On 'Uncivil War,' Blues Queen Shemekia Copeland Sets A Slave Ship Aflame The centerpiece of Copeland's latest album is a song born from the wreckage of the Clotilda — the last known slave ship to smuggle African captives to the United States.

On 'Uncivil War,' Shemekia Copeland Sets Fire To A Relic Of American Slavery

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On her new album, "Uncivil War," Shemekia Copeland tells the story of what's thought to be the last slave ship to smuggle African captives to the US. The burnt wreck of the Clotilda was discovered just last year, deep in an Alabama river. The song, "Clotilda's On Fire," explores its legacy, as NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.


DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: More than 50 years after the slave trade was outlawed, a plantation owner in Mobile hired a ship captain to smuggle 110 kidnapped West Africans to Alabama.


SHEMEKIA COPELAND: (Singing) She's coming for you. Hear the chains rattle. Turn you into a slave, another piece of chattel.

ELLIOTT: Shemekia Copeland says this song is about embracing a part of American history that a lot of people would like to forget.

COPELAND: History is not always pretty, you know? But first, you must accept it, and then you have to change it.

ELLIOTT: When the Clotilda returned to American shores, its captives were hidden in the swamps near Mobile Bay, and the wooden schooner was scuttled upriver, set afire to hide any evidence. No one was ever held to account.

COPELAND: Slavery is something that we've been talking about culturally for a long time. And I've had many discussions about it. But what gives me goose pimples, chicken skin, is the lyric, we're still living with her ghost.


COPELAND: (Singing) Clotilda's on fire off the Alabama coast. Clotilda's on fire. We're still living with her ghost.

COPELAND: See? Chicken skin just saying that, because we are. Things haven't changed. It's never been dealt with. And I just feel like it's important to to bring it out, let people know, let people know about Clotilda, let people know about what happened, what they did, what they tried to hide, and let them know that we're still dealing with this. And we really shouldn't be in 2020.

ELLIOTT: The lyrics were written by Copeland's long-time manager and collaborator John Hahn and set to music by Will Kimbrough, who produced the album.

WILL KIMBROUGH: There is a bridge - she was a dirty secret, forgotten but not forgiven. We often say, I'll forgive, but I won't forget. But in this case we say everybody forgot, but we didn't forgive.


COPELAND: (Singing) She was a dirty secret, forgot but not forgiven. But the shame was so great, she could not stay hidden. She's on fire.

ELLIOTT: Ever since the Clotilda shipwreck was discovered in the Mobile River last year, there's been new attention to the community formed by its former captives. After emancipation, they worked to buy the land and build a town. It's known as Africatown - on the outskirts of Mobile. It's been in decline in recent decades. People and businesses have left. It's hemmed in by a paper mill, chemical plants and oil storage tanks. The Clotilda Descendants Association is trying to revitalize the area and develop a museum to house artifacts and tell the story of the Clotilda.

Kimbrough, who is from Mobile, wanted to take their story beyond local folklore.

KIMBROUGH: It's a powerful story. And I like that it is an angry song about injustice but a celebration of how resilient people can be.


COPELAND: (Singing) Her flame no longer lights up at night. Now dreams survive, and hope burns bright. People still come from miles around to praise the folks of Africatown.

ELLIOTT: Kimbrough plays guitar on the record, and he recruited another Alabamian to play a solo.


ELLIOTT: That, says Kimbrough, is Jason Isbell.

KIMBROUGH: You know, it's smoking guitar. And I love that we have the Queen of the Blues singing about the last slave ship bringing African people to be enslaved in America with two Alabama boys playing behind her.

ELLIOTT: For his part, alt-country star Jason Isbell says the song comes at the right time as the nation confronts the meaning of social justice.

JASON ISBELL: I think we're going to have to figure out how to all get on the same page because some people still deny the fact that systemic racism exists. And that's beyond me. I don't understand how you can look around and deny that we're still feeling the effects of slavery.

ELLIOTT: "Clotilda Is Burning" (ph) is the opening song on Shemekia Copeland's new album, "Uncivil War." The title track also speaks to today's climate.

COPELAND: You know, being angry doesn't do us any justice. I've learned that. You know, I spent my time being angry and pissed off and mad about it. But at the end of the day, you know, that just doesn't help anything. So if you can have something to help bring people together and make people think - remind us who we are.

ELLIOTT: Copeland says she clings to the hope that America can do better. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.


SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.


COPELAND: (Singing) Uncivil War.

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