Doja Cat, 27, doesn’t mince words or need permission to speak her mind. Her fans know this, but the artist’s latest attack on her own followers, who refer to themselves as kittenz, seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. “If you call yourself a ‘kitten’ or fucking ‘kittenz’ that means you need to get off your phone and get a job and help your parents with the house,” she spat at them. The consequences of this confrontation materialized in the same place where the fight began: on social media. As a result of these words, Doja Cat lost over 500,000 followers (she has more than 25 million followers on Instagram alone). Far from being cowed, she reaffirmed her words in a terse text posted on Instagram stories: “Seeing all these people unfollow makes me feel like I’ve defeated a large beast that’s been holding me down for so long, and it feels like I can reconnect with the people who really matter and love me for who I am and not for who I was… I feel free.”
Born Amala Ratna Zandile Dlamini in Los Angeles, the artist’s stage name combines her love of cats and taste for marijuana, a drug she now says she no longer uses. “I just drink too much,” she told Rolling Stone in December 2021. But besides cats and marijuana, there is a third element that defined Doja Cat’s life before she was Doja Cat: the internet. Like many, she spent her childhood and teenage years surfing the web, captivated by the limitless possibilities of social media and entertainment platforms, which allowed her to find endless beats and post songs she created from scratch in her living room.
That creative restlessness runs in her family. She’s the daughter of graphic designer Deborah Sawyer and South African stage actor and dancer Dumisani Dlamini. Doja Cat spent her early years in Rye, New York, where her maternal grandmother lived. She never had a relationship with her father. As Rolling Stone magazine reports, in the early 2000s, her mother moved with her and her brother to a commune in the Santa Monica Mountains, Sai Anantam Ashram, a place of spiritual connection built by jazz artist Alice Coltrane in 1980. Surrounded by nature and calm, the environment didn’t suit Doja Cat’s active nature. At 16, she dropped out of school as a result of her ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), she said. “My brother liked it. He had a lot of friends. But I didn’t have many friends. For me, it was just like, ‘I can’t eat what I want to eat, I can’t really do kid stuff.’”
After the commune, the family moved to Oak Park, an affluent neighborhood in Los Angeles. There, Doja Cat had a life far removed from the norms followed by many children her age. She spent countless hours on the internet, which did not diminish the future singer’s creativity. During those years of unfettered adolescence, she made comments in chats that have haunted her for some time, from homophobic insults to racist expressions from which she has sought to distance herself on several occasions. For example, in a statement she issued in 2020, she noted that “I’m a Black woman. Half of my family is Black from South Africa, and I’m very proud of where I come from.” From controversy to controversy, the New York Times wondered in a 2022 article, “Is Doja Cat Uncancelable?”
For the time being, not only has Doja Cat dodged every controversy in which she has been embroiled, but she has also managed to carve out a prominent place for herself in the music industry without sacrificing her provocativeness. Her career dates back a decade ago, when producer Yeti Beats — with whom she worked until her last released album — discovered her thanks to the track So High, which Doja Cat released on the internet. Over the years, she has also worked closely with musician and producer Dr. Luke, the co-author of many of her greatest hits. The producer’s name made headlines in 2014 after the singer Kesha accused him of rape; that controversy also touched Doja Cat, who claims that their professional relationship began before Kesha made accusations of the producer (the legal battle between the two lasted a decade and was finally resolved this summer).
The turning point for the artist came in 2018 in a most unexpected way. In that year her first album, Amala, a direct reference to her real name, hit the market. However, that was not what launched her career. The artist went viral with the song Mooo!, a song that synthesizes Doja Cat’s sound and aesthetics perfectly: humor, provocativeness, extravagance and catchy rhythms between pop, hip-hop and rap. The chorus — ”Mooo, I’m a cow” — was intentionally absurd. The video — which featured manga-like visuals, low-resolution stock farm photos and cuts of Doja Cat dancing while eating a burger, milkshake and fries — racked up millions of plays (it has now surpassed 125 million plays). As the artist has acknowledged, the track was conceived as a “joke,” but it still worked to get her name out beyond the virtual world.
The internet played another key role in the development of her professional career. During the pandemic, when much of the population took refuge in infinite on-screen entertainment, Doja Cat increased her visibility. The song Say So, from her second album Hot Pink, was released just a few weeks before the Covid-19 lockdown. It was a hit on TikTok, where the platform’s users contributed to its popularity by creating a choreography to go with it. Her May 2020 remix of the song with Nicki Minaj became Doja Cat’s first number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and paved the way for what was to follow.
The music press described her third album, Planet Her, as one of the great releases of 2021. It didn’t take long for nominations and awards to roll in. The song Kiss Me More, a collaboration with singer SZA, broke several musical records. Beyond winning the Grammy for best pop duo/group performance at the 2022 awards ceremony, the track made history as the female collaboration that spent the longest time on the Billboard Hot 100. In addition, Planet Her was the most-played album by a female rapper on Spotify in history, according to data the platform provided last year. As if that weren’t enough, she finished 2022 with seven tracks on the Billboard Hot 100, tied only with Bad Bunny.
As an artist of the moment — and contrary to what her defiant attitude and lack of filter when expressing certain opinions seem to indicate — Doja Cat feeds her own character, which is polished in each of her public appearances, leaving nothing to chance. Five years after becoming famous thanks to the song in which she sang that she was a cow, she strolled down the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York dressed as a cat as a guest at the exclusive Met Gala. For her debut at the party, she transformed herself into a feline thanks to hyperrealistic and rather disturbing prosthetics. The style, designed by Oscar de la Renta, was a nod to Choupette, the beloved cat of designer Karl Lagerfeld, around whom the theme of the gala revolved. Her appearance at Paris’s Haute Couture week was also much discussed: she attended the Schiaparelli fashion show wearing a gown made of 30,000 tiny crystals, distributed and glued along her skull, face and body. When it comes to playing with her image, whether it’s shaving her head or shaving her eyebrows, the artist highlights the versatility of her music, which is difficult to pigeonhole in a single genre.
Doja Cat keeps going and shows no signs of tiring or slowing down. In 2023, she was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of the year. She also recently announced the release of her new work, Scarlet. Two singles have already dropped, Attention and Paint the Town Red; both directly allude to her ongoing confrontation with some of her fans. “It’s stupid/ You follow me, but you don’t really care about the music,” she sings in Attention. A born provocateur who is restless by nature, she explained to V Magazine her career’s new direction. She noted that over the years, she has been “making music that is palatable, marketable, and sellable, [which] has allowed me to be where I am. Now, I am making music that allows me to express the way I feel about the world around me.”
For the moment, she remains one of today’s hottest performers. Over the next few months, she could add to her list of awards. She has been nominated for several MTV Video Music Awards (VMA), including Best artist of the year, Best video of the year, Best direction and Best art direction for Attention and best collaboration for I Like You (A Happier Song), with Post Malone.
And watch out. The musical field has become too small for Doja Cat. This August, she told Harper’s Bazaar of her interest in doing “other types of projects,” including fashion and makeup. But, above all, she wants to try her hand at films: “I want to explore acting. “I would love to do movies that I believe in. I would have to stop the music for a minute. But I would be down to immerse myself in acting for a certain period of time. I love comedies and action films. I want to learn martial arts and be in a film like John Wick [the action movie franchise starring Keanu Reeves].” Time will tell if she means it.
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