storytelling prowess and the narrative heritage of the blues. She covers "subjects that are not comfortable," she says, including social injustice, date rape, and homelessness, packaging them into ballads that are catchy and soulful despite the dire themes. "Life is messy for everyone," she says, "and on this record, everybody's on the outskirts of something."

Genre-wise, the record is also on the outskirts. Though it falls under the category of contemporary blues, the album ranges across country, jazz, Afrobeat, and rock'n'roll. "Everything comes from blues," says Copeland. "So if I want to use a little country, a little gospel, a little soul, a little rock'n'roll, I should be able to do that because blues is the root of it all." She even makes a lyrical reference to this in "Drivin' Out of Nashville" when she coos, "Country music ain't nothin' but the blues with a twang."

Copeland hasn't always been so stylistically promiscuous. When she first started out, her songs were more rooted in traditional blues, replete with horns, organ, and other live accompaniment. Vocally, she focused on the strength and power of her voice, or what she calls "the blast furnace, big, huge voice thing."

Over the years, however, her voice and musical preferences have changed. Thanks to producer Oliver Wood, whom she worked on Outskirts with, she learned how to finesse her voice to bring out its subtleties and sultriness, and added crooning to her vocal repertoire. Having a whole ensemble became less necessary as she delved into more experimental, genre-bending melodies. "It's more about the lyrics now," she says, explaining that her songs have become less personal and more universal with time. "As you age, you have more to talk about."

To many people, the blues is still an old-fashioned, murky genre. You don't hear much (if at all) on major radio stations or at bars where the clientele skews young. Copeland has been hailed as a sign that the blues are making a comeback, albeit with a contemporary twist. "People have always been saying that," Copeland says. "I don't think they've ever left. It's always been kind of on the outskirts."

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Jessie Schiewe

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