What role does religion play in the lives of entertainers, politicians and others in the public eye? What’s shaped their faith? Every Sunday, Chicago Sun-Times reporter Robert Herguth will explore such questions in “Face to Faith,” a new column and podcast debuting today with an interview of Grammy-nominated blues singer Shemekia Copeland. A longtime religion reporter and editor, Herguth is the author of Genuflections: Famous Folks Talk About Growing Up Catholic.
Shemekia Copeland, Grammy-nominated, “very proud blues singer,” daughter of the late blues great Johnny Copeland, new mom, New York native, Chicagoan.
Growing up, her father “was either playing guitar around the house . . . or we were listening to music . . . It was a really nice way to grow up because I fell in love with music, particularly . . . blues and gospel and soul, just anything that was old.”
“I remember the first time I heard Sam Cooke or Otis Redding . . . I just became obsessed with those sounds.”
“My mom’s from North Carolina. So summers I would go visit my Grandma Jessie, and my Grandma Jessie was a saved woman. I always tease about it on stage that we went to church 28 days a week when I was down there because, you know, there was something to do with the church every day, bible study on Monday or this on Tuesday.”
“I think because of that I really didn’t like organized religion . . . I didn’t like having to be forced to go to church.”
“But my father, when I was at home in New York, we would just go to any church. My father was a very spiritual man . . . He just wanted to go and pray. And so I’ve always had faith, and I’ve always been spiritual. But it wasn’t until about two years ago I actually joined a church.”
Her congregation: Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side.
“It’s just a positive outlook on life.”
“Sometimes, I feel like Southern Baptist preachers just don’t get it, you know, and I felt that way about my grandma’s church, all that brimstone teaching of the bible . . . ‘All the gays are going to hell.’ . . . I didn’t believe in any of it, ’cause I always thought this mean church lady over here, there’s no way she’s going to heaven, and this sweet, gay guy is not . . . Even as a kid, I didn’t believe it . . . I had just a different outlook on life even then, which made me a bit of an outcast in my family for many years.”
“And my songs, I talk about religious hypocrites all the time, that’s my thing, I have a song called ‘Somebody Else’s Jesus’ — it must be somebody else’s Jesus ’cause it sure ain’t mine.”
“But now I’ve learned that, even if you don’t believe in the same exact things as other people, you can still fellowship with them . . . because, in day-to-day life, you don’t agree with everybody’s opinions. So that’s the same thing with church.”
When she’s home, she goes to church.
“But most of the time I get home on Sundays. So, if I can catch the evening 6 o’clock service, I’ll go. But it’s important to me to have my little boy grow up being spiritual, believing in a higher power.”
“It gives you strength. I always feel like people who have nothing to believe in, I don’t want to say aren’t as strong, but if you don’t have faith, anything can get you down, anything can screw you up and get you all unglued. And I feel like with my faith . . . I don’t get unglued.”
“I think God is in all of us. For me, I think that it’s spirits working through people. I believe I have angels. I believe I have great energy, great spirits watching over me. I believe that’s what keeps me safe and healthy on the road. I believe that my father and my grandfather and my great-grandfather and all the people that have passed on are there watching out for me.”
“I’ve had so many instances in my life where a person has come into my life and told me something that I needed at the time that saved my life, and I know that God was working through them.”
God is in her music.
“I couldn’t do it if it wasn’t. . . . I have a song about domestic violence that’s called ‘Ain’t Gonna Be Your Tattoo,’ and I’ve had women come to me and tell me that that song has either saved them or helped them in their lives. One lady in particular, she said that she’s been in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend for five years, she had left his house that night after they had gotten into a fight, and he hit her . . . and she was on her way home, and she was listening to [the radio], and she heard that song, and she said that was the last time that he ever hit her because she never went back to him again . . . I was, like, I know what I’m here for, I know what my purpose is.”
Social justice issues are pervasive in her songs, including ‘Ghetto Child,’ written decades ago by her dad, with the lyrics:
Somebody, please won’t you lend a hand?
I’m just the ghetto child
In this so-called, in this so-called free land
“I wish that song was not relevant. . . . We’re still fighting for the same things that we’ve been fighting for forever . . . It’s really sad — a 40-year-old song should not still be relevant, especially when it’s about social issues.”
While on stage, “The spirit leads me what to do. It leads me what to sing.”
Redemption is an aspect of Christianity she likes a lot.
“I think faith is something that most people battle with all throughout their lives because you have so many questions. And, for me now, I think that my faith is so much stronger . . . I’ve learned to trust in God completely. And that took a lot for me because you want to be in control of everything. So the best lesson I learned is I’m not driving the bus.”
“You have to get your order together: God, yourself, your family. . . . And my natural order for the first time in my life is together. And it took a whole lot of stuff to happen for me to realize that . . . I had the roughest two or three years I’d ever had in my life. I lost one of my best friends in a motorcycle accident, my marriage failed, and just so many things happened in my life to just make me know, OK, I got to get some stuff together here, I got to change some things. I felt very low, but I knew where to go . . . when I was ready.”
God likes the blues.
“Hell, yeah — if you ask me, it’s His favorite kind of music because it’s about telling your stories, it’s about a feeling. . . . I think He likes the blues so much that He made me purposely to do this.”
Singing the blues is a form of “service.”
“People who might not want to go to the church to learn about God, maybe they’ll come to where I am, and they still learn about God.”
An atheist told her after one performance, “after coming to your show, I actually believe God might exist.”
“Blew my mind.”
The bible has stories of suffering and hope. There are parallels to her music.
“I sing about dark things, but, at the end of the song, it’s always positive.”
With President Donald Trump, is there too much religion in politics?
“There is absolutely no religion there, God is not there. . . . If I didn’t have faith in God, I’d probably be totally crazy with all this stuff that’s going on right now . . . There’s a reason behind all this. What it is? I don’t know yet.”
“I think God has a hell of a sense of humor. He’s got to. He’s laughing His ass off right now with all this stuff going on.”
Who are your saints?
“I always say my father’s one — it pisses my mom off every time.”
The rituals of church are less important than service.
“And being good and being kind to people and being positive, too.”
“People are so close-minded. They believe in what they believe, and that’s it. That’s not God-like.”
She prays “every chance I get,” usually the Lord’s Prayer.
“I’m not so sure about the bible . . . I’m sure the stories are in there are made to uplift people . . . I don’t take them very seriously. I know that would probably piss off a lot of people, me saying that, but that book has been written and rewritten and written over again . . . That’s a book. For me, God and spirituality is a feeling, not so much what I read. And the reason that I feel that way is because some of the most spiritual people couldn’t even read at all.”
“With that being said, I do read the bible . . . but I don’t let it rule me.”
The late Chicago blues legend Koko Taylor had spiritual advice for Copeland when “things were rough, and I was upset about something: ‘Look to the hills, baby.’ ”
Face to Faith is a new religion feature appearing Sundays in the Chicago Sun-Times, with an accompanying audio podcast, with additional content, at chicago.suntimes.com.