It’s 11 am, Matthew Arango, otherwise known as Cola Boyy, is sat in a friends’ apartment at Far Rockaway, New York. Accompanied by nothing more but his laptop and a pack of Marlboro menthol cigarettes, he sits and smokes.
Matthew is a 28-year old artist, multi-instrumentalist and immigration activist, the moniker for Cola Boyy did not only stem from his love for the drink, alongside being tired of sharing a name with a friend, longing for some individuality. “There was another artist called Cola Boy before, it was a side project of a British band called Saint Etienne, but they only ever released two singles throughout the ’90s or something. But anyway, I was like “I don’t wanna get fucking sued by some random fucking people” because at first, I was too worried to even call myself that as my artist name, but then my friends were like ‘Dude, fuck that!’ and ‘Just do it, who gives a fuck?’. Plus, with the two Y’s it’s definitely me that’s gonna’ come up”.
Born and raised in the Californian seaside town of Oxnard that has hailed hip-hop royalties from Dudley Perkins to Madlib, to Anderson Paak. The Ventura county played an integral part in shaping Cola Boyy’s existence, where he produced his music video ahead of his debut EP, “Penny Girl”, a love letter to all of his favourite places and people within representing an enforced camaraderie.
The track itself is a disco powerhouse hit that relates the story of a crime of passion, guiding Cola Boyy to his self-discovery, where he learned to source music as a tool for change as well as using the art form to spread the message of Marxism. “I think it’s important with lyrics and music, it’s kind of me nudging sometimes, it’s not always me being outright saying something that’s super focused and direct. I try to hint and nudge towards an idea that’s not always so obvious which makes it more fun and interesting, having songs that mean something else but songs that people can still dance to at a fucking club, you know? I love that, I think that it’s really fun and it can really help and start a conversation but I’m more engaged in this struggle personally to the point where there is more to be involved in than just that”.
West Los Angeles is best known for its rich cultural diversity expressed through the angsty punk scene, the “Nardcore” movement of the ’1980s, which helped Cola Boyy during adolescence, and that is what most striking about the artist, it’s his calm and enlightened perspective of his surroundings.
This political consciousness goes back a long way, probably inherited from his Native American ancestors and then unconsciously diluted in his attraction towards punk that was sparked in his childhood. In its four decades, punk has meant many different things to many different people. Its relationship to fascism, the spectre of which has stopped rattling its chains from history books. Punk as a genre can appeal to both anti-authoritarian and deeply repressive positions “When you’re into the punk scene everyone has bands and shit. All the teenagers had it, so I started a punk band when I was 17 with a name that’s too wack to say. Anyway, that was when I first played a backyard show, people were moshing and going all crazy, so it was really fun and I got hooked on that feeling, them, from there it just popped off”.
As an individual, Cola Boyy knows exactly how it feels to live like a walking apology; as a multiracial (Scottish and Portuguese through his mother, and Chumash, African-American and Mexican through his father) disabled person in Trump’s America, social politics became a major factor in his everyday life “I remember celebrating BHM in elementary school, talking about Martin Luther King, Jr. of course, as well as Harriet Tubman who were the main focus but a lot of it is surface level, in schools they hardly ever go into fucking detail about the events and they surely don’t highlight the radicals in Black History, they sure don’t mention people like Malcolm X and he’s pretty fucking standard person to learn and read about, he’s so globally known and respected. When I was in the fifth grade, for some reason, I don’t remember what I was thinking at that time, but I checked out Malcolm X’s autobiography at the school library and I remember reading it thinking, “Yo, this is fucking dope”. I mean, he’s so badass, the name itself ‘Malcolm X’ stood out to me at the time and I love the fact that I had access to that at an elementary school library, haha! But being a young Black, White and Latino kid I didn’t always feel accepted in California by either ethnicity because I wasn’t enough of one or the other, so as a kid it’s always been very conflicting. However, knowing this sparked my interest about this history even back then, it helped me feel connected to a certain part of myself”.
In recent years, the United States is more divided than it has been for decades, with ultra-conservative Republicans and left-leaning forces within the Democrats widening the gap between the two parties and beyond. It is a nation that is currently so polarising that eight out 10 Americans say that they disagree with the other party, not only on policy, but also basic facts. The most divisive issues are the two main parties? Differing views on President Trump, abortion, gun control and immigration; and growing up in Oxnard, a community that has a population that is 85% Latino, but 2% in Black people, in contrast, Cola Boyy found solidarity in joining political activist collectives like Anarchist People of Colour (APOC) and Todo Poder al Pueblo, a group protecting the rights of Oxnard’s majority Latino community which also organises all-ages punk concerts and fundraisers for underprivileged children.
“For me, it was quite organic, how it came to me being a part of this group, Trump wasn’t president yet, but he was running. I’ve always been surface level politically minded as far as growing up in the punk scene, I was always very critical of capitalism but on a surface-level kind of way. I’m definitely grateful because all that really opened my mind to the way that society and capitalism functions because we live in a decade within society that is so individualist, they push us to not think about our neighbour or consider other people’s experiences. It’s about understanding that even though you’re not experiencing something that doesn’t mean other people don’t go through that struggle, so I can connect our experiences together and collectively we can work together to engage with these oppressive conditions and fight them, together.”
Cola Boyy is a self-described ‘disabled disco innovator’ and similarly to the genre, it comes of no surprise that his music slides into that alike, as disco as a genre mirrors his personal resilience and a safeguard to ward off society’s typical conventions and expectations, acting as a safe haven created for and by black and Latino community members as well as the LGBTQ+, alongside other marginalised communities.
Despite the world’s efforts during its early incarnation during the ’70s, disco never died. It proceeded to highlight how subversive disco’s call for sexual and racial liberation truly was.
Its evolution over time has been dominated by other icons such as Grace Jones, Donna Summer, and Gloria Gaynor; “What pushed me towards disco had much to do with the songs just being so good. In general, great songs were being written during this era of music. Man, the production was so great. It was so innovative, funky and glamorous, but at times very street in its own weird way. At least to me. It wasn’t such a conscious thing at first. I kinda just progressively fell into doing some weird hybrid version of it. I’m still progressing and learning now”.
Having spina bifida, a lack of development in the spinal cord resulting in a gap, as a constant theme in his life has been nothing short of an uphill battle but he doesn’t want to be a ‘success story’.
“Not a lot of artists are visibly disabled. Society wants us to stay inside and to be timid and docile, and to not feel confident, or cool, or sexy. They just don’t want us to feel any of that, you know? So, in my life, that often weighed me down, but it didn’t ever stop me, I’ve always been a very outgoing person but still not the most confident, I’m still very critical of myself. Politicising this condition really helped me out with understanding why people treated me the way they did. Having this understanding of these social constructs coincided with me, my music stuff and with it starting to pick up. It seemed like good timing for me to go into all this from a perspective that’s a lot more understanding of my role in reflecting my experiences as a disabled person but also in finding solidarity with other disabled people because the problem is that we’re not represented and we’re not pushed to be out there, so when you’re not pushed to go outside or to be social, or feel like you’re part of everything else; it makes it hard for even disabled people to come together with each other. I have some friends who are visibly disabled as well, and I’ve got so much love for them and when we talk it’s really great, but as far as my disability goes, I don’t have any friends who have the same disability as me. I have nobody, I’ve been very alone in that experience so at this point I want to be a good representative of this topic and talk about the sort of shit that happens, but my role is to navigate through this and how to take the degrading stuff and flip, then use it for the better good. I want to be able to use my platform so that other disabled people reach out to me and talk because to me. We have our own experiences and medical differences but there’s something within the struggle that connects us that’s deep-rooted, we need to communicate so we can connect and become powerful and establish this solidarity. I don’t want to be a ‘savior’ and I definitely can’t make a difference alone, because disabled people are struggling, we have a struggle that’s very real, we live under very oppressive conditions and it’s my role to highlight that”.
Cola Boyy isn’t totally unfamiliar with performing in front of large crowds, as he had just recently performed at the Pitchfork Paris Music Festival and began the year touring alongside psychedelic rock band MGMT.
Through the experience, he learned a lot about how the world perceived him as a disabled performer and it’s lack of representation within the industry as a result of a recent conspiracy that circulated Reddit. “That was some ridiculous shit, it was so stupid. I was pretty pissed about it at first but then I decided that it was just, whatever. I mean, not PISSED but I was just like ‘Wow, of course. People can’t imagine some disabled guy making music’ or something. I mean, that’s how I analysed it at first but then again, I realise that this way that people have treated me or the ways that they treat me is just how it is. They didn’t invent these stigmas, they didn’t invent these ways towards marginalised people. They’re just recreating and replicating what they were taught, so I’m not really mad at those people for thinking that, it’s more the idea that was upsetting and not the person. I think it’s funny now, though”. But these underestimated remarks from the cult-like fan base of rock bands don’t put a stop to his grind. And that is exactly what Cola Boyy found to be the best method to solving his problems, talking to people- “I would say that the moments where I’ve had anxiety and dealing with these feelings of hopelessness, what’s always worked for me…it pushes us to major isolation and individualist. It’s interesting because that’s how I understand things to go. So whenever I have an anxiety or panic attacks or feeling really overwhelmed and hopeless, the answers to me were always talking with other people like my friends, my family, and my loved ones. What settled me is the comfort of the people around me, anxiety is very indicative of the pressures that exist around us and this feeling of being alone is very much pushed by society, so my answer would be to not isolate ourselves and being around people, expressing your pains and worries and working together to overcome them. It’s liberating and very, very important”.