Otep Shamaya—frontwoman, songwriter and concept-creator with the band that bears her name—is fired up. Never one to keep quiet about issues that are important to her at the very best of times, the presidency that took effect in January has seen the self-confessed activist focus much of her energy into the injustices that we've already witnessed and inevitably will see going forward. She's pissed, and she will not be silenced.
We spoke to her the day after transgender rights were being withdrawn by Trump and his team, an inexplicably monstrous move. As a humanist, Shamaya, takes that shit personally, as we all should.
"What gives Trump the right to trample on human rights?" she says. "He doesn't have that right. Mike Pence is a known homophobic. Vocally crazy. Steve Bannon is a known white nationalist sympathizer. Trump's just a puppet. We're not going away though. Trump and his people can do what they want to try to "Make American Great Again," as they say. Well, when exactly was America greater than it is now? That's an insult to all the people who have died for this country, all the civil rights activists who have died. Women have only had the right to vote for 100 years, while gay people can finally get married legally. When was America greater?"
The right might point out that "celebtards" are simply Hollywood snowflakes who should sit the fuck down and shut up because they don't know anything about normal people living normal lives. But one of the too-scarce-now legacies of music is speaking up for the people in the face of injustice. From myriad folk and blues artists, to more contemporary acts like Rage Against the Machine and Public Enemy, politics and music have always been intertwined. Plus Shamaya, while LA-based, is hardly some glitzy Hollywood celeb. She grew up in government housing, and has spent her career building something, creating, fighting. If you think she's fronting, think again.
The band Otep is 15 years old now. Conceived as an outlet for Shamaya's poetry, like a sort of rap-metal Patti Smith, determination seized the vocalist when she snuck into a gig and saw a band that was so bad (she won't name names), she knew she could at least be that awful.
"I put a band together quickly and we wrote five songs," she says. "We went out on the Sunset Strip in LA, and started playing like every other band there. The difference was, people responded to us. LA is an industry town. People go there to 'make it' in the entertainment industry. The town is a little jaded because it sees everything. I come from a writing background, and you put everything into your writing. When I was performing, I tried to put those same emotions into the songs. That way, it was an internal experience, externalized."
When an A&R rep from Capitol Records wandered into one of those shows, Otep was suddenly signed to a major. Three albums were released over the next five years but then, with the bottom dropped out of the industry, Otep had to find a new home. Three more albums were released on hardcore label Victory, a period of time Shamaya simply calls "rotten."
Last year's Generation Doom came out on Austrian metal label Napalm (home to Devildriver, among others), and Shamaya thinks it's the band's best record yet.
"My guitar player, producer and I went back to the core of where the band started," she says. "When you do something for a long time, it's good to go back and look at what originally set your fires of imagination ablaze. I listen to the music that did that, like Nirvana, Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine, and The Doors."
There is a surprising cover of Lorde's "Royals," while, elsewhere, subject matter covers everything from violent homophobic episodes to the United States' perpetual state of war, from police violence to that famously awful photo of the dead three-year-old Syrian boy on the beach.
"I was always very open with my activism," Shamaya says. "Getting the word out on things that I think are important, coming from a working class, liberal background. I do encounter obstacles from time to time, being openly gay as well. I don't care. I'm gonna live my truth, I'm gonna live my authentic self, and anybody who doesn't like it can go pound sand."
Oh yes, Shamaya isn't one to suffer fools gladly. This is a strong, talented woman who is sick of being patronized. She's a woman playing metal music, and to some small-minded people, that's still a novelty. She's an artist, and she's extremely sensitive. But she channels those feelings into her work.
"Artistic people experience the world much differently," she says. "Things affect you much differently. You have to get it out of you, and artists put it into their art. It's allowed me to narrate my life and understand the chaos or beauty that I was in at the time. Part of the reason I signed with Napalm is I was able to have control in how things are approached with the artwork and everything. I'm always the art director on all of my albums. Whether I'm on another label next year or not, this is my art, my legacy, my music."
That the band is named after the singer (like Marilyn Manson), coupled with the fact she has suffered myriad lineup changes, has led to confusion. Is this a band, or a solo project?
"In the beginning, it started out as a solo project," Shamaya says. "I think I wanted it to be based on my beliefs, and the musicians at the time didn't really care—they just wanted to play music. That's been the issue for me over the years—finding musicians who want to play and who believe in the art, and want to be a part of something special. The musicians and crew that I have now are the best that I've worked with. It's an all-star team. I feel like I overshadow them sometimes because people are still surprised that a woman is in a band, and she's a frontperson, she's outspoken."
That's shocking, but it shouldn't be. If we've learned anything in this new America, it's that bigots have been here all along, waiting for the opportunity to speak up. Otep is a proud political band, getting its message out to people who feel the need to come out and scream, and be around other people who feel the same way that they do. We get to experience that in Tucson this week, and you should expect nothing less than spiritual intercourse.
"There are moments that we have on stage that are indescribable," Shamaya says. "When you're in the act of intimacy, there's this sacredness to it. There's a ritualistic moment when the rhythm's just right, you lose all sense of time, you lose yourself in your partner, and that's kind of what happens with us as a band. We lose ourselves in each other. We're still individuals. We're all doing our thing, but we're doing it as one unit. Nothing else exists, just us in this infinite now. It's beautiful and it's what keeps us going."