Otep Shamaya on art, activism and queering metal

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At the reigns of one of nu metal’s most mythic bands Otep is outspoken frontwoman Otep Shamaya. After being invited to play the legendary stage Ozzfest in 2000 their star skyrocketed within the aggressive music genre. Fifteen years later, the band is still touring hard and tackling the challenges of the ever evolving musical landscape.

AfterEllen caught up with the out fiery frontwoman-cum-activist to discuss her roots in the industry and to pick her brain on her life in music and what it means to have a platform to speak from.

otepphotos by Christine Solomon

AfterEllen: How’d you get your start in music?

Otep: Well, the first I thing I ever did creatively when I was a child was draw. My family was mostly more literal brained. They’re all scholars, and now they’ve all become lawyers and business people and I’m the only artist in the family. They didn’t understand my eccentric energy, so when my mom discovered that I had this passion for drawing it was her way of encouraging me and also keeping me still. She would put a piece of paper and a pencil in my hand and to say draw me a pretty picture.

So I would stay out of trouble because I was always trying to create things, and then I discovered a little later that I could write stories because people would ask me what my drawings were about. I would take time to tell them and then I thought well why don’t I, now that I know how to write, why don’t I write the story and draw the pictures. And then when I discovered writing it became much more intriguing and fascinating to me, I could do more with words than what I could do with drawing. Which led me to poetry.

So I thought I was either going to be a struggling street artist or a struggling poet, or something in that world. Maybe an activist. And then I went and saw a band play at a festival. They were a six piece and there were two singers and they were both drunk, insulting everybody in front of them, especially the women, they were being belligerent and I thought well if this is what it takes to do music I could probably do that. So I told my friend that was with me, I said, “Well, I could do that” and he’s like, “You don’t have a band or any songs.” And I said, “Well that doesn’t matter, I’m gonna make it happen and you’ll see me on this stage next year.” I got home and I got to work and I found some people that wanted to make some music and I wrote some songs and by that next year we were on that stage, and that stage was Ozzfest.

 

AE: How do you find the climate of the nu metal scene and how has it evolved since you’ve been making music?

Otep: It was really exciting when we first started because you didn’t need to follow a formula. You could use any kind of influence from any musical genre you wanted. People enjoyed it and they were surprised by it and they were hyped up by it. If you were this really aggressive band and then suddenly you dropped into a Latin beat and you had a break a there, people were like, “Whoa! What was that?” Rage Against the Machine is a prime example of that, I would make an argument that Tom Morello invented dubstep, if you go back and look at some of his live performances, what he did with guitar. He has a switch on his guitar that alters the sound of the guitar from digital and drops octaves, always to beats and always to rhythm and he would do that and people would just go insane.

Then you have bands like Slipknot who’ve got these really groovy grind beats and then suddenly they have a break for their DJ and drum and bass, and it was just really exciting. So it was just a really exciting time because you didn’t have to worry about fitting into a fad or genre you just followed your muse in what your inspirations were. Over time the aggressive music genre shifted and bands started going to a more classical form of what they thought the music was. Which is basically ripping off Pantera, who are gods, and not giving Pantera credit for the inspiration for all of these bands.

And so we just kept doing what we were doing. It’s just not in me to follow the pack. We’re just not like that. So it became more difficult to find new audiences because people were expecting to hear what the majority of other bands were following at the time. And now it seems like it’s come back around where people are more open to different sounds, genres, bands mixing it up, bands including things that they like that are surprising. And that’s a lot of fun because that liberates me as a composer to write whatever I want musically and vocally.

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