Before singing her viral hit “Mooo!,” the last song in her hourlong set at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, Doja Cat runs off stage. This gives her tour manager, Lydia Asrat, time to scope out the audience and select an eclectic group of fans to perform the cow-themed song with Doja. “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” plays while Asrat directs 10 or so people to come on stage. She warms them up, instructing them to do the “Mooo!” challenge dance, which is a mix of body rolling and subsequent booty popping. “You gotta give me more than that,” she yells to a tall gentleman in denim overalls attempting to do his best rendition.
After about five minutes, Doja, who is wearing black cut-off shorts, thigh-high socks and a pink bra top, reappears to sing and rap the lullaby-esque track. As the crowd chants, “B—h, I’m a cow! B—h, I’m a cow!” she weaves her way through the stage, giving each fan at least 15 seconds of her undivided attention. Some dance with Doja, others dance for her, but everyone looks unmitigatedly joyful.
Seeing “Mooo!” performed in real life helps one better understand why the song and its homemade, gif-heavy video, which Doja uploaded to YouTube in mid-August, flooded Twitter timelines and Instagram feeds for a good two to three weeks. Aside from the soothing beat, which is a sample of jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery’s “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” the project is absurd enough to get one’s attention and infectious enough to keep one curious. And engaging with it is a momentary relief from the congested, rage-inducing news cycle — the video currently has a little more than 27.5 million views on YouTube.
But despite the mostly anodyne song and video, rage was pointed at 23-year-old Doja in late August when someone unearthed tweets she wrote in 2015 using a gay slur. She followed this up with an explanation that upset people more — Debra Messing even got involved — and deleted that to finally say she apologizes for using the derogatory word and believes no one should be discriminated against for their race, religion or sexual orientation. But by then the Internet considered her “canceled,” meaning no longer existent and not worthy of support. It’s something that happens quite often now. The same week Doja was canceled, so was Young Miami of the rap duo City Girls, who previously tweeted homophobic remarks. And more recently, influencer Kelvin Peña, better known as Brother Nature the Deer Whisperer, received the Internet axe for racist tweets he wrote in the past.
The morning after her show, Doja Cat, who is petite with a curvy stature, speaks about the situation in a measured and sincere way. At the time three years ago, she was trying to get the attention of Odd Future members Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler, the Creator, who has also been criticized for using the offensive term. Doja says she didn’t mean any harm, but now she realizes that using the word under any circumstances is wrong. But the sudden backlash was a shock to her system.
“There were times where I was like, ‘Can I leave my house?’ And I don’t think anyone deserves to feel that way. We should all learn from our experiences, but I don’t think hatred is the best way to deal with ignorance,” Doja said. “The Internet is such…,” she pauses, “it’s so not real. But it’s big and it feels big when you’re on it. And from this I’ve also learned I shouldn’t be on social media. I should be right here having real conversations. This is so much better than reading a hateful comment or a weird perv-y comment, which I get a lot of.”
In real life, Doja Cat’s name is Amala Dlamini. She’s the daughter of Dumisani Dlamini, a popular actor, dancer and film producer from South Africa, and Deborah Sawyer, a painter. She was born in Tarzana, Calif., before moving to Rye, N.Y., where she lived for five years. She spent her formative years in Los Angeles attending performance art schools and investing most of her energy into a breakdancing troop that she’s slightly embarrassed to talk about today. Finding it hard to concentrate on certain subjects because of her diagnosed ADHD, she dropped out of high school in the 11th grade.
She remembers music being a central part of her upbringing and her mother constantly playing Tupac, Aaliyah, DMX, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and Jamiroquai, but she never considered singing or rapping until she stopped going to school. At 16 she released “So High,” a stoner song comparing falling in love to smoking weed that made its rounds on music sites and caught the attention of RCA, which signed her to a record deal, and Roc Nation, which provided artist management for a period of time until the partnership fizzled. Doja said it wasn’t the right fit.
Getting high used to be her primary preoccupation — ‘doja’ is another term for weed. But after a bad acid trip she decided to stop smoking weed and hasn’t for a year and a half. “It wasn’t like, ‘It’s time to stop smoking,'” she said leisurely. “It was like, ‘It’s time to stop smoking,'” she said in more cautionary tone.
She released an EP, “Purrr!” in 2014 and earlier this year dropped her first album “Amala.” Her catalogue is filled with high energy bops that showcase her gift for song composition and mostly talk about sex but in a clever, fun way. It’s interesting that she was forced to address such a loaded topic because Amala, who frequently takes on different characters with wigs and costumes, says she’s not political. And her songs don’t cover anything deeply personal nor do they speak to identity in a way that audiences sometimes demand.
“I am whatever you want me to be and I can’t control that. My experience is my experience, but I can’t really claim anything,” Doja said. “I know when I take my wig off at night and I have to twist my hair up, I’m black. But I don’t get too personal most of the time.”
This doesn’t mean she hasn’t cultivated an intimate relationship with her fans, who come to her shows in droves dressed up as cows and sing the lyrics to all of her songs. This is partly because Doja makes song production a collective experience. As with many of her tracks, she produced “Mooo!” from her pink painted bedroom, which is in her mother’s house — she lives between Los Angeles and Austin, Tex., with a roommate — and streams the sometimes eight-hour-long process on Instagram Live using Logic Pro, a music production software, and a midi controller she taught herself how to operate.
“It’s cool to have someone to look up to who produces and likes to wear lipstick because it really is a male dominated sport,” said Doja. “I didn’t see it happening and in my business mind I want to give the world something new.”
“Mooo!” might have started as a joke, but Doja is serious about her career. She’s interested in developing her live performances with choreography and releasing more music. And although the song brought her an unexpected dose of good and bad attention, she doesn’t feel limited by its success or being “canceled.” It made people pay attention to her other work and helped RCA make her a priority.
“‘Mooo!’ was one of those songs where I was like thank God people like it because I like it, too. When I made it I was having fun so I can only pull positive emotions from that memory,” Doja said. “And I’ve prepared myself for people taking me less seriously because of it. That’s going to happen. But I’m goofy, and if you walk up to me in McDonalds and you tell me to go ‘mooo,’ I might just do it.”