Art of Dissent: Otep Returns to the Masquerade

Photo By | Luke Usry

“RESIST,” reads the banner that hangs like a darkened specter above the stage. Flanked from beneath by another pair emblazoned with Otep Resistance tour logo, it serves as the apex of a pyramid that frames a dark, moodily lit set. Grotesque doll heads, a hangman’s noose – a sticker that reads “Impeach Trump” and a handwritten note exclaiming “Lock Him Up” It’s the sort of aesthetic yield that one would expect from a coerced collaboration between Rob Zombie’s production manager and a mob of angry ANTIFA protesters. Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” pulsing through the house speakers, it’s a jarringly bizarre sight, even within the context of the night’s lineup of frenetically-inspired, hard hitting metal acts including local metal scene fixtures Stoneman and Tombstone blue along with unbilled west coast outfit The World Over.

But, of course, the most anticipated event of the evening has been the appearance of Otep Shamaya and her comrades bassist Andrew Barnes, drummer Justin Kier, and guitarist Ari Mihalopoulos, the latest incarnation of the steadily revolving, NIN-style, lineup that has served as Shamaya’s backup band since the band’s genesis. As expected, the boys emerge from backstage before their leader does, greeting the cheering audience through a brilliant flicker of blinding stage lights. Mihalopoulos who happens to be a competitive bodybuilding enthusiast in addition to an accomplished guitarist, takes the stage wearing a delightfully sinister, mohawk crowned gas mask and no shirt. The stage lights bathing his massive, laboriously sculpted torso in a moody, surreal glow, I say a silent prayer for anyone in attendance who may have made the unfortunate decision to experience the show through the lens of a psychedelic experience. Taking their positions at their respective instruments, they wait bristling with palpable energy as they wait for their dear leader to join them and bring the sonic onslaught to full commencement.

Photo By | Luke Usry

After a beat, she steps through the curtain of light and takes her place atop a platform positioned at center stage, the modest but enthusiastic crowd greeting her with exuberant fanfare.

Raising her fist in the air, a gesture she will repeat throughout the performance with an almost compulsive frequency, she brings the microphone to her lips and exclaims over the sinister, machine-like drone of the band “are you ready for the revolution!?”

If the deafening eruption of crowd noise is any indication, it seems that the audience is indeed. But, crouched here at the edge of the stage and looking up at the expression on her face as she stands poised with the body language of a manic prize fighter, I find myself far more uncertain.

Founded in 2000 by its namesake frontwoman Otep Shamaya, Los Angeles based group Otep has enjoyed a meteoric rise to success that began only months after its inception. By the band’s sixth gig, without having recording so much as a demo, she had already caught attention of none other than the astute Sharon Osborne and landed a career-catapulting slot on the Ozzfest roster. A chaotic, extreme blend of musical genres as varied as death metal, hip hop, and psychedelic rock, Otep’s impassioned, politically-charged sound and lyrical content quickly gave the band, and Shamaya especially, a reputation for being a person who is both prolifically and characteristically outspoken or, as she puts it, an “intellectual loudmouth.”

Starting with the release of 2002’s Sevas Tra (art saves spelled backward), Otep has spent the better part of the last two decades releasing a stream of records to a marked degree of under-the-radar but steady and unwavering critical and commercial success. It’s an impressive feat for an artist of any sonic persuasion, but especially for nu metal, a genre who’s golden era of mainstream success in the early 2000’s has long since passed. After nearly calling the project quits in 2013, Shamaya instead elected to revive the band and in 2014 signed with Napalm Records, subsequently releasing 2016’s “Generation Doom” and this past July’s “Kult 45.”

Photo By | Luke Usry

To be clear, I had never heard of Otep before I was offered this assignment, but my cursory research on Shamaya and her artistic and social endeavors impressed upon me the notion that she was someone who’s work, albeit a stone’s throw outside the realm of my personal taste was the king of thing I could really get behind ideologically. Reading about her intensive criticism of the Trump administration as well as her advocacy for such near-to-my-heart issues as the preservation of the arts and the rights of animals and marginalized humans, what little I gleaned about her worldview played right into my own humanitarian sympathies. As she said herself in the official press statement heralding the release of Kult 45: “…the idea is rather to empower people to stand up and remind them this is our country and we have the power. It’s primarily a rallying cry for people with common sense and good-natured patriots to rise up and know that we own this nation. Although the album is produced well technically, lyrically, it’s very raw. Musically, we explore different genres – we’re trying to reach everyone. I don’t want to be limited to one genre or to be anchored to a particular space where I can only reach certain political minds. It’s important to me that I’m sending a clear and concise message to the Resistance – the people out there bending the barricades and fighting for justice is this country.”

Uninitiated and ill-versed in the specifics of the eponymous bandleader’s mean-spirited, vitriolic worldview, I was captivated by the idea that, under all those drop-d riffs and four letter word flurries, she was artist driven by the very empathy and compassion that is root of advocacy and humanitarianism. An idea that was, to put it diplomatically, misplaced.

To put it less diplomatically, we have an old saying here in the South that “an ounce of pretention is worth a pound of manure.” I don’t know if the same exchange rate applies in California, but if it’s anywhere close it seem that Otep Shamaya should consider moonlighting as an organic farmer. I could feel it the moment I arrived at the venue, that idiosyncratic, unmistakable air of nervous energy that possesses a venue’s staff on nights they are hosting a particularly demanding or abusive performer.

“She has a reputation for being really nasty to local artists when she’s out on tour,” a member of one of the opening acts told me not long after my arrival. “We actually had a really hard time selling tickets to our fans once they found out who was headlining. I think I’ve heard the c-word more in the last month than I have the rest of my life.” Despite the fact that it was moments before they were moments away from going on stage, I had no problem accessing them for questions – the Otep crew had banned them all from the communal green room. I guess their fearless leader felt the performances by the up and coming local acts weren’t important enough to warrant a space in which the musicians could prepare. It was the sort of move I would expect from an entitled, egocentric rock star- not an impassioned advocate for social progress.

Towering above me now, she smirks out at the crowd and raises her middle finger out in the air in front of her. “Fingers up!” she shouts, queuing the crowd of adrenaline-fueled adolescents that quickly joins her in the gesture. “HOW MANY FUCKS DO I GIVE!?” she bellows, to which the crowd quickly responds: “ZERO.

A few songs into the band’s set, Shamaya has proven to be an extremely adept yet puzzlingly insecure performer. Or perhaps she’s just spent so much time thinking about Donald Trump that she’s starting to act like him, her repetitive verbal/physical call and response queuing of the audience drawing to mind the Donald’s aggressive, almost domineering interaction with the audiences at his rallies.

“I don’t know if there are any Nazi or racist sympathizers here tonight,” she says, her defiant cadence draping her words in the façade of controversy. “But if there are, you’d better grab a fresh box of tissues or find the nearest exit because this next song is gonna have you in tears!” It’s the sort of threat that one would expect to hear issued from the top of a jungle gym, or from behind a desk in the oval office, followed by something in the vein of “It’s a wonderful song, the best. The most successful ever released…huuuuugggeee.”

he song she is referring to is a cut called “Molotov” from the band’s new album. In case you’re wondering, the “clear and concise” message communicated by the song can be summarized as such: “Throw a molotov and let ’em play catch with it/Nazi scum! Watch ’em run!/Throw a molotov and let ’em play catch with it/Traitor Trump set us up – lock him up!/Throw a molotov and let ’em play catch with a fist to the face of the ‘superior race’/Cause now there’s consequences when you advocate hate/Stepping out of the shadows was your last mistake.”

But her willingness to sell “Love Wins” sweatshirts at the band’s merch booth while rapping about burning people alive is a long way from being the night’s crowning “lack of self-awareness” achievement. That distinction goes to the moment when she stops the show in order to mock a fan who had the audacity to make a spontaneous utterance. At a rock concert. “Sure, man” she says, hissing like a schoolyard bully and giving a sarcastic thumbs up. “We’ll play that one just for you.” Considering that her band can’t draw a big enough crowd to warrant opening the balcony in a 500 person venue, maybe she should just be grateful the guy showed up.

I don’t mean this as a categorical indictment of Shamaya, her band, or her art. Her performance, like her new album had its moments. Worthy of particular merit stanzas like this nuanced and profound excerpt from the track Said the Snake: “The dead have names like biblical verses/Matthew 19/Mark 21/John 33/Sent to war to fight for…I don’t think anyone knows anymore” and the catchy, searing mantra “Hey, hey NRA, how many kids did you kill today” that forms the coda of Shelter in Place. She really is a gifted writer when she tries. I would also be remiss if I didn’t not that, when she isn’t spewing unadulterated vitriol, she does seem to provide her young fans with the inspiration to be themselves and let their freak flags fly – an increasingly important message in a culture that seems to be perpetually pushing toward conformity.

I think Otep’s message, despite its mixing of signals and inherently contradictory nature, can be best explained by the caption from a photo posted just this morning on her Instagram page. “Once was a girl with hatred in my heart. Bruised & resentful. My only escape was art. Now I’m a woman with a heart full of wrath willing to detonate it upon any enemy that crosses my path.”

In short, I came out hoping to see an aesthetically challenging but relatable and socially conscious performance and instead witnessed a display that, while engaging and meticulously executed, ultimately amounted to little more than a play by play broadcast of narcissistic virtue signaling. Otep Shamaya is an undeniably talented and successful songwriter, performer, and bandleader but if she’s ever going to become a truly successful catalyst for social change, there’s a lot she’s going to have to get over in the process.

Starting with herself.

See More Photos of Otep Here.

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