Amala Zandile Dlamini has gone from cat, to cow, to duck all in the space of a month, illuminating the dangers of viral success and the limits of so-called “cancel culture” in the process.
The 22-year-old Los Angeles native had spent the last several years making a name for herself as the colorful internet rapper and singer known as Doja Cat, garnering a small, but loyal, following of fans with the quirky, internet culture-influenced tracks found on her 2014 independent EP Purrr! and on her eclectic Soundcloud page. That following was enough to land her a label deal with RCA Records which spawned her debut album Amala earlier this year. Amala came and went without much fanfare, but Doja Cat experienced an explosion in fame when her jokey video for loose track “Mooo!” went viral on social media five months later in the middle of August.
“Mooo!” was almost guaranteed to become a viral sensation from the jump, with its lo-fi aesthetic, created by Doja herself using iMovie, a green blanket, and a few hilarious props to declare, “B*tch, I’m a cow.” In the video, she twerks and primps in front a series of blog and pop culture-culled background images, including the old Windows XP default wallpaper and a bouncing pair of anime boobs, while she rhymes Mother Goose-ish flexes full of subtly clever wordplay and old school hip-hop references that belie the frivolous concept. As a loose goof, the video is a gift; as an introduction to her expansive back catalog of more polished, artistically focused material, it was a savvy bait-and-switch, disarming the dubious doubts of knee-jerk skepticism endemic to internet natives for whom detached snark is a default reaction to practically any new artist who arrives petitioning their serious consideration.
But then, just as the wave of both critical acclaim and social media approval began to crest, it all came crashing down. Doja Cat “milkshake duck-ed” — aka when a suddenly viral entity reveals itself to be racist/homophobic/otherwise problematic after content mills start doing background research on the newly famous meme subject — in world record time. Years-old tweets wherein the young(er) Doja Cat freely used homophobic terms and expressed disgust for the idea of queer sex (as many unworldly teens — especially the ones raised mostly on hip-hop — are wont to do) resurfaced, and nearly instantly, the breakout star was denounced as canceled, the dreaded state of internet-enforced exile whereby mass denizens of social apps like Twitter declare an entity persona non grata. Her feel-good story of overnight celebrity was at its end — or was it?
It certainly didn’t appear that way from my experience at the Los Angeles stop of her Amala Tour last Friday night (September 21) at the Echoplex. From the line extending down the block even further than it usually has at other hip-hop shows I’ve attended there, to the enthusiasm on display from the wide-ranging, diverse crowd of starry-eyed teens and LA hipsters, it didn’t seem like the online backlash had extended to dampen Doja’s fans’ spirits in the least. Energetic but shy preteens crowded into the all-ages venue alongside teens and young adults and even a few middle-aged concertgoers, with their cat ears and cow horns on headbands all to take in the live spectacle that is a Doja Cat show.
Even more intriguing, there were plenty of fans taking in the concert at home as well, courtesy of live streaming app WAV, which gained a slew of new subscribers with its previous partnership with Kanye West for his Wyoming campfire Ye release party. As a sponsor for the show, the app provided yet another avenue for the digital and physical worlds to cross over, even as the concert itself highlighted the ways in which both diverge in practice.
For one thing, it quickly became obvious that nary a fan in attendance was there because of the virulent success of “Mooo!” despite the bovine accessories adorning many of their hairdos and wardrobes. Their certified appreciation was evident as they sang along word-for-word to older, more obscure material from across Doja’s discography. Over the years, I’ve observed how cell phone cameras make appearances at concerts at the start of specific, meaningful songs such as hit singles and emotional deep cuts, but this night, those phones continued to pop up at the beginnings of nearly every song Doja performed.
Tracks like “No Police” and “So High” from Purrr! were given equal import with “Cookie Jar” and “Candy” and “Go To Town” from Amala and both received similar reception to Soundcloud staples such as “Nintendhoe.” When she performed the ’90s sitcom-inspired ode to her “twins,” “Tia Tamera,” complete with the screen behind her alternating images of the titular fraternal duo and even more anime clips of the metaphorical variety, the crowd reacted like the song — which currently only exists online as a snippet captured from an Instagram live stream — was a top ten Hot 100 single.
Far from being “canceled,” Doja Cat’s star power and charisma shone from the simple stage setup of a cow print tablecloth over her DJ’s table and the aforementioned screen. By the time she did perform “Mooo!” at the end of her set — with LA underground rap vet Verbs in a literal cow mask prancing across the stage for good measure — her assembled fans were more than willing to participate in the onstage antics, as she pulled three bold souls up to dance with her as she writhed and bounced her way through the novelty track. One was male, with a full face of Youtube-tutorial quality makeup, one was a bashful ten-year-old girl who practically shrank into her shirt under the spotlight, and the last was a full-figured Black woman in her twenties who Doja complimented on her top. They couldn’t have been more different, yet here they all were, united by the love of this “problematic” artist, having the time of their lives.
In trying to learn more, I talked to a number of attendees to find out why, with the tide of public sentiment seemingly turning on her, so many of them turned out in such force to support Doja Cat in spite of the backlash. What I gleaned from those short chats is that Twitter’s reach is a lot more limited than it looks from the other side of the screen. Sharra, 28, and Lexi, 27, told me that they didn’t even have Twitter accounts — news of the outrage against Amala hadn’t even reached them. Sharra told me she first found out about Doja Cat with “So High” while Lexi said she’s followed the singer online for years through Instagram instead, joking that Twitter had “too many words. I don’t like to pay attention to what people talking about.”
The ten-year-old from the stage turned out to be Jaden, along for her second concert ever with her mom, Megan, and her sister, Layla, 11. Megan had been a longtime follower from Instagram as well and roped her girls onto the bandwagon. Her daughters told me they loved Doja Cat’s voice and her style. Jaden, despite her bout of stage fright, has her own aspirations to become a singer, a dream fully supported by her mother, who said that she uses the content in the lyrics to talk to her girls about things she knows “they’ll hear anyway” and was peripherally aware of the controversy of the old tweets.
“I feel like it’s really hard because we’re picked apart and judged for every single thing that we’ve done in the past,” Megan explained. “Now we have our past documented online, but we grow and evolve so much over the years that it’s not fair to throw something we’ve said years ago in our face today. I think that we still have to be held accountable, but a lot of us talk certain ways in private that, once it’s thrown online, can be misconstrued or blown out of proportion.” Megan’s view is one that has been reflected online as well; many outlets have covered the respective dangers of “cancel culture,” while Uproxx’s own Caitlin White is currently publishing a series of essays on Medium about the causes and effects of online trauma, such as the bullying that can occur when “woke shaming” Twitter users pile onto a celebrity or even a regular person for out-of-context or old tweets that speak more to who we were or what those users project onto those tweets.
However, while the echo chamber of online social networks can lead to a false sense of increased cultural homogeneity, where we begin to think everyone in our sphere believes all the same things as us — or should — in reality, the old axiom “different strokes for different folks” holds as true as it ever has. People still learn things at their own pace, and what seems obvious to Aaron or Megan may not seem so much so to Amala. Cancel culture is ugly, but it’s only the dark shadow of the necessary process of online accountability and the sometimes painful learning process online.
With that said, it’s intriguing to note that those “different strokes” can also include opinions that haven’t been touched by the ostensible ubiquity of social media. It would appear that much of the online hand-wringing about “canceling” entertainers for screwing up can only go so far. In the case of someone like Doja Cat, she may have learned a much-needed lesson about how her public comments can be received, but if the real goal truly is to hold everyone accountable for their words and actions, canceling them on Twitter will probably never be the most effective tool. As for Doja, let’s hope she’s learned her lesson, because whether she’s a cat, a cow, or a duck, her clear talent deserves a second chance.
Amala is out now via RCA Records. Get it here.