What do you do when you want to fight for the animals and the planet? Petition? March? Make protest art? One Swiss artist, Daniel Hellman, found a way to mix his love for the performance arts, music and animals by creating an alter ego: Soya the Cow, “the gender and species bending drag cow”.
Through the powers of this artistic creature Daniel takes the stage at animal and human rights protest events, gives talks about consent, performs music, is part of the programming team of a sex-positive, feminist art festival and much more.
The creation, Soya the Cow, is wrapping up her first music album and after discovering her work via her fascinating Instagram profile I hit her up with a few questions about her activism and her upcoming album.
Halldór: First of all, for those not familiar with your work, who is Soya the Cow?
Soya the Cow: Soya is species and gender bending drag cow. She is a singer and songwriter, working on her first album that will be released in 2020. She was born to inspire, challenge the status quo and fight for the voiceless. She unites queer-feminist ideas with animal rights activism and poetry. Soya stands for love, social justice and climate justice for every being on this planet.
Halldór: Has your art always been political or made in protest?
Soya the Cow: Before becoming Soya, I have been making theater projects with political ambitions and topics, dealing with the rights of sexual minorities or refugees and also with animal rights. But I had the urge to do more, to reach more people and to speak more directly to people’s hearts. That’s why Soya the Cow was born. First only as an idea inspired by fierce drag artists and by my favourite animals. And with the help of amazing friends and collaborators, suddenly she was there – with a beautiful face, long lashes and udders!
Halldór: Your art flows, effortlessly it seems, between different disciplines such as fashion, activism and music. How and why did these different talents or outlets join together?
Soya the Cow: I grew up singing in a Boys’ Choir and since there were no girls in the choir, I used to play all the female characters in the theater nights that we organised in our rehearsal camps. It was just natural for me to put on heels and a wig. Later I became a professional singer, then a theater maker, then an activist. Somehow it seems that these different portions of my life, that seemed isolated in the past, are coming together now in Soya. It’s a very exciting feeling.
Halldór: The rights of animals is a large part of your art. When and why did you decide to fight for the rights of those who don’t have a voice in human society?
Soya the Cow: There are many important battles to engage in. But when I was researching for a theater-dance project about meat and death, it really shook me in all my being. It was an earthquake in my internal moral compass. I got exposed to what is actually going on behind the closed doors of factory farms, transport vehicles, laboratories and slaughterhouses, and also in the oceans and fish factories. I allowed it to touch me. I looked into the eyes of cows, pigs, chicken or fishes, and I learned to see them as individuals with personalities, as subjects. Not as mere objects who only exist to satisfy human interests or pleasures.
Once this shift had happened, I knew that I had to do my best to end or at least reduce this insane amount of unnecessary suffering. The brutality is so extreme and it’s happening every single day, it’s part of our daily lives to the point that most humans don’t even realise any more that we are part of such a violent system. I have gone through this myself and there is just no justification. That’s why I want to use my voice for ALL animals, for climate justice and the liberation of everybody.
Halldór: You are about to release your debut album. Can you tell us a bit about your musical background and how the process has been creating this piece of work?
Soya the Cow: I studied classical singing, but was bored with the stories told in the opera world. As a queer person of the 21st century, I needed to create work that made sense for me. For my album, I teamed up with the producer Phil Constantin. He has a background in jazz and electronic music and we share an openness towards many musical styles and forms.
For this album, I have been writing lyrics and songs that take the subjective experience of a dairy cow as a starting point to reflect on questions that reach far beyond the topic of animal rights – from the loss of a child to the threat of extinction. Drag has always been playing with imitation and appropriation, it is absolutely serious and hilariously exaggerated at the same time. We also have this element in our music. We visit different musical styles and make them our own. With lots of love, sadness and a good dose of humour .
Halldór: Some protest artists and musicians perform at very specific events with therefore a limited audience. How do you reach the people that most importantly need to hear your message?
Soya the Cow: That’s an important question. I have performed at the Animal Rights March in Berlin in front of a few thousand animal rights activists, that was of course wonderful! Similar when I was performing at street blockades of Extinction Rebellion. But I have also been singing in the context of contemporary art festivals, where killing animals for food is still the norm. Soya is a rebel and trouble maker at heart, and I’m open and willing to be exposed to audiences that might find Soya very disturbing. Maybe I can even sing at the Eurovision Song Contest one day!
Halldór: Are you following other contemporary protest artists? How do you feel about the scenes you work in (the drag scene, the visual arts scene or the music scene) in regards to protest and activism? Are people using their voices?
Soya the Cow: I see many artists doing incredible work. Powerful, political and challenging. In all fields. I do not make a big distinction between art and activism any more. The only thing that changes is the context. But it’s people with a vision and something to say and to share, who use their creativity to raise awareness, to give space for voices and ideas that are not listened to enough.
I also think, that art and activism are not sufficient. We can inspire or create a spark. But this spark needs to travel and spread. We need artists, activists, scientists, journalists, entrepreneurs, politicians, healers, teachers and much more… If we want to bring the transformation the world so desperately needs, all of these people are essential.
Halldór: How about other musicians or artists, who are your influences or motivations?
Soya the Cow: There is a long list of artists who I admire deeply for their art and their capacity to touch us and to inspire whole movements. I think of eternal muses like Nina Simone or David Bowie, or today I’d love to mention Janaelle Monae. Equally important for me are anti-speciesist activists like Earthling Ed, who manages to reach hundred thousands of people with his speeches and his smart and always respectful conversations with meat-eaters. Or my friend, animal rights activist and writer, Virginia Markus, who runs a sanctuary where humans, cats, chicken, horses, pigs, cats, donkeys and goats live peacefully together as one big family. It’s a magical place that gives me hope.
Halldór: What other extra curricular activism activities do you partake in beside your music?
Soya the Cow: I’m part of Animal Rebellion. We are a branch of Extinction Rebellion, fighting the inaction of our governments in regard to the climate and ecosystem crisis. We demand climate justice for all animals, the end of animal agriculture and the fishing industries and the transition into a plant based food system.
I’m also working in the programming team for the sex-positive, feminist art festival La Fête du Slip in Lausanne (Switzerland). This is my contribution to a more diverse representation of genders and sexualities in the art world.
Halldór: Some people seem to believe that arts and activism should be separated. What do you feel about that?
Soya the Cow: I believe that nothing should be separated. We need more connection, more conversations. There are artists whose work is unpolitical and that’s ok with me. I might also enjoy looking at it or listening to it. It’s just not the type of work I want to dedicate my time for. What I find more important is that we stop harming others in the sake of art. Or fashion or food.
Halldór: What is on the horizon for you?
Soya the Cow: At the moment, I’m running a crowdfunding campaign, to finance the album and my first three music videos. I want to collaborate with a women’s video collective in Switzerland. And the album is due to be released in the spring. From there on, it’s an open journey and I’ll show up where my voice and message are needed.
Halldór: Thank you very much for participating and for your work! Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?
Soya the Cow: Be kind with all animals, including yourself! And follow me on social media, if you want to stay tuned when my music comes out.
Halldór is the managing editor of Shouts – Music from the Rooftops!, an investigative journalist, audio engineer and an animal rights activist on a nomad journey through Europe – still without a definite destination.