Cola Boyy is putting in the work
“What’s dangerous is expectation. If somebody wants me to say a certain thing, that’s when it might not come from the heart.” It’s six months since the release of his debut EP Black Boogie Neon and Cola Boyy (real name Matthew Urango) is sitting in the office of his record label in Paris’ 18th arrondissement. He’s here recording part of his upcoming debut album, which he’s finishing across New York, LA and ultimately his hometown of Oxnard, California.
It’s the first sunny day of spring in the city. Outside, the milling weekenders mark the beginning of another season in the busiest year of Urango’s life. Inside, in the cool interior of the studio, he’s trying to reflect on the last few months; to say something from the heart.
“This is something I’m learning as someone who’s new to people giving a shit about my music. I’m learning that’s a dangerous area to be in, to be expected to do something,” Urango thinks aloud. “I don’t want that because none of us are perfect, or – Huey Newton said it, I think – none of us fell from revolutionary heaven. There are gonna be moments when I’m exhausted and I don’t wanna talk about this fucking oppressive existence that I go through. And that’s OK, I think.”
© Alex Cheng
Why would Cola Boyy ever be required to talk about revolutions or oppression, you ask? Well, while his music is an innovative sonic hybrid of rock, funk and disco strung together with a lyrical backbone of solid “70s songwriting”, his art is not the only reason he’s gotten so much attention in the past year. He’s also a Marxist community organiser back in his hometown of Oxnard, where he works with Todo Poder Al Pueblo, a collective which defends migrants and workers.
Oxnard is a town famous for its strawberry fields and the ‘nardcore punk movement of the late 70s. The thriving punk scene carried over into the 90s and 00s, and Urango naturally gravitated to the subculture, where he spent time in punk bands in his teens. From there, Urango got into leftist reading groups and then into activism proper. Most of the city’s population is Latinx, many of them undocumented immigrants, Urango says, who are working on the fields in tough conditions while facing harassment from ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Todo Poder Al Pueblo aims to defend them from the brutality of the state through rallies and lobbying. Now a member of several years, he’s a bonafide activist. Cola Boyy’s appeal in 2019 is clear: for many, he’s the counter-example, the real deal in a rapidly swelling sea of faux woke popstars.
Urango has centred his community in his work in some ways, making its inhabitants and its scenery the subjects of the video for Penny Girl, from last year’s EP. The neighbourhoods he showcased are the same ones where he attends open meetings with his collective, and where he coordinates with comrades over messaging groups to keep track of which street corners ICE vehicles have been lurking around.
The more he has revealed of his activist roots and community-oriented values, the more his audience has clung to them, and the more they have demanded to see. As much as his belief system informs his work, this mounting pressure to be the perfect example has left Urango with some soul-searching to do.
“Somebody criticised me recently because I didn’t say anything political at one of my shows. I find that so crazy,” Urango shakes his head. “That’s the priority: performance. Politics are just performative for so many people. I don’t blame them because so much in our lives is performative, that’s how we’re taught to exist.”
“But I think it’s a learning process that we all need to go through – it’s not just performance, it’s material engagement when nobody’s looking. No fucking Instagram, no badge of honour.”
His is a confusing situation to be in. For Cola Boyy, the essence of good activism is taking performativity out of the equation, and putting community at the heart: “It’s not about me, I’m one person who contributes to something that’s a collective effort. I should be faceless,” he emphasises. But equally, he feels a huge sense of duty to make good on his homegrown socialist ethos even in his work. “When I get offers, I always have conversations with my comrades back home, not just from my town but from the towns over, and I ask their opinion. I know they’ll hold me accountable, and be honest with me. I think that’s steering me the right way so far,” he says. This commitment to the cause in his music has meant that fans unsurprisingly look to him as a kind of leader. His face, despite his best intentions, is becoming important.
For the moment, Cola Boyy is working on unravelling the different strands of himself – his music, his identity, his politics, his community, his art – so that they’re not so tangled together all the time. They’ve still found their way onto his new album, though.
“I try not to be too cliché or too obvious putting politics in my music though,” he qualifies. “Sometimes I like being cryptic. But one of my songs on the new album, it’s very obviously political, straight up, it mentions white supremacy.”
“I’m trying to learn how to engage with people on radical politics in a way that doesn’t scare them off. It’s a slow process,” he says.
It seems that even though Cola Boyy is trying to politely back away from the mantle of leader, he’s tripped up by his own insatiable appetite for spreading the radical message. He’s aware that his newfound success means nothing if he can’t use it to benefit the people he’s singing to in real, tangible ways.
“I’m starting to think about the accessibility at my shows,” he explains. “Like, who the fuck am I to not consider that? From now on my plan is to not play any shows where it’s not accessible for disabled people. It’s kind of exciting to have that power to be able to say, ‘nah, fuck that’.”
Urango also lives with a disability. When he played at Pitchfork Paris earlier this year, it was one of the few things he mentioned in his inter-song monologues (“When I’m talking shit,” as he puts it). “I might be the first disabled person to play Pitchfork Paris,” he wondered to the 6pm crowd. “Isn’t that cool.” But as pleased as he sounded at the time, he knows well that representation is not enough. “It’s important. It’s a step,” he tells me. “But it’s not the end goal.”
“Yeah, I’m up there on the stage but what about all the other disabled people in the world who make music, who do art, who just exist and walk out their door every day, and people judge them and abuse them and exploit them?”
“Representation is a step towards recognising that we exist, that we have desires and perspectives that deserve to be taken into consideration. If that happens then real things will start to change for us materially,” he explains. Material changes, like the accessibility he wants to enforce at his shows, are what really matter. “Accessibility is the big issue all over the world. Non-disabled people don’t even think about it, the subways aren’t accessible. I heard there’s an app somebody made for disabled people that marks all the accessible places in a city – to me, that’s awesome.”
As our conversation draws to a close, the overwhelming impression I get from Urango is that he’s a staunch realist. He wants real, concrete changes for disabled people, for migrants, and for those suffering under capitalism. He wants action, not performance; realism, not idealism. “That Utopian shit, I cannot stand it,” he states bluntly.
“I saw a comment online once, saying ‘You’re a communist… but you take full advantage of capitalism’. Me buying clothes and living in a city doesn’t make me a capitalist; I don’t own the means of production. I don’t have a choice. I’m not gonna live in a forest,” he jokes.
“I mean… Walmart’s owned by some fucking pigs! But am I gonna condemn the hood for shopping at Walmart? Walmart’s cheap as fuck, people go there!” he exclaims, more animated now than he’s been for the whole discussion.
“I would never let a brand use my politics as a slogan for them to sell shit. But I’ll take some money and buy shit for my fucking community – money’s going somewhere so why not use it for some radical shit?”
It’s easy to see why Cola Boyy’s refreshingly frank politics and distinctive sound are winning people over, especially coming from someone who really follows through. This year, with the release of a genre-blurring album, his fusion of radical and realist politics will hopefully carry even further. Cola Boyy fans of the world, unite!
Photography: Alex Cheng
Black Boogie Neon is out now via Record Makers. Find out more about Todo Poder Al Pueblo at todopoderalpueblo.org