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Cola Boyy
Cola Boyy.Photography Ross Harris.

Cola Boyy is a disco crooner, songwriter, and Marxist organiser

Oxnard’s Matthew Arango writes pop songs with a radical beat – listen to his new EP, Black Boogie Neon

Musicians are finding all kinds of ways to mix art with activism in 2018, but for Matthew Arango, engaging with politics was a “first step to understanding why the world had always treated me the way it did”.

The 28-year-old disco crooner, whose spina bifida left him with a misshapen spine and a club foot, grew up “angry and anxiety-ridden” at bullies in his native Oxnard, California, venting his rage through the popular local punk scene. But it was a trip to a radical news group meeting a few years back that put him on the path to political enlightenment, helping him to see his tormentors in a more forgiving light. Soon, he was organising on pressing issues like immigration and gentrification with activist collectives like Anarchist People of Colour (APOC) and Todo Poder al Pueblo, a group protecting the rights of Oxnard’s majority Latino community.

Around the same time, Arango began making music as Cola Boyy, spurred by his love of disco, funk, and Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles output. The resulting songs, collected on the Black Neon Boogie EP, pop and fizz with the funk of Shuggie Otis and the swoony pop steez of early MGMT, who recruited Cola Boyy for a recent tour. It’s a joyous listen, but Marxist disco fans will find little to rally behind here. You’ll have to wait until the debut album for that, says Arango, a thoughtful character who’s mindful of the “fine line between making art that’s political and opportunism”.

You’ve been vocal about your activist work with groups like Todo Poder al Pueblo and APOC, but the songs on your EP aren’t really political. How come?

Cola Boyy: Well, the most recent song on the EP was ‘Penny Girl’ and I wrote that three years ago. After that I started becoming more politically engaged, and I started to add a lot more politics to my songs. But it’s all demos at this point. I would say I want the content of my music to be political, but I feel there’s a fine line between making art that’s political and opportunism, you know?

Do you think there’s a lot of that around at the minute?

Cola Boyy: I would say there is. I wouldn’t say it’s opportunism by the artists as a whole, it’s more to do with the media and brands and all that stuff. But even if it’s a trend, it’s still nice to see artists talking about (things like) capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy. So instead of looking at it as a negative I look at it in the positive and (wait to) see where it goes. Because it could have no real transformative effect, or it could be that extra step to radicalising someone who’s listening, it all depends on the interpretation of the listener. As I say, it’s nice to see other artists singing about political shit, but I’d also love to see more artists physically engaged in organising, political theory, and building community power. I think that’s the real step that needs to be taken, and not just by artists.

You first got into activism work through a reading group your friend invited you to that analysed news stories in the media. How did that help to shape your political views?

Cola Boyy: When (my friend) told me about the group I didn’t know it would be any sort of leftist thing. We went from there to reading up on Huey Newton’s theories, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States... We read stuff that was giving me answers to questions I’d always had. It was definitely something I could have used a long time ago – it would have helped me in understanding why the world had always treated me the way it did. It made me a lot less angry, (because) I was so angry at these people, and when you have a better understanding of these behaviours you become more empathetic towards those who perpetuate them, because they didn’t create these stigmas and they don’t know any better. To change that thing, you have to change the conditions that people exist in.

You say you felt angry a lot of the time?

Cola Boyy: Yeah. I was quite angry when I was young, angry and anxiety-ridden, and just not comfortable with myself. Ashamed. These are things that a lot of people go through, not just disabled people, but (through) getting bullied I became a very defensive person. I didn’t trust anyone. You have to learn to be quicker than the person that’s picking on you, but once you start doing that you’re training yourself to have this reflex; it starts to become so much a part of you that you lash out at people you care about. But I’m happy to say I’ve moved a lot further from that point now.

What kind of music did you set out to make with Cola Boyy?

Cola Boyy: I guess I was trying to make some fuckin’ disco music but it didn’t sound like disco, it sounded like its own weird shit! I just wanted to write songs that were catchy and had a bounce to them – I’d been listening to a lot of Paul McCartney’s 70s solo stuff at the time – and I started getting locked in to a particular sound, I was finally learning how to harness the disco and funk vibe a little bit.

“It’s nice to see other artists singing about political shit, but I’d also love to see more artists physically engaged in organising, political theory, and building community power” – Cola Boyy

Have you got a band together yet? I read recently that you ‘tend to get a lot of white people’ responding when you put a call out for musicians, is the idea to make this a Latino group?

Cola Boyy: I think (the response I’ve had) might be more indicative of the scene I was connected to, ’cos I used to play in an indie-pop band... But that’s not to say I don’t wanna play with white people, it’s just nice to see other people represented in music. Not just people of colour, but disabled people too – I would love to have a band of fuckin’ disabled folks. I don’t want to tokenise people, the main criteria is they have to be good at what they fucking do.

How does your disability affect your day-to-day life as a touring musician?

Cola Boyy: It’s been a mixed bag I would say; the first time I went on tour I was probably 18 or 19, and back then I didn’t have much of a problem. But as I’ve gotten older my health is a bit more fragile, so there have been times when it’s been really bad with my breathing. Because of my scoliosis and kyphosis (conditions Arango developed because of his spina bifida), my lung capacity is fucked up – I have like 25 per cent the lung capacity of a normal person – so as you can imagine high altitudes are really a strain on my body. There’ve been times on tour that have put me in bad shape and I’ve ended up in hospital. I just have to be real with what I can fuckin’ put myself through, and tell myself when enough is enough. It’s a learning process, but I’m getting better at it. I understand more what my body can endure and can’t.

I’m curious to know if Trump’s proposed Obamacare repeal would have made life harder for you personally?

Cola Boyy: The repeal would have fucked me up, (because) once I turned 26 I was no longer on my parents insurance. I use sleep apparatus, depending on my health – at the moment I use a sleep apnea machine at night, and they’re expensive as fuck. And the ones I get from my insurance are garbage, they’re horrible, these things still cost three grand if you wanted to buy one but it’s not even a good piece of equipment, it’s supposed to be a mobile oxygen thing but the battery lasts two hours – so what, am I not supposed to leave my house for more than two hours? But I mean, I’m not gonna be happy until healthcare is universal. So much of the American economy is built off the pharmaceutical industry. The idea of socialised healthcare is a beautiful thing, but these pigs aren’t gonna let that shit happen easily.

Apparently there was a theory going round that you were a secret side project of MGMT’s, how did that start off?

Cola Boyy: It was a Reddit conspiracy theory that MGMT wrote and produced all of my music and brought me on tour as a way to lampoon the fuckin’ fans, which is pretty insulting. When I first saw it my heart sank a little, I don’t wanna give ’em that much, but it was like, ‘Ah, what the fuck?’ But then I stepped back and thought about it, and the reason (people come up with this stuff) is that there really isn’t much representation of disabled people in the music world, especially on big stages. So at the end of day of course people are gonna think, ‘Oh, he’s disabled or whatever, he can’t do this shit himself.’ And after a minute I laughed – like, why’m I gonna be mad at these kids online making a whole thread about me? It’s like, fuck it, at least they’re talking about me, you know? At least I’m not the one making conspiracy theories on Reddit about disabled dudes from Oxnard.