Doja Cat DGAF If You Read This *
RollingStone India|January 2022
( * OR AT LEAST, THAT'S WHAT SHE WANTS YOU TO THINK)
EJ DICKSON
I AM SITTING WITH Doja Cat in an Airbnb in Universal City, California, listening to a punk cover of “I Saw Her Standing There” and polishing off the toothsome lobster-caviar rolls she made. She’s talking about an ex-boyfriend and puffing on her omnipresent highlighter-colored tobacco vape (“I don’t crave many things other than this stupid thing. That’s pretty much it. Chocolate, sex, and vape”). All of a sudden, after about an hour of chatting about her last album and past relationships, she looks down at her Minnie Mouseencased iPhone and excuses herself to go to the bathroom.

For a few minutes, I’m standing in the kitchen, scribbling notes, cleaning up lobster meat, and trying to figure out the automatic trash can, when she comes back and calls out, “My throat and nose are really fucked up.” Her managers (she has four, two of whom have been hanging out in another room on the premises) scurry into the kitchen as if summoned by conch shell.

“Is everything OK?” I ask.

“Yeah, everything’s great,” she says. “I appreciate it. Really, I do.” And she disappears.

We had planned to have dinner and hang out for a few hours at an Airbnb her team had rented for the occasion. (“They wanted me to be like, ‘This is the place I’m staying at,’ but I’m not staying here. It’s just an Airbnb. I didn’t want anyone in my house. No offense,” she says as she chops chives on a cutting board).

Doja had confessed to being run ragged by her schedule. She played the Day N Vegas festival two nights before, then flew back to L.A. for her manager’s birthday party, arriving late and needing to do some shots to catch up. Today she’s wildly hungover, and we’d commiserated about being on our periods. (Later, on Zoom, I learn she had been running a high fever.) One of her managers mentions she’s taking Doja to the doctor before handing me a carton of artisanal water. “Take this for the road,” she says.

Doja would love to be in the studio making music, but she’s unable to do so because, “I’m doing all this other shit.” There are, in fact, mountains of that other shit now that Doja is on the precipice of superstardom. Doja spent years in relative obscurity, releasing a critically acclaimed yet widely ignored debut before blowing up during the early days of the pandemic with “Say So,” a flawless disco-inspired track off her second album, Hot Pink, that went viral on TikTok and became her first Number One hit. In June, Doja released the excellent Planet Her, a cavalcade of wall-to-wall bangers that vacillates seamlessly from sultry Afropop (“Woman”) to polished Top 40 jams (“You Right,” “I Don’t Do Drugs”) to the R&B throwback “Need to Know,” which Doja tells me she wrote when she was drunk in the studio. In November, she received eight Grammy nominations, the second most of any other artist for the year.

She has all the markers of pop superstardom: the high-gloss music videos (she writes most of the treatments herself ); the makeup line; the bevy of brand deals; the award-show appearances decked in Gaultier and Thom Browne; the calls from Vogue to do makeup and skin-care tutorials; the cadre of managers; the creative director and choreographer and videographer and other assorted team members. Even her two cats, Alex and Ray, have become famous, though not famous enough that they were allowed to play themselves in the music video for “Get Into It (Yuh),” which features Doja’s cat being kidnapped by an evil alien overlord. (Doja’s team held a casting call to play her cat in the video; she decided to pick a “funny-looking one with really dirty, crazy eyes.”)

One thing she says she could do without: being interviewed. Despite her bombastic tantric sex alien persona, those in her circle say she’s an introvert. In person, she is polite yet circumspect. When I first meet her, at a studio in North Hollywood, where she’s rehearsing a video for “Get Into It (Yuh),” she leans in for a hug, but it’s the type of hug you get at your 10th-anniversary reunion from a college nemesis who is palpably disappointed you didn’t get fat.

“It’s cool when it’s a hot guy asking you questions, or someone, like, you’re hooking up [with], who’s like, ‘So what was your favorite thing when you were in high school?’ ” she says. “[But] if you just want to chill out and just, like, fuckin’ vibe all day, and then you have to get out of bed to go somewhere and have people ask you questions that you’ve been asked, it’s a little exhausting.”

DOJA CAT'S MANAGEMENT team offers two explanations for her success. The first is her undeniable technical gifts and staggering versatility as a rapper and vocalist. “You don’t see any rappers doing punk-rock songs like ‘Bottom Bitch.’ You don’t see them using Paul Anka as a sample,” says her manager Lydia Asrat. On a track like the breakup anthem “Ain’t Shit,” for instance, Doja vacillates from a husky growl to anime-character falsetto in a manner of seconds; listening to her is like watching Robin Williams do stand-up in the Seventies. She says she likes to imagine herself guesting as her own “alter ego” when she writes verses: “I think it turns songs into more like rides or experiences.”

Ironically, her versatility is something of a point of contention among hip-hop fans, who obsess over whether she should be classified as a rapper or as a pop artist. She correctly views this as the type of argument “that children on Twitter like to have, but nobody in the real world really cares to talk about.” But such criticism also clearly wounds her. “Anyone who says that I’m not a rapper is in denial,” she says. “They don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Doja likes to imagine herself guesting as her OWN “ALTER EGO” WHEN SHE WRITES: “I think it turns songs into more like rides.”

The second explanation for Doja’s massive success is her willingness to be wacky and unpredictable in an age of polished, hyper-image-focused pop stardom. (It’s hard to imagine, say, Doja’s collaborator and friend Ariana Grande sticking French fries up her nose and rapping about breastfeeding Old McDonald, as Doja did with her 2018 viral hit “Mooo!”) On her Instagram Lives, she'll twerk in beige cat ears, which she proclaims she bought “for sensual reasons”; on TikTok, she’ll make fun of gravelly voiced himbos and dance seductively in a Ron Weasley wig; and on Twitter, she’s the consummate shitposter, regularly posting tweets such as “peepee vagina” and “my ass is foul.”

Then there are also the less innocuous social media posts, the ones that have gotten her in trouble throughout her career: the time she used homophobic slurs to describe rappers Earl Sweatshirt and Tyler, the Creator, for instance, or a leaked video from a room in Tinychat rumored to be associated with white supremacists, in which Doja can be seen rolling around suggestively on a bed and saying the n-word, a controversy famously summarized by rapper N.O.R.E. as Doja being “in racial chat rooms showing feet.” (There is no evidence the other members of the chatroom were, in fact, white supremacists.) More recently, she lobbed insults at fans who lambasted her for attending Kendall Jenner’s birthday party during the pandemic, saying in a now-deleted tweet, “Shut the fuck up hag” to one who criticized her behavior.

These behaviors have given Doja a reputation for being Extremely Online, though that’s a characterization she refutes: “I definitely was a kid of the internet,” she says, “and now I’ve backed away from it. . . . Unless I’m lonely or alone, and then I go on Twitter and fucking fire off tweets for two hours straight.”

But the lack of filter has only partially translated in her recent work, which is more polished than her quirky online presence would suggest. “At first it was really easy to originally compare her to SoundCloud rappers, and it was like, ‘She raps. She must be like Nicki or she must be like Cardi,’ ” says her manager Josh Kap lan. “I think she’s different. I’ve always seen her as more of a Lady Gaga type.”

Doja’s team views her ability to project authenticity online as something of a competitive advantage. When most artists found themselves at a loss for what to do during the pandemic, Doja was constantly on Instagram Live, making music, asking Alexa to “play the sounds of Forest Whitaker taking a shit,” playing Fortnite, and announcing when she had the runs to her devoted fans. “She’s a master of the internet,” says Doja’s manager Gordan Dillard. “That’s one of the three to four things that put her above other artists during that pandemic. . . . The artists who knew how to work the internet were the artists who won during that time frame.”

Doja has won, her team insists, largely by being herself. But it’s unclear whether the edge lord who tells her fans to shut the fuck up on Twitter can necessarily be synonymous with the pop starlet firmly ensconced in the star-making machine. It’s also unclear at what cost Doja is willing to keep winning.

Most people in Doja Cat’s immediate circle don’t call her Doja. (Her stage name, a nod to both her love of felines and her love of weed, is a source of some consternation for her: She has tried a few times over the years to change it and was persuaded otherwise by a former manager. “My image was the pothead hippie girl, and I’m not that,” she says. “[SNL] made a joke the other day that Doja Cat sounds like a Pokémon. And, you know, it didn’t hurt my feelings, but it definitely hurt my feelings.”) They call her Amala, as in Amala Dlamini, her real name.

The younger child of graphic designer Deborah Sawyer and South African actor and dancer Dumisani Dlamini, Doja moved to Rye, New York, to live with her mother’s mother, a Jewish architect and painter. (They were not particularly observant; Doja says she grew up eating lobster and celebrating Christmas.)

Growing up, Doja had no interaction with her father, and though they have since connected on social media, she has never met him in person. All she knew was what she remembers her mother telling her: that they’d met in New York while he was performing on Broadway, had had a brief relationship, that he was too busy traveling and touring to spend time with her and her brother. “I felt confused, a little bit,” she recalls. “It’s a little strange to see everybody else with their dad, and you didn’t even really have one.”

Gabrielle Hames, one of Doja’s childhood best friends, says growing up without a father impacted Doja tremendously. “She would always think her dad was coming, and he didn’t come,” says Hames. “She’d say, ‘My dad is gonna come, he lives in Africa, he’s just performing,’ and he wouldn’t come.”

When Doja was about eight, Deborah, who would later go by the Sanskrit name Ishwari, packed up the family and drove across the country to relocate to the Sai Anantam Ashram, a commune in the Santa Monica Mountains led by jazz legend Alice Coltrane. Deborah wanted to move to the mountains to get some peace and quiet, but this did not particularly jibe with Doja, who describes herself as a “hyper” kid. “It was very restraining,” she says of the ashram. “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.’ Like, God forbid you don’t have a scarf on your shoulders.”

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