Otep – Courage and Hope

Tuesday, 17th July 2018

Otep has never been one to shy away from controversy. If you look at any of the band’s releases, you’ll find a common factor that vocalist Otep Shamaya is going to call it the way that it is. No sugar-coating, not pretension, just the straight-ahead facts. With the band’s upcoming album, Kult 45, based on our hot-bed political climate, that Shamaya has plenty to say. Indeed, the album is an uncompromising and scathing attack on the world we live in (and its leaders), but it’s also one that’s not without a sense of hope and empowerment. As you can read in the conversation that follows, Shamaya is quite open about today’s political and cultural issues, she also looks to inspire and motivate people into raising their own voices. We had a thorough chat about politics, school shootings, equal rights, and more – all topics that find their way into Kult 45. As well as what forces push her to continue to stand up and raise her voice, in a time where less and less feel compelled to do so.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s been going on as we approach the release of the album?

Otep Shamaya: We just finished our first video, we had a lyric video that came out, but we finished a band video for a song called “Shelter in Place,” which was inspired by the remarkable young activists who have been survivors of school shootings and those students started not only a message, but a movement, so we decided to make sure that we honored their devotion and passion for making sure that are schools are safer, our streets are safer, and our country is safer.

Dead Rhetoric: Nice, I teach middle school, so I’m very aware of what you are talking about.

Shamaya: That’s crazy, I can’t imagine what you are all going through right now. That’s crazy. So what’s it like now, has it changed a lot for [teachers]?

Dead Rhetoric: I live in a pretty small community, but even there, I see the ripples.

Shamaya: I’ve got family that live in smaller areas, and instead of bomb threats, you have gun threats, like “Get the kids out by 2 o’clock or they are all dead.” That kind of thing. These are my relatives, my god-children that this is happening to. It’s a very unsettling time for people like you, students, and parents.

Dead Rhetoric: That’s one thing that I do see, with it being a small community. There are routinely some kids who come to me and say, “What are we doing to change things? I don’t feel safe anymore.”

Shamaya: The thing is, the last two major school shootings both had armed security guards. They both had off-duty police officers working the schools. Texas’ governor, in his great wisdom, said, “We need less doors!” [Laughs] Not less guns, we need less doors. So now, the pro-door lobby is going after him probably in the next election, if there is such a thing [laughs]. They should. Carpenters should line up against him – “Less doors?” It’s just absurd. The thing is, for these folks who don’t understand…even when it attacks one of their own, like Gabby Giffords, or the Republican baseball team being shot by that crazy person. If they came running at Gabby Giffords, or this other guy, with a knife or a baseball bat, maybe one or two people may have been nicked or stabbed. Especially the baseball field, they had bats so they could have taken care of a guy with a knife pretty quickly. But it’s like they see a house on fire, and the only solution they see is to put more fire on it. If there’s no house, there’s no fire…so burn it down. That’s kind of what it feels like.

I’m a two-way liberal. I’m a gun owner. I was raised by a military and law enforcement family. It was just gun safety – it was instilled in us at a very young age. There were certain things we were not allowed to touch or go near. One of them was the gun cabinet. You don’t go near it, you don’t look for the key. It was put away. We had locks on everything. The thing is, a lot of people will base their entire ideology on what the NRA says. At one time, I think the NRA was a much more reasonable organization, because they had to be. They were probably more gun advocates then, whereas now they are just a gun lobby. When you look back before Traitor Trump came along, Ronald Reagan was the saint. Saint Reagan to the Republican Party. If you look at what he was talking about, he wanted to do away with concealed carry permits because the Black Panther Party got concealed carry permits and started walking around with weapons on them. He didn’t want that for whatever reason, we can dive into his psyche later if you’d like. But he decided that nobody should have them. That’s also when they went after machine guns and assault rifles – automatic machine guns as they are properly known. He went after all of them to shut them down, and he was a conservative. He was a Republican.

Even now, after the first school shooting that took place under Traitor Trump, the first thing out of his mouth was, “Maybe we should take away their guns. We’ll do it without due process.” Which means without taking anybody to court. Just have people that are licensed to carry guns be required to turn them in. Of course, the people around him were like, “Oh no no, that’s not what we believe. We are too indebted to the NRA. We can’t piss them off. Take that back.” So he took that back. You can talk about the NRA and how they are gun advocates. Yet you look at the young man who was murdered by a police officer – that’s a phrase now, “murdered by cop.” Sadly, it is.

This man, whose girlfriend was driving – I may have some of the details wrong, but I believe she was driving a car and her tail light was out. She was pulled over for having the tail light out, and he was sitting in the passenger seat. He told the officer that he had a concealed carry permit and he was armed. The police officer asked for his ID, and as he reached for it, the cop shot him four times. Meanwhile, his girlfriend was livestreaming this all on Facebook. So where was the NRA then? Did they have their members fill the streets to have that officer turn in his badge and weapon for violating that man’s civil rights, his Second Amendment rights? No. They weren’t anywhere. Why? The man had a concealed carry permit. He had a weapon on him. He was murdered accidentally by a cop who was afraid that he was armed. Why didn’t they say anything about it? I wonder what it could be? He was an African-American who had done everything that the NRA said he should be able to do. What they fought for. All the money that they paid to the politicians to make sure that they have it, and that they have this much power in D.C. And when this man, who followed everything that was asked of him, they didn’t pay him any attention. So they don’t represent everybody, every gun owner in America. Just a small section of gun owners in America.

They are usually the ones that think they need to be armed in order to fight the US government if it ever becomes tyrannical. I have run into a couple of those folks, and my question is usually, “You honestly think that you can go up against the US Marine Corps or Seal Team Six and win? You are going to go against the Air Force, where they have drones that can laser guide missiles miles away. You won’t even see the little dot in the sky or hear the missile before your entire residence explodes. You are going to go up against the US military?” It’s preposterous! It’s ridiculous. Back in 1791, when the Second Amendment was written, African-American men were only considered 3/5 of a person. So we are going to base our laws and belief systems on something that was invented in 1791? Well, why don’t we go back to medicine in 1791? Why not regress?

When that amendment was created, we didn’t have a full-standing army that could cover all the colonies. We had the minute-men and they were probably afraid of a monarchy taking root here in America. Maybe that’s why they wanted it to be a part of it. But they didn’t expect it to go from a single-shot musket, which takes about 2 minutes to load, to an AR-15 rifle, which fires 45 rounds per minute, and each round travels 3,000 feet per second. Versus a handgun, with a good/decent shot, where you will get 5-6 rounds per minute, and it goes 300 feet per second. So there’s a big difference as to what we are dealing with now. Let’s be real. The Second Amendment was written to protect slave owners as well. They wanted them to be armed so that there could be no slave uprising. It’s got a very nasty history, regardless.

America unfortunately suffers from historical amnesia. We forget how these things happen. When people talk about school shooters and blame everything on bullying and say, “This is the worst time that bullying has ever been” and I ask them, “Have you ever watched a documentary on the civil rights movement and desegregation? What African-American children went through going to an all-white school for the first time?” There was probably some pretty severe bullying going on during those days. We have to stop with this false narrative, and this false equivalency that ‘this is the worst that it’s ever been,’ because it’s not. Nor is it the best that it’s ever been. I would argue that it was better two years ago [laughs]. We had it pretty good for 8 years. Things were looking alright.

That’s the thing about America. We aren’t based on a bloodline. We aren’t based on a monarchy. We’re not based on a family lineage. It’s an idea. All are created equal, and all deserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. There’s no asterisk or footnote that says what color/race/gender/orientation/religion, or how much money you have. It just says all, if we equate men to human, all men are created equal and deserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to me is sort of the basis of what we should be building towards. That’s what we have been trying to build towards. Women were fighting – the suffragettes were out on the streets fighting – women couldn’t vote until the 1920s. African-American males could vote in 1865 [Voting Rights Act], so women couldn’t vote, and I don’t think they allowed African-American women to vote until much later. I believe it was Sojourner Truth who sat with the suffragettes and said, “I can speak just as well as you speak. I can think just as well as you think. Why don’t you fight for me just as much as you fight for yourselves,” addressing a room full of white women who were out there, and facing very tough odds.

Police officers, the KKK were extremely opposed to women getting the right to vote. They would throw acid in the face of some women. They were pretty nasty about it. The police were pretty rough – they didn’t want their women to have a voice in this country? Women, thinking for themselves? What could happen next? Wearing pants? Lucille Ball kind of broke the mold on that. That’s just odd. Who sets the standards? What our goal, or what its supposed to be, is we are supposed to strive to become better together. We are a bottom up country. We take care of the ones that need it most. Not the 1 or 2%, or the privileged class.

I grew up very poor, and grew up in a neighborhood that was quite poor. I didn’t know one poor kid who wanted to be poor. I’m sure as a teacher, you see different standards with your students. Do you think those poor kids want to stay poor? No poor person ever wants to be poor. There are some people who are mentally or physically unable to rise up out of their circumstances. We lived in the projects, and there were people who were mentally ill and could not take care of themselves. They belonged in public housing. There were people who physically couldn’t take care of themselves and they belonged in public housing. I’m glad we have that. Otherwise they would be on the streets or dying in public hospitals, like they used to.

The progress that we made without the help of the obstructionist party in the GOP – we as liberals and progressives made some great strides to get closer to that promised capacity of equality for all. Now we are seeing it trampled by Trump and his family, and all of his weird people – he “picks the best people,” as he said. I don’t know what his bar is [laughs], but best is pretty low if I’m looking at the best based on what he’s chosen.

Dead Rhetoric: So with your outlet, as someone doesn’t just sit around and stand there and say things, but actually goes out and does things – how do you encourage people to get involved in getting change to occur?

Shamaya: First thing, thank you for acknowledging that – it means a lot. But just trying to lead by example. I make music for a living, I write records. Some people know me, some people don’t. But I’m still a citizen of this country and laws still apply to me, and they apply to my family. I come from a working class family, so when you see something that’s wrong, you should stand up. If you stand up, and even if you stand alone, you should still stand up. I think just by doing that, but also showing people how important it is.

Again, I’m really happy to talk to you, because as a teacher…by the way, I think you guys should all make as much money as these NFL players, that’s the real deal. It’s a long job – you take care of other people’s children, and at the same time, you have to educate them and deal with all the emotional stuff that goes on in schools, like cliques and bullying, and now with the shootings, you deserve a lot more than you get. But the other thing I’ve noticed is that they have started to take civics out of schools, and that’s how you got to know how the government actually works. I think without people really understanding how the government works, that they are all equal – there’s not a pyramid or one guy at the tip of the spear – we have three equal branches of government. I think that talking to people now, why it’s important to vote locally: who is going to be your superintendent, your sheriff, your D.A., who is going to decide what laws are going to be put in place at the local hierarchy, that’s important.

I think also, reminding them and showing them, what actual non-violent, civil disobedience if you want to call it that – rallying/marching, why it makes an impact. And why it’s even more of an impact that we do the same thing on days that we vote, instead of days that we just march. It’s important that we remind everyone that this is no longer a spectator sport. It’s important as a representative democracy that we show up to be represented. Show them how important it is.

Take what is going on now, with this guy who makes wedding cakes and doesn’t want to make one for a gay couple because of his religious beliefs – that got shot down pretty quickly by a different court, but it opens up a whole box of conundrums. What if a gay heart surgeon doesn’t want to operate on a known, bigoted preacher because of the horrible things he said? What if a racist doctor doesn’t want to perform surgery on an African-American? That’s why we have separation of church and state in this country, and anti-discrimination laws – to stop these things from happening. There was a time, and it wasn’t that long ago, when my family came over on the boats, and there were signs that said, “No dogs, no Irish.” Or ‘whites only, blacks in the back.’ There was a time when we had that. Or ‘no Spanish or Mexicans.’ There was a time when that was allowed, and we decided as a country that we weren’t going to discriminate against people anymore. There were a lot of people who fought very hard to make sure that happened.

As we go into Pride week for us, it’s very similar because even though I have a lot of fans in the LBGTQ community, we also have a lot of heterosexual fans as well. I bring it up to them, and say that if this law goes into effect, where this man can choose not to work with someone because they are gay, there could be the possibility that in your small town, where you want me to play, there could be a homophobic venue owner who doesn’t want Otep to play because she’s gay. When they start to see that it affects their own life, because they can’t see their favorite artist, whether they care about how it discriminates against me or not isn’t really the point. If they can see that it will affect them in a way, then that’s when they also start to activate and motivate.

As much as I dislike Traitor Trump and his whole family, and even the people that voted for him – the very small amount, and all those Russians that helped get him elected – I still believe that the majority of people are good people. If we are all driving down the freeway and we see there’s an accident and someone in trouble, people pull over to help. They don’t ask, “Are you Republican? Did you vote for Trump? Did you vote for Hillary? Are you gay/straight?” They don’t ask. They see someone in trouble and they try to help. That’s what gives me hope, and that’s why I fight for the things that I fight for, because deep down, when we get past all the rhetoric, the personal biases, the silly politics that haunt this country right now, deep down, at some level we are all good.

Dead Rhetoric: Like you said, some of these things just get in the way. We go through our technology and social media where everyone wants to be right. But if you remove that from the equation, people generally just want to do the right thing.

Shamaya: Even in traffic, and Jon Stewart brought this up on his show – I miss him every day by the way. Trevor Noah I like, but I still miss Jon Stewart – he said that when we are all trying to go through traffic and the lanes are cutting down to one, there are some assholes who are going to speed up and not let anyone in, but there will be 1 or 2, or maybe more than that, who are going to put on their brakes and wave people in, and let them go on. They don’t stop to ask who they voted for, or how much money they make, or any of those silly questions that get in the way of us as a species. They just do that. There’s like this unconscious thing we have, that we know that we need each other, we know that we are not that different. It’s just egoism and tribalism that gets in the way.

Literally, I can sit and talk as liberal and progressive as I am, the Trump cult – the cult of 45 because Trump’s President 45, the cult of 45 will accuse me of being a socialist because of my leftist beliefs. They also think that Antifa’s fascist – they don’t even know what ‘antifa’ means, which is anti-fascist. I have to bring up the fact that if you are against Antifa, you are pro-fascist and you don’t know history because our military kicked the shit out of the fascists, the Nazis, and the Communists in WWII and we haven’t looked back. “So why are you in my country?” is my usual response to those bozos, who carry around flags of treason and flags of surrender. It’s just beyond my comprehension sometimes.

But beyond those folks who don’t know what a socialist or communist is and call me all those things – they are all opposing ideologies, so I can’t be all of them…just pick one! I’m an American, and I believe in capitalism. I believe in what we are supposed to be doing. Can we fix it? Yes, we should. I think it deserves to be fixed. There are people that are getting hurt on the bottom. When you pass tax regulations, like Trump just did, which benefits his ilk – people that didn’t have to work for a living, that’s when capitalism fails us. When the government tries to harm my family, and those other families who need the help.

Photo credit: PR Brown

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