Alchemical stews, Marxism, Nietzsche, the puritanical elite, the history of Sapphic poetry, Egyptian mysticism, ancient Roman graffiti and the patriarchal slant of children’s toys.
A list of topics in a college course, perhaps? Nope.
Just a few highlights of a conversation with the leader of a frighteningly heavy (mental) band currently slaying ’em on Ozzfest. Don’t worry, Ozzy hasn’t gone all Ivy League on you, and Rob Zombie isn’t trading in his shrunken heads for pointy ones.
Her stage name is Otep Shamaya, and if you believe what this scarily well read, demonic-voiced shredder proclaims, the end is nigh … and her group, also called Otep, is the house band of the coming apocalypse.
“We have a unique message, a unique vision, and we communicate it in a way that people are hungry for. It’s something authentic, something sacred. It’s the sweet disease of empowerment,” said singer/lyricist Otep (an anagram of “poet”), who would only give her age as “five lifetimes old.”
With imagery and lyrics that make Marilyn Manson seem like Disney fare, Otep’s recently released full-length debut, Sevas Tra — again with the anagrams, this time “Art Saves” — is a harrowing series of literate, intensely personal poems delivered in Otep’s signature animalistic growl. That rumbling voice, used in a way typically associated with grindcore or death metal bands, is one of the few things that Otep has in common with her Ozzfest brethren.
Invited to join last year’s Ozzfest as an unsigned, unrecorded act after Sharon Osbourne saw the group perform a club show, Otep honed their sound on last year’s Jihad EP before being asked to join Ozzfest again this year. The only female-fronted act on the bill has drawn attention not just because its lead singer is an anomaly on the testosterone-heavy fest.
Otep said she thinks fans are feeling a visceral connection to such mythology-inspired tales of abuse as “Emtee” (“Eye remember/ Feeling the sting of childhood and injections/ Holy bruises”) and the harrowing show-stopper “Jonestown Tea.”
That song, a slow-building, morbid, spoken word tale about rape, murder, incest and the failure of organized religion was inspired by growing up in what the singer described as a “magnetic tar pit of negativity.” Though she refuses to reveal where she was raised, Otep said the poverty and violence of her background gave her two choices: “I could either destroy myself,” she said, “or the world around me. I came up with this new form of mental alchemy where I transformed these negative aspects of my life into something golden.”
That alchemy — in the form of her cathartic poetry and rebel yell — is perfected in the group’s mix of minor-key metal, grinding hardcore hip-hop and thrash poetry on such Sevas Tra tracks as “My Confession,” “Sacrilege” and the anthem of the group’s followers, dubbed Shadow Soldiers, the apocalyptic metal-hop anthem “Battle Ready.”
In the latter, Otep takes on organized religion from a typically unique perspective. “Shaking up the world,” she yells, “Just like the second coming of Christ/ When eye write/ Thrice divine with the goddess sight.”
So, does Otep have a Christ complex? “There was a prophet who thought that if there was going to be a new messiah that it would be a woman and she’d be a Scorpio,” Otep said, disappointed in herself for forgetting the prophet’s name. “Well, I’m a triple Scorpio, but it’s not a Christ complex, because organized religion is a lie.”
While poetry and metal are not typical bedfellows, Otep’s passion has clearly had a profound effect on some of her fans. In the “Poet Tree” section of the group’s Web site, hundreds of poems with titles such as “Reflecting Scars,” “Remedelighted,” “Fragile Mind” and “Glass Heart” have been posted by the group’s followers, further proof to Otep that, no matter how hard the medium, art communicates.
“I don’t think the essence of the poetry is lost [in our delivery],” Otep said. “The ’Art of War’ teaches you to destroy your enemy from within. We give them something no one else can, and that’s something intellectual, poetic, a real thing that is also brutally savage. Our message is being communicated because the music is so powerful, because there’s no other band that plays heavier than we do, and if they do, they’re in for a run for their money. And there’s the brutality of what I can do with my voice.”
Not one to back down from a challenge, and undaunted by being one of the few women performing this kind of music, Otep then went on to call out Slipknot’s Corey Taylor, Korn’s Jonathan Davis and the singers of Cannibal Corpse and Napalm Death. “Put them up against what I can do and see how they measure up octave-by-octave and how low they can go,” she said. “Then let’s go to the intelligence meter and see how far up the scale someone like Incubus rise poetically.”
The gauntlet thrown down, Otep said it isn’t about a competition, but, rather, a connection. “Just yesterday, this girl came up to me in tears, shaking, and thanked me for writing ’Jonestown Tea,’ ” she said. “When people tell me they’re reading books because of what I’ve been singing about, I’m almost in tears because I’m so touched. We’re building an underground army where each person is their own regiment. It will grow out of control.”