In a genre of music where being a black sheep is a point of pride, Otep Shamaya stands out.
Gifted with a powerful voice, Otep has carved an impressive place for herself in the world of heavy music. No mean feat, considering she's an outspoken liberal, lesbian, and vegan. When so many of her contemporaries make a big deal about meat-eating, machismo, and gun-touting politics, Otep's left-of-center status as a queer artist makes her the odd woman out.
But it's that outsider status that's helped her forge a connection with audiences that metal bands typically don't court: women and queer audiences. It's paid off for the singer and her group over the last 15 years. Releasing a string of thunderously loud yet melodically appealing albums, they've built up a devoted feeling. Last year's Generation Doom hit No. 7 on Billboard's Rock Chart and 10 on the Independent Chart in its first week. Their cover of Lorde's "Royals" became a radio hit, and Otep's racy and provocative video for "Equal Rights, Equal Lefts" has been banned in over 12 countries. She's also drawn attention for her work as a spoken word artist (she even appeared on Def Poetry back in the day).
We talked to the singer and activist about her experiences as a lesbian and liberal activist in the metal community, as well as her thoughts on the ACA repeal, literary influences, and why she hates calling Mitch McConnell a turtle. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
New Times: On the first leg of your Generation Doom tour, you were gathering water bottle donations to send to the people in Flint, Michigan. Now that you're embarking on the next phase of the tour, what issues and political concerns are you trying to raise awareness for?
Otep Shamaya: I feel like what's happening in this country is that there was once a time where the working class were considered the heroes of the American people. But then you have this rise of people being famous for no reason – the Paris Hiltons, the Kardashians, all this reality TV nonsense. Which is basically scripted nonsense – I'm from Los Angeles, one of my best friends works in the business. Reality TV is what he does. It's scripted – everything's set up. “Today we're going to talk about this, this is going to be the drama, and you guys will just react naturally to it.” That's how it works. So this cult of celebrity has taken over America. And that's what happened with the rise of Trump. That's how he was able to get where he is. People thought, “Oh, he's a D-list reality star.” His tagline is “You're fired!” and people think he's a job creator?!
That's pretty much what we're focusing on with this tour. In the last one, we were really working at exposing social injustices like what's happening in Flint. But one of the things that was also brought to my attention, because we were playing near tribal lands, was that while this has been going in Flint for the last few years – the inability to get clean drinking water has been happening to tribal lands for decades and decades. Decades of children growing up drinking tainted, poisoned water and nobody's talking about it.
What you're saying about the decline of the working class makes me think of the Republicans trying to kill the ACA. How do you have a working class when they can't afford to stay alive?
This is all to punish the American worker. They say things like “people who are poor want to be poor.” That's not true – I come from the poor. I was raised in a poor neighborhood. Nobody there wanted to be poor. We all wanted to come up. Sometimes people resorted to the wrong kind of ways to come up, but that's a real thing. We're talking about kids selling a dime bag of weed getting an 18-month bid versus the President and his campaign, who committed treason and there's not one arrest. Our priorities in this country are ridiculous.
Plus, the Republicans' health care plan rolls back protections and guarantees for people who are addicted to opoids. We've got a massive opoid crisis in this country – not because people are weak, but because you've got pharmaceutical companies who are just throwing these opoids at doctors, who are prescribing them for their patients and their patients can't get off them because there's no treatment for them to get off the opoids.
But you know what's one thing that you can say about why it's great to be an American right now? The Republicans control both houses in Congress, they've got the presidency, and they still can't get their bill passed. A bill they've been working for eight and a half years and they can't get it passed. This is what America can do when the working class rises, when people come together and stand up for ourselves. We can keep these politicians in check.
And the funny thing about all this is that when Mitch McConnell was a young man – Mitch McConnell being the Majority Leader – when he had polio as a kid, the government paid for all of his care and rehabilitation. All of it. What kind of hypocrisy is that? When a man could help so many people that are like him when he was a child, when the government helped him survive his illness, and he won't help people overcome similar illnesses with government assistance. That's the sheer definition of hypocrisy.
I was reading yesterday about how McConnell wouldn't meet with the people who helped fund his rehabilitation.
What kind of heartless human being is he? Seriously. There's also rumors that he helped launder money for the Russians through the GOP through his own campaign, so if that comes out we'll hopefully be finally rid of this evil turtle of a man. I hate to call him a turtle, though, because it's an insult to turtles. Turtles are pretty awesome.
Switching gears off politics for a moment: In addition to doing music, you also do spoken word. As a poet, a spoken word artist, and lyricist, what writers inspire you?
In terms of literary influences, I'm currently reading James Baldwin – there's this great documentary about him, I Am Not Your Negro, that's out now. Ray Bradbury, Mark Twain – I must have read Letters from the Earth a hundred times, it's really magnificent. Harlan Ellison, one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time. I actually used some of Harlan's words from one of my favorite stories, I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, on one of my records. With permission, of course, because Harlan can be very litigious.
In past interviews, you've talked about how you don't necessarily view Otep as a "metal band," even though you do often get lumped into the heavy music community. Considering how conservative much of that scene can be, how has the metal scene responded to your outspoken activism? Have they embraced you, or do you feel some pushback?
I've found there are certain people like Corey Taylor, the singer from Stone Sour and Slipknot who's also a good friend of mine. I know that he's as outspoken as I am, and he's got a much broader audience. He's been pretty vocal about what's going on in this country with Trump and racism. I love Corey – he's one of my biggest inspirations as a singer. Without Corey, there wouldn't be an Otep.
There's other acts that have privately texted me their support but won't go public because they fear the backlash. I fear no such backlash. Most of the metal community is pretty conservative, though, and I've been fighting that on all fronts for the past 15 years – that I'm gay, vegan, pro-working class, pro-union. With unions – all those idiots you see on Fox News or on the radio like Rush Limbaugh, all of them railing against unions – they're all in a union! They have to be in the union to even be on TV and radio. You can't be on a nationally syndicated radio program without being in the union. But they still rail against it.
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As far as being lumped in with the metal community – for me, labels are for soup cans and boner pills. I don't give a fuck about labels. If someone asked me if I wanted to be thrown into the metal community right now, lumped in with all these silent people and conservative mo-mos, my answer would be no.
And here's the thing: When the singer from All That Remains called me a faggot three times on Twitter, no press
picked it up. They didn't say anything about it – in fact, he got rewarded. He's out playing festivals. Did anybody in the metal community or the metal press come to my aid, did they reach out to me? No. They didn't say a goddamn thing. When Soulfly wrote a song called “Sodomites” that basically stole lyrics out of the Bible where it calls for the deaths of gay people – when it made in the top 10 on Sirius XM radio – did anybody say anything about it? No. But had I said something about Max Cavalera's race or ancestry or background, would that have made press? You're goddamn right it would.
So no, I don't care to be considered a part of this genre, because fuck it. We do it well. We make a living at it.
Otep is playing on Wednesday, July 5 at Club Red in Mesa.