Otep Shamaya on standing up for yourself and having a voice when everyone says to be quiet
On a chilly January afternoon in West Hollywood, the heavily tattooed singer Otep Shamaya can't hide her excitement about the release of Hydra, her namesake band's sixth studio album. In the testosterone-fueled genres of aggressive rock and heavy metal, it's not easy to be a lesbian singer, but Shamaya has outlasted many of her contemporaries.
She's been writing and recording for twelve years. A disciple of Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison, Otep was signed to Capitol Records after only four shows. Since then, the Los Angeles native has built a cult following of people who connect with her lyrics, which chronicle everything from her unabashed left-wing politics to stories of hope and overcoming obstacles.
"As a gay person, I'm accustomed to being attacked," she says. "And as a tattooed singer of a very loud rock band, I'm used to being an outcast. It's how I've felt my whole life."
When she's not riling up crowds on stage, Otep writes poetry (she's released several volumes), paints, writes for several websites and is an outspoken champion of women's rights, highlighted when she spoke on behalf of Rock The Vote at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. As we nurse cups of hot coffee, Otep tell us how this album is different from earlier work and recalls how one fan interaction showed the difference she's made in her fans' lives.
Westword: What's the difference between this record and the past few you've made?
Otep Shamaya: I think this album, Hydra, is, in some ways, about feminine empowerment. It was a feeling of helplessness against the conservative party that tried reduce women to a pre-1920s status, when we didn't have the right to vote or any sort of normal citizenship in this country whatsoever. It ended up being a very personal album, and stems from the idea that women can be just as powerful and vicious as they want to be.
I'm accustomed to being attacked for a number of reasons. But this felt like something new because of the debate of whether or not being gay was something you choose. My artistic proclivities engage me to write loud, in-your-face music and not play or pander to whatever the stereotype of what I'm supposed to be saying as a woman. Part of that response may have been writing this very dramatic and very strong album that was about a woman striking back.
Have you found the challenges of being a gay woman in such a masculine genre overwhelming at times?
I think it's harder to be a minority anywhere. I think it's limiting, and if you look at the large rock festivals and look at how many women were on those festivals -- not a lot. For women, we have to support each other because we're set up to be competitive against each other, and that's hard to overlook when it's so hard for women to get noticed.
There are people who will deny me because of both things and be like, "Whatever." There will be some who will listen out of intrigue. I find that we have a very special following, and I don't think it has anything to do with my gender, but I think, instead, the message. I will continue to hopefully inspire other people to shake up the system, to shake up the stereotypes and the image of what we're supposed to be because society says we have to be.
Are you surprised that without any mainstream success, you've been able to carve out a career as a musician?
I never thought I'd have six albums. Most people counted me out in the beginning because I wasn't typical of the genre or I would be part of that nü-metal fad. I don't think those folks looked past the surface of things, and it's the message of my songs -- to stand up to yourself and have a voice when everyone else tells you to be quiet -- that has drawn people to us. It still surprises me, and I'm truly honored to be able to do this, and that's why on the last tour, I've tried to meet and take pictures with as many people that want to meet me.
Were there any particularly memorable fan encounters?
Yes. After a show, there was this one girl who came up to me and handed me a blanket that was in tatters and filthy. She said she wants me to have it. Sometimes fans give me things, and I don't know what is, and it's okay. I enjoy eccentric things, but at the same time, it's like, "Do I need to wear gloves with this?" since it was so stained.
She stops and gives me a big hug and said, "That was the blanket my stepfather used when he molested me." She said, "The only thing that didn't stop me from killing myself was finding your song 'My Confession.'" That's a heavy burden to bear, but at the same time, it emboldens me. I don't listen to the critics; I listen to the people who are actually there, and it inspires me to write music that matters.