For Gay Pride Month, Billboard asked artists about the reality of being out musicians in hard rock/metal and the state of LGBTQAI acceptance in the genre. Below, Otep Shamaya discusses her experiences as frontwoman for Otep.
Otep Shamaya, the vocalist/leader of the hard-rock/artcore band of the same name, was never closeted as a musician. She didn’t pay much mind to being a female or a lesbian in the genre until people brought it up to her when they noticed her girlfriend accompanying her while Shamaya toured Ozzfest in the early 2000s. “I’m always aware people look at me and whoever I’m with differently. I think that’s something that’s taken for granted by the heterosexual community,” she says. “My band is all heterosexual males that I love very dearly, but they don’t think twice about walking outside holding their girlfriend’s hand, whereas I do.”
Her awareness became heightened with the ascendance of Donald Trump and the rise “of what is perceived to be OK, the green light for hate crimes.” She feels that before his candidacy, metal was becoming more accepting toward gays. “It’s become even more of a responsibility for artists to be out, be vocal, be supportive,” says Shamaya, 37. “That’s one thing we try to do with our shows is be inclusive with everybody, gender, race, orientation, whatever. If you are part of our tribe, you belong with us, and you are safe with us.”
Shamaya frequently combines activism with her art, and GLAAD recognized her efforts when it nominated Otep for the outstanding music artist award in 2010. More recently, she wrote the song “Equal Rights, Equal Lefts” (from the 2016 album Generation Doom), which calls for the LGBTQIA community to unite as a voting entity, and spoke out about the situation in Chechnya, where reports of gay men being rounded up, jailed and beaten have emerged. She also got into an online spat with All That Remains singer Phil Labonte in January when she called him out for using the word “f—t” to insult Toilet ov Hell editor Joe Thrashnkill when Thrashnkill snickered at comments Labonte made about the left’s response to Trump winning the election.
“I thought Phil was just being sarcastic and trying to be a shock jock. I tried to bring it down. I said, ‘Are you just mad because I drug you all over the place when we debated on my podcast?’ ” says Shamaya, referring to a time she and Labonte debated on-air about his being a libertarian. “And then he just replied with the F word, F word, F word, three times.” When such things happen, “all it does for me is make me bunker down even harder and even louder, and fight even stronger for equality to protect those that are most vulnerable.”
Since Trump has come into office, what kind of difference have you noticed in the metal/hard-rock scene?
I think it started more as his candidacy began. You started to see the rise of people who thought their ugliness was socially acceptable — ugliness of spirit, I mean. That they could be hideously bigoted, and it’s OK. I think for whatever reason, he gave power to those people, and that’s when I first really started noticing it. It began initially online. A lot of targeted bullying from people who would target me. I’m OK with that. I actually kind of enjoy bashing up bozos and bullies and stuff online. It’s a hobby of mine. But when they start attacking fans is when I’ll get really involved. I do my best to lead by example, but the overt language, the homophobia and the attacks [are apparent].
When you say “online,” do you mean when you’re looking at your website or metal websites?
Well, certainly on quote-unquote metal websites, they allow hate speech to occur. They get money from Google ad clicks pretty much [laughs], and I call those sites out all the time because they want to be the TMZ of metal or hard-rock music, but essentially they’re just harborers and safe havens for bigots and fiends. But then, with regard to it being more socially acceptable to be overtly bigoted, when they start stepping into my world in social media, I see that it is stepped up, and it’s even come from other artists as well.
Conversely, what type of things have you seen in the music community that have been encouraging?
It’s been nice to see that our fans have taken on a lot of this. They’ve spearheaded this and protected each other and stood up for each other. “Equal Rights, Equal Lefts” is a part of our touring set. The record’s only been out a year, and they react to that just like they would a song that’s been out for 10 years. So that’s been encouraging to see. I think that within certain communities that are known to be, at least certain fan communities that are known to be more open-minded, that they’re being more vocal, which is great. They’re standing up for each other, and that’s the part that is most encouraging to me.
Have any musicians in well-known bands privately come out to you?
About how many?
Probably, I don’t know. More than 10, less than 20, maybe … That’s usually the first thing people come and talk to me about, like, “Hey, you know, I’ve been with someone before, and thank you for fighting.” And they’re very supportive, privately. It’s nice, but I always say, “Thank you for trusting me, I really appreciate that. But please consider to let people know.” It’s not a big deal. Why should it be a big deal? It’s not, and they all say they’ll consider it, but they’re afraid of losing fans or they’re afraid of their family. They’re afraid of what it might do to them, perception of record companies and all this stuff, and they say they applaud me for my fierceness, [but] I don’t see what I do as anything special.
What can be done to improve inclusiveness or change attitudes in the music scene?
I think people have to live their truth and be vocal and be loud and proud, and those who have friends and family, they need to be openly supportive and protective of their friends and family. That’s where it begins. And then legislatively, vote against anyone that is trying to make us invisible.