Music by VICE

Otep Will Never Stop Standing Up for Equal Rights, Trump Be Damned

The most outspoken vegan lesbian in heavy music goes deep on Kendrick Lamar, the Pulse tragedy, and staying true to oneself.

by Kelsey Zimmerman
Jun 27 2017, 5:30pm

Otep Shamaya didn't come into the extreme music scene the way most people did. After forming her first band, she didn't even have a demo recorded before being discovered by Sharon Osbourne. That kind of magnetism is exactly what keeps the multi-hyphenate Otep (writer, artist, activist, musician…) going after 15 years in the industry. She knows what she wants to say and how she wants to say it, and often cuts a polarizing figure, but those with whom she connects really fucking get it.

I saw this firsthand while waiting outside of Webster Hall before her recent New York City gig. It was still two hours until doors, but a small crowd of mostly young femmes in their Otep shirts crouched near the entrance to the venue despite the punishing heat and lack of shade. I made small talk with a few, one of whom told me she was always first in line for an Otep show. As she told me, she "couldn't miss an opportunity to say hi to [her] idol." The authenticity and passion of fans like that is the perfect example of why representation matters. Otep is an very political vegan lesbian who doesn't take any shit, and the people who flock to her are visibly grateful to have her on their side.

2016 saw Otep's return to music after a three-year hiatus following the completion of the band's contractual obligations with Victory Records (where they landed after being dropped from Capitol Records during a 2007 merger). With their new home at Napalm Records solidified, Generation Doom made a splash on the Billboard Rock Chart and garnered the band some of their highest critical praise to date. The eclectic collection of songs utilizes Otep's impressive vocal capabilities—she's also an accomplished voice actor—on songs ranging from a more traditional nu-metal sound on tracks like "Zero" and "Equal Rights Equal Lefts" to the introspective ballad "In Cold Blood." The album's visual theme is a heavy-handed nod to Imperator Furiosa, the aggressively empowered female lead character from Mad Max: Fury Road. If it's subtlety and nuance you're looking for, you won't find it here: Generation Doom spits straight in the face of the band's naysayers.

During our chat, Otep was exactly as I expected she would be: professional, well-spoken, and thoughtful, with an effortless confidence in her views, abilities, and self. The presence many have come to know through her various creative avenues and public persona appears genuine, so I was delighted to touch on topics near to my own heart like LGBTQIA rights, resisting our country's looming slide into fascism, and the lasting effects of the Pulse shooting, which occurred exactly one year prior to the day of the interview (and of course, we also talked about her love of trolling Trump on Twitter).

Noisey: Did the current political climate inspire you to make more music or did it line up organically with events as they transpired over the last couple of years?
Otep Shamaya: I think it was a bit of both. I had decided after Hydra that I wanted to take some time off, and I thought that I'd given music enough of myself for a while. Then when the spirit of music started to come back to me, it was just a natural progression from what I was experiencing and trying to relate to what I saw other people experiencing. That came out in the music.

Obviously the politics you are and have been making music about are at the forefront of a lot of peoples' minds now, including a lot of newcomers who had the privilege of staying quiet on more difficult topics until recently. Are you seeing any shifts in your fan base or in the crowds on recent tours?
It's surprising! I mean, I've been political before. Songs like "Warhead" when George W. Bush was in office—and that took a bit longer for people to turn on George Bush—but this was instant with Trump. It's been a hundred and something days and people are ready to stand up against him and his really pathetic agenda.

Are you happy to see more people out there standing up as allies or do you have that little bit of hesitation where it's like, 'Where the fuck have you been all along? Why did it take this to get you to show up?'
Sure, I think there is a part of me that wishes more people had shown up before; maybe we wouldn't be stuck with what we're stuck with now. At the same time, late to the party is still a party, so come one, come all!

So on the new album, you cover "Royals" and discuss your respect in different interviews for young talent like Lorde. Do you have other contemporary acts you're keeping up with who jive with your views or who have blown you away?
Kendrick Lamar's new album, Damn, just blew my hair back. It's just insane! It's so good, so progressive, and so creative. It addresses a lot of great social topics. I've always loved that about him. He writes what he wants to write, he writes his truth, and I respect that a lot.

You mentioned with "Royals" how you appreciate how it's written from the viewpoint of someone coming from a working class background. Is that something you look for—especially since you brought up Kendrick—people who come from similar backgrounds as you?
Oh yeah, I think I relate to what I understand and what I know. I was raised working class—I was raised poor. So for me, when people celebrate that, I think it's worth paying attention to. With the rise of the Kardashians and reality TV, we see people just wanting to be famous for being famous and doing nothing. It seems like the working class has been pushed aside, even though they're the most important class in our country. They're the people who build our houses, they're the people who fix our roads, who take care of in the hospital: nurses, police officers, fire fighters, construction workers, the military. These are the folks who actually do the work, and I think that's worth celebrating and it's worth remembering. My family is all still working class, and they take pride in it. Some of them build homes for a living, and they know that someone's going to raise their family in that house and they take great pride in that.

As a person from a similar background, it's easy to pick up on how effectively you relate that respect and experience through your music to the fans. Have any songs from Generation Doom taken on a new life over the course of the tour cycles or surprised you as favorites that caught on with those fans?
"Equal Rights, Equal Lefts." It's the quickest song as far as how fans grabbed it and knew the words and were really excited about it quicker than any single we've ever released. As soon as the record dropped, we went out on tour and played it, everybody knew the song. It was just this explosion of joy and excitement, and that song has become a staple in our set.

It was hard for that to NOT strike a nerve, with just the title alone. I'm sure a lot of people jumped on it and felt like, 'Okay, this is my anthem now.'
Definitely.

Speaking of equal rights, today is the one-year anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Combined with Trump's election, it's been a really traumatic year for the LGBTQIA community. How have you seen that affect your friends and loved ones in your immediate and extended circles?
I see a lot of fear now. Under President Obama--and we didn't always agree with him and the way he went about things—we always felt like we had a friend. We had someone watching over us. Whether it happened quick enough or not was another debate, but we still felt like we had somebody who was going to make sure we were protected as citizens. Now it doesn't feel like that at all. People have been attacked, and people who are homophobic or racist or sexist now feel like they have a platform. They feel like they have the ability to voice these bigotries and this hideousness. They feel like they can celebrate it openly, and they're in for a big surprise if they continue it because that's not who we are anymore. That's not who we're gonna be.

I've felt like even the queer circles that I run in have tightened down a lot and become closer to each other but also more ready to fuck anyone up who tries to mess with us.
That's right. That is right.

So with all that, Pride month seems more important than ever. Do you have anything special planned to celebrate?
I was just in DC and my girlfriend and I went to DC Pride and we were able to celebrate with a lot of people. I think also we're playing "Equal Rights, Equal Lefts" every show on this tour and every night I bring up what the song is about, who it's dedicated to, and I remind people about Orlando.

As an active and vocal member of the resistance, what actions do you want to see more people taking on to help protect those who need it most, like women and minorities?
I think you've got to be vocal, and if you see something happen that you disagree with, you should stand up whether it affects you or not. Sometimes it's even more effective when it's coming from someone who isn't involved at all, whether it's women's reproductive rights, LGBT rights, or civil rights, and so on.

The Black Lives Matter movement is a great movement because of how law enforcement has been treating that particular community for so long. It helps, as part of the resistance, that we make that part of our agenda; everything that people are fighting for should be encapsulated within the resistance. So LGBT rights, women's rights, Black Lives Matter: all those things are part of what we're trying to protect, preserve, and fight for.

So while your colorful messagesto the current administration are in themselves a form of charity, can you discuss your involvement with other types of charity work?
I'm on the board of directors of an organization called I Stand with My Pack. Not only do we fight for the rights of domestic animals, we're also trying to make conditions better for animals on factory farms. We're also working to protect endangered rhinos and elephants from poaching and working with this organization called Vet Paw. These are military veterans—combat veterans, mostly—who have donated their time and expertise to protect these endangered animals. They sit over there in Africa and watch all night on guard. I remember I was talking to one of the guys and he was saying how they're there to make sure the poachers are aware that they're not allowed to hurt these animals. They aren't there to hurt the poachers, but they will let them know that Vet Paw is there. Sometimes they'll do something like shoot their hat off.

You've been open about the fact that you weren't really into metal before you broke into the genre, but you've obviously been successful in spite of it. Do you feel like you've been readily embraced, or have you carved your own niche out?
I think I've carved my own place in it to be honest. When people call us a metal band… I think metal enthusiasts will disagree that Otep is actually a metal band.

Metalheads will definitely argue about anything.
Sure! We're more of a fusion band and they threw that label on us—nu-metal—while I'm just here to write songs and write my truth, genre be damned. That's the way I approach it. I wouldn't have written "Equal Rights, Equal Lefts" if I was worried about whether it's a metal song. I wouldn't have written "Perfectly Flawed" if I was worried if it was going to be within the genre. Any of the songs—"On the Shore," "We Dream Like Lions," "You're a Woman Now"—I don't write for a particular genre, I write whatever is authentically bubbling from me. I feel like even to this day—I've been doing this for 15 years now, seven albums in and about to record album number eight, and there are still people questioning my longevity in this genre. I'm like, 'Alright, I'm approaching 20 years, so I think I'm doing pretty good.' I think we've done it on our own terms and it may have taken us longer to get where we needed to go, but we did it and we did it with our integrity intact. I'm proud of that.

Any advice for young people who've been inspired by you to start making art or music of their own, especially any young queer folx or women who feel like they aren't seeing as much representation of themselves in the mainstream?
We are invisible, and that's important. Art is a way to be seen. I think that the first thing is if you're a writer, read more than you write. That's the cardinal sin of any writer—writing more than you read. I think just exposing yourself to all different types of art is very, very important so you can create your own style and have your own voice. Some people get closed off because they don't want to be too inspired by other artists, but you're not pollinating yourself correctly if you do that. I think anybody who wants to be an artist and is told that they can't because it's not possible for them—that's what they said to me. I got signed after four shows with no demo strictly on the power of our live performance. You've just got to get your teeth into something and don't let go.

Kelsey Zimmerman is working queer sex magic on Twitter.