Otep Shamaya: Warrior Poet

Greetings, brothers and sisters! In my thirty (plus) years of being a die-hard fan of heavy metal, I've been inspired and influenced by dozens of bands and hundreds of songs in my journey, all of which have meant something very special to me in different ways.
However, that all changed for me back in 2001, when I first heard about a band called OTEP and I bought their EP, entitled "Jihad". I know, as cliche as this sounds, my life was going to be forever changed by what I had just experienced. This music was new and fresh, brutally honest and groundbreaking, because there had never been anything else like it out there, not in the heavy metal genre, not anywhere.... OTEP got inside my soul in a way, I had never experienced before. I have always appreciated the lyrics from bands as much or sometimes more than the actual music itself. OTEP was a band, that had the unique ability to move me with both intelligent, brutally emotional lyrics and loud agressive music. On this day, I literally felt born again. Myself and many others now had a voice of someone in our corner who would speak, growl, shout and write about some of the things that most of us were too scared to face alone. Well, we were not alone anymore....
Fast forward to the present day, where my journey has taken me full circle to this very special and humbling moment in my life, the chance of a lifetime to get to interview a true hero for me, not just in the heavy metal genre, but a true hero as a ‘human being’. Yes, there have been other notable highlights in my life. I guess, the whole being born thing was pretty cool and of course getting married to the love of my life, Paula, was the ultimate highlight, but having an opportunity to speak with someone, who has touched so many lives and inspired a massive following of fans worldwide with her gift of poetry and her compassionate heart is truly something I will always remember as well. OTEP has ignited a generation and has given thousands of lost souls something they may have never found on their own: hope.
Brothers and sisters, it is my honor and privilege to bring to you today singer, songwriter, poet, performance artist and modern day warrior for the opressed: Otep Shamaya.

Hello Otep, I want to thank you for being here today to speak with us on Metal Maidens and from the bottom of my heart, I want to thank you for doing what you do and for being such an inspiration to me and so many others.
Otep: “Thank you for the opportunity to converse with you.”

You have so much going on in your life right now.. It's hard to know where to begin, but I guess I will start by congratulating you on joining Victory Records. Is this something that was in the works for a while?
Otep: “It happened rather quickly actually. Once we were free-agents, the offers started pouring in. But I wanted to make the right decision and choose to align with a label that understood the delicate yet powerful dichotomy of art vs. commerce and how important both are to professional artists. Victory understands this binary discord in a way, that organizes the chaos in order to serve the fans and listeners and lovers of music. It is an incredible thing to be a part of.”

Do you feel that yourself and the band will be given more freedom, when it comes to the recording process and the overall sound of the final product?
Otep: “We've never had anyone limit us in the past and I do not see that happening in the future. What I do hope is that we continue to evolve as artists. Continue to seduce and empower the pieces of us that motivated and provoked us to step out of our comfort zones and explore methods of self-expression. I want to continue to sharpen the edges.”

You recently released your fourth full-length CD, entitled "Smash The Control Machine" and to call this CD genius would simply not do it justice. Are you and the band surprised by how well it has been received by the mainstream media as well as your fans?
Otep: “Thank you for your kind words. We are very proud of this album. We are still one of the few underground bands left and it's been amazing to see a broader audience embrace our music and message. We are very appreciative of all the love and support we've received from radio. It might be geeky to some, but I still feel giggle bubbles in my veins, whenever I turn on the radio and our song is playing.”

Your CDs always seem to have a theme - not necessarily a concept, but definitely a feel or a vibe, that seems to bind all the songs together and give them a common message. When you write is that something you are conscious of at first, then the lyrics come later, or vice versa?
Otep: “It's a continuous process of dipping in and out of the subconscious shadows, relying heavily on instinct, experience, and emotion, then soaring back up to administrate and scour the arrangements and progressions for anything mundane or obvious.”

As far as lyrics or poetry for a song idea, do you put them to paper first, then ‘Evil’ J. McGuire writes the music or does he come up with the riffs first, then you add the words or is it something done as a team?
Otep: “It is a communal process. I will always have books & books of poems, lyrics, stories, and ideas. And ‘Evil’ J. will come in with guitar and bass ideas. We do a little artistic mind meld and the magic happens...“

Can you describe the progression of this CD as compared to your others, as far as branching out with new ideas lyrically and musically?
Otep: “With every album we are trying to experiment and evolve, to find a new method of self expression. This album is a culmination of all those ideas and movements.”

You have been called a chameleon at times in regards to your look and music constantly changing. Do you feel that is an accurate description?
Otep: “Indeed, I am always trying to evolve as an artist. Someone once called me the ‘MADONNA of metal’. I suppose, because she's adapted and evolved her art and music, but we are indeed, two very different species of creative animal.“

I won’t bore you with the same old song by song breakdown like everyone else does, but may I ask you about some of my favorite tunes on the CD, such as the brilliant "Ur A Wmn Now", "Numb and Dumb" and "Where the River Ends"(which sort of reminds me of “Jonestown Tea")?
Otep: “Ur A Wmn Now” deals with the archaic and sometimes barbaric rites and rituals, that transition girls into women. It is a challenge to those social and cultural fossils and offers a rather common sense idea for what a real woman is: someone, who has accepted the responsibility of becoming their own person and with it, all the struggles, sacrifices, and successes. “Numb & Dumb” is a look at the apathy that infects the American soul and a provocation to destroy it. “Where The River Ends” is somewhat of a sequel to “Jonestown Tea”. "I'm not yours anymore ...."

The song "Ur A Wmn Now" is so powerful and disturbing and definitely different musically than anything else you have done in the past. Did you feel it might alienate some of your fans by being so different?
Otep: “Ur A Wmn Now” is a member of a family of a songs, that began with “Emtee” to “Autopsy Song” to “Perfectly Flawed” to “Ur A Wmn Now”. I think, the message is strong enough to destroy any misguided ideas of genre or category that some might have for us. I am very proud of this song.”

Most people do not give you the credit you deserve as far as a vocalist, but you do have a very beautiful voice and it is showcased on this song in particular. Did these lyrics have a certain feel to them that inspired the tune to be softer, as opposed to using more aggressive vocals?
Otep: “I wanted this song to be deceptively beautiful. The issues this song addresses are terrifying to some minds. I was hoping to create a song that was inviting and alluring and bewitching. It's the message that matters.”

Your old friends Rob and Moke are back in the band. How did that come about and is this a permanent thing?
Otep: “When I was told it was time to write a new album I reached out to them. At first, it was going to be just one song, but it was soon very clear that we couldn't stop what we started. Once we were back in the room together, it was if we were never apart. I believe, we will write together again. It is my hope to do so.”

How much influence did they have in recording this CD?
Otep: “’Evil’ J and I have an amazing chemistry together and bringing Rob and Moke back into the fold was magical.”

The relationship and chemistry between yourself and Evil J, your co-conspirator all these years, seems like an unstoppable force and the anchor of the band. Otep, how do you explain how well the two of you mesh?
Otep: “He and I share many of the same ideas about art and music. Big Evil is an incredible musician and writer. Your question is difficult, because how do you explain a best friend? We just are.”

How did the both of you cross paths years ago?
Otep: “Moke saw him playing in a jam session in Los Angeles and brought him in to audition. Once I saw his amazing skill at work and had a conversation with him and discovered his intelligence, I knew he was the perfect player for the band.”

Are there any other musicians you would like to work with in the future and would you ever consider doing a side project, something completely different from OTEP?
Otep: “I am very happy with where I am and where the creative process has led me. My only focus at this point is this project.”

Along with the new CD release, can we expect a live DVD from the band any time soon, because as great as OTEP is on disc, you can not fully ingest this band unless you are part of the live experience?
Otep: “Oh, we are just full of surprises!”

OTEP is currently touring with FIVE FINGER DEATH PUNCH, which is a killer band in their own kind. How is the tour going and when does it wrap up?
Otep: “Yes, we are on tour right now with FFDP. They are an incredible band, have a great live show and insanely supportive fans! We are having a great time sharing this moment with them.”

What about 2010, what are your plans for touring?
Otep: “I have no idea. I don't book tours, but I am told I am going to be very busy."

The connection, you have with your fans and their loyalty to you at times has to be a little overwhelming, but I can think of no other musician or artist in general who puts themselves out there for her fans like you do. However, it must have a price as well in the fact, that your entire life is pretty much an open book. Is that hard to deal with sometimes?
Otep: “Sure, sometimes it gets a little savage and insane but so be it. It's all part of the life. Art feeds passions.”

At times do you feel like the ‘dam is going to burst’ and it is physically impossible to help everyone and be sympathetic to every cause?
Otep: “You do what you can and do your best. That's all that anyone can ever do.”

You have battled some pretty intense demons in your life and unfortunately most of those scars never heal. Do you feel you made it through that hell to be here today to help others, that may be battling their own demons as well, maybe fulfilling your own destiny?
Otep: “I don't believe in predestination. I believe in hard work, in never surrendering and fighting for the existence we all deserve.”

Your music and poetry are a catharsis for your fans. Can that still be said for you as well?
Otep: “Indeed. Art saves!”

A catharsis can be a good thing, but it does exact a toll as well in re-living old and painful subjects. Would it not be much easier for you to write and perform about other things, instead of dealing with all that pain?
Otep: “No.”

It is very hard for me to say I love any one of your songs more than an other, but I have always been drawn to "Jonestown Tea" from your CD "Sevas Tra". I know, it is an emotional experience for me every time I listen to it. I have always wondered how you can sing that song night after night on stage without actually breaking down into tears?
Otep: “I don't perform that song anymore. It's a difficult song to perform and I feel the song has a life of its own and doesn't need any additional help.”

I have personally only had the chance to see you play live twice on Ozzfest in my hometown of Pittsburgh and while your set was only about twenty minutes, the impact you had on myself and your other fans was huge. I actually saw some young women in the crowd crying as you were playing, then after your set those same women were smiling as if some giant weight had been lifted from them. Witnessing that gave me a lump in my throat; does that give you a great sense of accomplishment knowing you touched someone's life in such a personal way?
Otep: “Indeed it does. I never thought my art would touch anyone (other than me) in this way. I am grateful and blessed to have this opportunity of mass self-expression. I hope it provokes healing and empowerment in the lives of those who need it.”

I have been going to concerts for around thirty years and I can honestly say I have never experienced anything like that. I only wish "you" could sit in the audience and see "yourself" perform.
Otep: “I hate watching myself. I am too judgmental and never think I am doing enough.”

You are not only an inspiration musically and spiritually to people, but you have also been a very outspoken advocate for some pretty intense causes, as well such as abuse of children, animal rights, politics, marriage equality and the horrors in Darfur, just to name a few. Obviously, you cannot help the entire planet (although at times I really do think you could). I know some of these causes are very personal to you, but how do you decide who to help?
Otep: “How does anyone decide anything? It's all personal preference.”

It must be completely exhausting and a little frustrating at times as well. I mean, you do have a life and you cannot save everyone, right?
Otep: “I don't do what I do for notoriety or celebrity. I do it, because I care. My question to you and your readers is "how can you sit by and do nothing and watch another episode of dancing with the has-beens or spend another night drinking or eating your microscopic sorrows away, while there is real suffering and despair in this world? How do you justify your inaction?"

You even spoke at the Democratic national convention in support of president Barack Obama. How did that come about and is the president a fan of your music?
Otep: “I was asked to do so by Rock The Vote. I doubt President Obama knows anything about my music. I wouldn't expect him to, but that's not why I support him. It's his thoughtful, intelligent approach to leadership.”

How did the Washington DC polititians treat you while you were there?
Otep: “It was very well received and some of the elders of the DNC asked me to speak on college campuses (Kent State, etc.), but my duties and responsibilities to my band took precedent.”

One of the (many) things, that I have always admired about you is your sense of humor, which I think surprises a lot of people. I really think they have this visual of you sitting in some dark little coffee shop somewhere, smoking clove cigarettes, wearing a beret and watching some guy up on stage play the bongos and recite poetry, but the fact is that could not be further from the truth, correct?
Otep: “I wouldn't begin to imagine what people think about my private life, but it's true, some do have pretty wild ideas.”

Outside the friendly confines of your fanbase, to the rest of the drones of society, you are a gay woman, who plays in a metal band. What has been more difficult for you to overcome, the prejudices of being a strong woman, a gay woman or a woman in a genre of music, that at times can be very stereotyped and one sided?
Otep: “I don't pay much attention to what my enemies think. Haters hate. That's it. People, who are professional complainers are miserable worms with dogshit souls. Why should I care what invincible ignorance thinks of me or people like me?"

Can you tell us a little about the Hetrick-Martin Institute and how you came to be involved as their spokesperson?
Otep: “They are an incredible organization, that helps GLBT teens with counseling, education, art therapy and so much more. Most of these teens are below poverty level, they are ‘at-risk’ for suicide and drug abuse, but Hetrick-Martin (Home of The Harvey Milk High School) offer these abandoned souls a beacon of hope and strength. They change lives every single day. Hot meals, clean clothes, a safe, secure place to grow and develop. Go and visit their website at: http://www.hmi.org.”

Do you think your life would have turned out differently, if you had the support and compassion of a place like Hetrick Martin?
Otep: “Absolutely. I don't think I would've spent so much of my life hating who I was and hating the world around me. Learning to love & accept your"self" is an empowerment beyond words.”

Some of your fans may be struggling with confusion over their sexuality and the pain and ridicule that sometimes haunts them. What advice can you give to them as to where they can turn for help?
Otep: “I would advise them to seek out local gay and lesbian outreaches in their communities. I would advise them to check out http://www.hmi.org . I would also advise them to deny the culture of corruption what they really want - our surrender. Never let anyone define you. And why should you? Blondes, brunettes, left-handed, right-handed, green eyes, brown eyes - you are who are you. Fight for the existence, you deserve! You are beautiful just the way you are! Believe it! Live it!”

Women in the metal scene today are stronger than ever and seem to be finally getting the recognition they deserve. Do you agree or disagree?
Otep: “I agree.”

Unfortunately, there seem to be more and more of what I like to call ‘fluff chicks’ in the scene as well. These are females, who say they are metal, but it seems they are lacking some talent and are more concerned with looking good and posing for the cameras. I personally think in time there will be a thinning of the herd and only the bands with the most talent will be left standing. What do you think?
Otep: “I hope audiences are turning their attention back to bands and artists, that love and believe in the craft of art.”

Please tell us about the ‘I’m Not A Monster’ website, that you have created? [http://www.imnotamonster.com/]
Otep: “It is an aggregate site full of all the information, data, statistics, art, science, politics, etc., that I find interesting.”

The internet is such a powerful tool and I think, it has helped your band quite a bit as well, but it amazes me how some bands do not really take advantage of this technology to help spread the word about their music. You have used the technology to once again find another way to give back to your fans.
Otep: “Thank you.”

In the past you have performed on HBO's "Def Poetry Jam", which was very successful for that network. Do you have any future plans involving television and was it something you enjoyed doing?
Otep: ‘No plans. Performing on HBO's Def Poetry was one of the most memorable and joyous moments of my life.”

I do not imagine, they had ever seen anything like Otep Shamaya on their stage before! Your performance was brilliant and left some of the audience with their mouths dropped open. What was the reaction of the shows producer Russel Simmons and the HBO people themselves?
Otep: “I have no idea. I never met Russell Simmons. And I only really met one of the producers Stan Latham and he seemed very pleased with my poem. Mos Def (the host) said some really nice things about what I did. And the HBO viewers voted me the best poet of the season on the HBO website.”

Since you are a role model for thousands of young people out there, what advice would you give to them if they wanted to get involved with this business?
Otep: “Trust no one!”

What new music are you listening to at the moment?
Otep: “I am revisiting RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE's first album.”

Where can potential new fans find your music, poetry and merch?
Otep: “Go to: http://www.smashthecontrolmachine.com or http://myspace.com/otep.”

I know I have kept you way too long, but do have anything you would like to add to this interview or possibly something about yourself that your fans do not know that you would like to talk about?
Otep: “I think your questions were very thorough.”

I do not really have the words to express my gratitude to you for taking the time to speak with us today and for being there for myself and all of your fans over the years. In this life you rarely meet many quality human beings, who actually earn your respect, but you definitley have mine. You are the voice of a generation and I hate to think where some of us might be today, if there weren’t an Otep Shamaya. Thankfully, we will never have to know. I wish you luck with the new CD and continued success in your career and in your life. "Art Saves", my friend! Much love and respect to you, Nick Rohm.
Otep: “Thank you Nick. It was my pleasure and honor to share ideas with you.”

copyright: METAL MAIDENS
interview by: Nick Rohm, Metal Maidens 'zine / Fall 2009.

Visit their official website at: l3gi0n.ning.com/
or go to their My Space site at: www.myspace.com/otep