Notoriously outspoken musician Otep Shamaya, frontwoman of her namesake nü-metal act Otep, is repeating a familiar old parable. “If you put a frog in boiling water, he jumps right out,” she tells AP. “But if you put a frog in a pot of water and slowly heat it up, the frog will stay in the water.”
Apropos of nothing, the metaphor warns of silent dangers. Creeping, unnoticeable evil. Taken in the context of the United States’ current political and social climate, however, Shamaya—whose band’s confrontational new album, KULT 45, comes out this Friday—seems pretty certain we’re the frog.
“It will stay in the water until it dies,” she punctuates, dryly but urgently. It’s no mystery. “That’s how tyranny and autocracy work,” she says. And Otep’s unapologetic eighth LP aims to ice out what the artist calls the “the cult of 45,” the rising racism and malicious malaise that’s thrived with President Trump.
“There was just no way that I could remain silent,” Shamaya says of the aggressive new album. “I don’t want to look back on this and know I didn’t use every platform I had to shine a light on these crimes. On his destruction of our democracy.”
That destruction includes the rise of “wannabe Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and the alt-right,” she says. “These nonsense groups that feel powerful because of [Trump’s] rhetoric, because he attacks marginalized groups. They feel like they have a spokesperson in the most powerful office in the world.”
This can sometimes feel like old news, given Trump’s domination of the news cycle and our stupor to its spew. But Shamaya intends to ignite the uprising with bold proclamations such as KULT 45‘s buzzsaw first single, “To The Gallows.”
“This is a song for the heretics/To resist the dictatorship,” the singer slams as “Gallows” pulses, leaving no question in whose choir she’s preaching to. The track’s groove evokes a familiar but fresh tone. And the band’s sound has drawn various alt-rock analogies for the quartet of Shamaya, guitarist Aristotle, drummer Justin Kier and bassist Drewski Barnes.
Otep against the machine
Critics’ shorthand for Otep’s socially aware sonic vitriol seems to celestially depict O.G. folk activist Woody Guthrie fronting ’90s spiritual fighters Rage Against The Machine, and the comparison’s not that far from the mark. To say nothing of the “nü-metal” tag that still sticks after 15 years and eight albums.
Shamaya remains unafraid of the label. “I honestly don’t mind it,” she says. “If you go back and you listen to what was nü metal, you’re talking about Slipknot, Deftones [and] System Of A Down. What nü metal meant was that you were bringing in influences from other genres into your songwriting.”
Shamaya unabashedly accepts the musical connections that have placed her and the band in this position. In fact, one aforementioned influence gets a huge nod in the form of a KULT 45 bonus track: the group’s cover of RATM’s “Wake Up.” “Rage Against the Machine were fearless and had the courage to speak truth to power,” she says. “We give them an an homage on this record. We give them all the respect.”
“Rage Against the Machine were fearless and had the courage to speak truth to power.”
The Rage parallel is deep-dyed, and Otep’s debut album was released two years after RATM swan song Renegades. Both bands originated in Los Angeles; each have courted their share of controversy. Now, Shamaya offers words of praise for modern Rage project Prophets Of Rage, even if the “Killing In The Name” zeitgeist hasn’t quite been recaptured.
“There’s not many bands out there that are speaking out like that,” she says. “It’s a shame because that’s what we’re supposed to do in punk or metal or alternative. We’re all outcasts; we all grew up feeling like we didn’t belong in the greater society. Now our job is to speak out against injustice.”
And Otep’s ability to speak out is at a fortuitous juncture: KULT 45 harnesses a moment where the band’s booming revolt could cause a sweeping storm. “So the battle goes,” Shamaya trills on “To The Gallows,” “so we can overthrow.” We can slowly boil alive, or we can jump out of the water and start a revolution.