Once upon a time, your typical front person in this business was a leather-wrapped, ink-covered, hairy, testosterone-fueled Visigoth roaring like a sackful of demons. But metal is no longer a male-dominated field, and Otep founder/front woman Otep Shamaya is claiming a piece of that turf.
The articulate, attractive blonde singer sounds like an art school professor when discussing her reasons for choosing metal as her profession. She has called her work "dissident cabaret," and says she feels a kinship with Antonin Artaud, French dramatist of the Surrealist movement best known for his Theatre Of Cruelty.
Like Artaud, Shamaya believes the audience should be thrown into the center of the action to shock them out of their complacency. For her, the audience is not just a blob lurking out there beyond the lights, but an integral part of her performance. "It's important that the audience is a participant," the singer said recently by phone on a trek through the corn fields of Iowa on her way to a gig. "I believe my duty as an artist is to evoke a reaction. Whether outrage [or] empathy, solidarity is unimportant: all that matters is that they feel something."
Given the singer's charisma and balls-to-the-wall performance style, anybody in the vicinity with a pulse would have to feel something in her presence. When she hits the stage, she delivers her proclamations roaring like the metal beast she serves.
A former poet, Shamaya says the "emotional catharsis" of metal attracted her. "I didn't really listen to this style of music very much," the singer says. "I just jumped in with both feet and allowed the emotional part of me to lead me through the art of it."
Otep is her first band, and she admits to having no formal musical training. When she first started the band, she piled her poetry notebooks and illustrations in a heap in front of her manager and told him she wanted to turn that into music. "I've always contributed melodies and composition, but the process of staying organic and letting the songs build themselves is basically the same," she says
Her band seems to be in a constant state of flux. This current lineup has only been with her a year, but Shamaya says she's written with different musicians on every album she's made. "It's just part of the creative process," she says, "to keep the energy fresh and hungry. The sound has evolved, and I'm happy about that."
Although she can actually carry a tune, Shamaya sees herself as an orator more than a singer. But she doesn't just spout platitudes. Her lyrics are a fierce jab to the guts. "No daddy don't! I'm bleeding ... it's not fair," she screams on "Jonestown Tea," the song about child abuse that persuaded Sharon Osbourne to hire Otep to play Ozzfest even though the band was unsigned at the time and had only played five or six shows in their career. "So I entered his room ... with my little ritual knife ... I cut out his tongue," she proclaims as the song thunders to a conclusion that still leaves audience members gasping.
She continues her crusade against abuse on her latest release, Atavist, taking on the Catholic Church and what she sees as "the systematic abuse of young children at the hands of those who pretend to be proxies of God." The song "Atom To Adam" is a kick in the teeth for pedophile priests: "Eat the meat/Of the young ... You who hate /You who rape ... Admit what you did." Shamaya says her lyrics "proclaim to the heavens that there are no victims, only survivors."
She won't say whether the sexual abuse she writes about is literal or not. But she does admit that her current occupation has been her salvation and her music celebrates survival. "Art saves all of me," she says.
Her music is as heavy and menacing as anything in death metal, and her delivery matches the hard-core boys' in tone and intensity. Even after 11 years, she still gets challenged by some who don't think her gender is appropriate for the genre. "Most every show, there is some jackhole who thinks women belong in certain space and action," she says heatedly. "I intend on doing everything I can to destroy those paradigms into oblivion."
Shamaya can wax eloquent on the art of what she does, but ask how she would like to be remembered, and she's very succinct. "As a noble savage," she says. "I hope we inspire people to not follow fads or fashion but to follow their hearts."