Earning fierce loyalty from listeners worldwide, Otep Shamaya has cultivated a revolutionary and empowering impact that reaches beyond the stage. Although Otep has reached rock-goddess mastery, it is her dedication toward raising awareness and the betterment of society that intrigues curiosity beyond the known and showcases a level of depth past the music within one bold, fierce and dynamic woman. In honor of Pride Month, I caught up with Otep to discuss her journey as a standout LGBTQ activist, her personal experiences that led toward a life of liberation, words of wisdom, tattoos, and more.
First and foremost, Happy Pride Month! Let’s get this cranking... How accepting of a community did you grow up in? How do you perceive that being in a community that inspirits liberation aids in the experience of “coming out of the closet?”
Thank you! I didn’t grow up in a terribly enlightened community. I was aware that I was different from other people early on, and I didn’t know that it would bother some people if I was just myself. I really didn’t have any peers, and a lot of adults in the LGBT community have grown up without peers. It’s hard when you can’t share those early formative moments such as your first kiss, your first crush or the first time that you held hands with someone because you are afraid that you will lose your friends or get in trouble at school or at home. It’s tough growing up in that kind of an environment, or even in popular culture. You know, as a gay kid, where do you see yourself on television shows if it is not a stereotype? Where do you see yourself in music if it’s not specifically for that? It’s tough growing up without peers until you can find your tribe later in life, and then things start to make sense. Luckily, the LGBT community is definitely growing and getting stronger, louder and prouder, and I couldn’t be more excited about that.
Oh yeah. It’s electric. I feel as though society is really acknowledging how beneficial this is to the wellbeing of all. I am moved by you stating how it is placed within a stereotype on, for instance, television, and these kids have to endure the level of acceptance that comes with the first formative moments amongst the feeling of being and walking toward the acceptance of being “different”.
Yeah. Also, do they have the safe space at school? Do you they have the safe space at home and with their friends? Sometimes, the answer to all of those is no. For me, it’s always been very important to live out loud. If I can be a firefly in the dark for somebody, they can find me and know that it gets better and it’s not always easy, but it definitely gets better once you are able to find your tribe and your own self-acceptance and self-worth. These days, social media and the internet have caused a rise in bullying that wouldn’t naturally occur face to face, because it’s easier to do online. But, although there are there are a lot more resources that are very beneficial, we have also seen a rise of bigotry because of Donny Little Fingers…
But, do you perceive that you have seen a rise of fierce, forceful and determined activism as well?
Yes. Indeed. I think that it is up to gay people to not expect heterosexual people to fight our battles for us. I enjoy and appreciate our heterosexual allies very much, I am blessed that they stand with us, but it’s definitely up to us to make sure that we are not invisible and that we are there for those that need us. You’re right, the rise of activism is real. The one thing that I know from my friends in D.C. is that the one thing that they fear the most is pissing off the gay community, because we vote. We organize. One of the great pillars of change that has happened in this country is the rise of activism and organization within the LGBTQ community. It’s easy to start to reflect on what would happen if something bad actually happened and to start to back off. For me, this is when we have to double-down and get stronger and more focused on the prize and make sure that we are treated equal because all are created equal, which has been a focus of mine ever since I began my journey as an artist.
Right. Keeping growth at the forefront of the mind, because ultimately as you mentioned, there is a lot of fear that can rise from vulnerabilities within individuals amongst what the media portrays. You have been an active LGBTQ activist and musician ever since the early 2000’s. What has been the most positive culture and perceptual shift that you have encountered over the years?
More and more people coming out to our shows and being open at our shows. For me, it’s always great to see family in the audience. It’s good that people feel comfortable with us. There has been a shift in the way that people see themselves and the way that people think that they have nothing to be ashamed or afraid of, which has a lot to do with the way that activists and other people that are in some sense of notoriety or have some sense of newsworthiness have come out. Pro football players, rock stars, artists, activists, and actors who have decided that it’s not fair that they can live their life and be free yet there are kids that suffer every day. So, that has been a really welcomed change and it’s been very exciting just to see how it’s not a big new story if an individual decides to come out now. It’s not as big of a deal.
Interesting. I perceive that public expression has liberated and you're not getting as many “turn of the heads” as an LGBT family member or couple out in public…
Right, but we still have to be cautious and aware. A gay couple that walks out of their house has the thought of whether or not they will be greeted with kindness or a stare, when that never crosses the mind of most heterosexual couples. Whenever I leave my house with my girlfriend and her and I are holding hands, if there is someone that is walking toward us, there is always the thought that the person might say or do something to us or simply confront us. It has happened to me, and that is the reason why I wrote the song, “Equal Rights, Equal Lefts”, because I was confronted on a vacation with an ex-girlfriend on mine in Hawaii at the time. Hawaii is generally considered one of the most LGBT-friendly places in the world, but I was confronted by an old man who had a Trump sticker on his old-man motorcycle. He came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Happy Father’s Day.” He told me that he thought that I was a man, and all of these things. I am not one to back down; if you poke a tiger, you are going to get bit. So, he said these things to me and said that I must be someone who believes in equal rights, and I shot back some smart remarks to him and he pulled his fists up and took a step back as though he was going to fight me. So, I took a step back and I pulled my left up and said, “Yes, I believe in equal lefts too, motherf**ker”, and he walked away real quickly to his tricycle and drove away.
Do you perceive that he was coming from a place of a lack of knowledge or education? Or simply ignorance?
No. This is the problem within our community. Sometimes, we pawn these people off as being uneducated or not having as much life experience. My point of view is that they are insecure, cowardly people who are threatened by something that they cannot control. They need to feel superior to somebody. This is about poor character. This is about someone who has more evil within them than good. I was with a really attractive woman and he was upset that he could never get that woman, therefore, he had to attack me for it. And that is where I threatened his manhood, his masculinity, and all of these things because I don’t fall into the particular gender role that he wants me to play as a woman, which is to be quiet. The guy lives in Hawaii. He has been exposed to the LGBT community forever. He has seen gay couples, it’s Hawaii. I don’t know if you have ever been, but Honolulu is one of the most cosmopolitan and touristy places on the planet. You will find all kind of couples there….
No, I’ve never been! I’m not familiar with culture in Hawaii or Honolulu…
Oh, it’s beautiful. It’s gorgeous. But, it’s also very touristy. So, you have people from all over the world coming there for vacations, and there were all kinds of couples at this one really romantic spot, but there was only one lesbian couple, and that was us. He went out of his way, I saw him coming, to come over to me to pick that fight with me.
Photo Credit: MJ Photo
Fascinating. Dismiss woe is me within this, but let me showcase myself and my mindset as an example. You’re correct; perhaps the LGBT community has this ingrained perception that the individual on the other end dishing the heat is not necessarily “educated”, knowledgeable or experienced with or around LGBT family members. Rather, we are utilizing those pieces of the puzzle as an excuse.
I think that we are forgiving people. I think that is why we are such a beautiful community. We try very hard not to think poorly of people because people have thought poorly of us for a long time, so we as a whole, I’m sure that not everyone is the same and I’m not trying to paint with a brush too broad, but as a whole in my experience, the LGBTQ community is extremely accepting and extremely forgiving. It’s frustrating though if attacks go unnoticed or they are excused as a lack of education or life experience. To me, that is where we are shoving it under the rug when it should be met. Any sort of conflict should be met with direct action. Not as a fight, but we should at least stand up for ourselves.
Right. It’s constructive for both individuals.
It is. Absolutely more constructive. It’s important that we start making these people less comfortable within their attacks.
Right, because of the cyclic nature. If those attacks are enabled, they will continue…
Right now, if you are a teacher and you go on holiday with your partner or post a photo of it on Instagram, you run the risk of getting fired. There are more states in this country where you can legally marry your cousin. Although things are overall better, there is a problem within this country pertaining to complacency, because complacency is what happened in California when Proposition 8 was passed and the Mormons church in Utah sent down 40 million dollars to California to get Proposition 8 passed so that they can define marriage which is an insult because Mormons are always trying to redefine marriage for their own benefit. They didn’t want gays to redefine marriage which is silly because it is just a legal contract binding two lives together and in order for it to be legal, you have to have a license from the city, and all of it comes down to it being domestic partnership whether you are straight or gay, period. It becomes a whole separate thing when churches get involved, but you don’t have to get married at a church to get married. But, the point is, complacency in the gay community in California is what led to Proposition 8 because California was under the impression that no one would take their rights away from them, and when that vote came, gay people didn’t show up. I don’t ever want us to become complacent, especially now. They are trying to pass bills in many states that limit the rights of gay people. As a gay performer, there can be a venue that can say, “I don’t want Otep to play here because you’re gay.”
Right. Ultimately, although you are a public figure, it does dial down to discrimination.
Right. Even if you are a gay couple walking into a restaurant, they could say that they don’t want your “kind” here. So, we cannot be complacent because we have had some advances. If it wasn’t for great leaders who refused to let simple progresses make us complacent such as Harvey Milk who was telling everyone to come out of the closet no matter where they are, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Activism is rising, but the moment that we get complacent is the moment that these opportunities strike.
Absolutely, and create a moment to attack.
Powerful. So powerful. Have you gotten any new tattoos ever since the last time that we have spoken to you?
Yeah, I have! I added the Official Standing Rock Tattoo on my shoulder and I got the word “Boss” on my right hand because people are always asking me to spell my name so I just show them my right hand, it’s B-O-S-S, that’s how you spell my name. [laughs]
That’s awesome! Last but certainly not least, do you have any closing messages for your fans?
I am so grateful for every single of you. I wouldn’t be where I am today without you. No matter what obstacles I encounter, I will always be their voice and they inspire me every day.