One of the most unique protest musicians out there, Soya The Cow, recently performed at the largest stage of her career. This is all the more impressive seeing how she uses every stage, small or big, to act as a voice for animal rights. It is definitely not everyday that an event as big as The Voice (Germany) gets to hear about animal liberation.
At the end of the song Soya chose to cover the judges do their traditional turnaround and ask her a few questions. Her response and the way she used this gigantic platform can be read below in English:
“Hi, I’m Soya the Cow – from Switzerland. I dress up as a cow to show that everything could be different.
For many years I have been preoccupied with animals and the relationships between humans and other animals. And right now, as we stand and sit here, billions and billions of non-human animals are locked up, mostly under miserable circumstances.
I want to show that every single one of these animals is an individual personality, with their own needs and desires, with friendships and curiosity. We would never allow to treat a dog or a cat in the same way as we treat a cow or a chicken.”
Since we interviewed Soya last year she has released her debut album, a fantastic pop piece titled ‘Purple Grass‘, where her love for all creatures, humans and animals, shines through in her unique style of music composition.
The following article was originally published in Varsity, the independent newspaper of the University of Cambridge and republished here with permission of the author, Inés Cropper de Andres.
Blasting from any Hispanic shop, restaurant or bar, you are sure to meet the bewitching rhythms of Reggaeton. Once singing of violence and gang life, with lyrics describing graphic sexual acts and music videos featuring scantily clad models (hello Pitbull), Reggaeton has moved far from the underground, anti-colonial movement from which it started. Inspired by the Argentinian pro-choice “Ni Una Menos” movement, the reclamation of Reggaeton by Latinx feminist groups in the past 5 years has come as a surprise to many. Even mainstream Reggaeton artists are now joining the trend, with Bad Bunny (net worth $16 million) pushing the musical movement from underground Soundcloud demos into stratospheric Hollywood heights with his song ‘Yo Perrero Sola’. Being photographed in skirts and publicly criticising machismo culture, he is the first big male artist to join the movement. In light of the recent lift on abortion in Argentina, what does it mean to be a feminist Reggaeton artist? Can Reggaeton return to its political roots? How is Reggaeton being used to bring women together intersectionally?
“To be on the dance-floor as a gay woman, to have fun, to exist in spaces that heterosexual men have traditionally ruled, is political.”
Sporting mullets and brightly dyed hair, Kumbia Queers are not your average Cumbia band. With an impressive discography spanning the past decade, this Argentine six-piece, self-proclaimed tropical punk band combines the island sounds of Cumbia and Reggaeton with punk rock, anarchist philosophy and queercore. Their music sings of freedom and liberation and is ultimately a rally for women to get up and dance. Their most catchy song, ‘Puesta’, is a tongue-in-cheek dance track, the kind that urges you back on the dance-floor and away from your drunken (and probably dissatisfying) Cindies hookup. Classically carnival, the claxon opening hints of the fun that is infused throughout. “I wanted to write a protest song but to be honest I’m too high” repeats the chorus.
Closing your eyes to the looped rhythmic backing track, you’re transported to a beach party, dizzy after one too many tokes, with glitter smudged across your cheeks. In countries where homophobic slurs are a part of everyday vocabulary and being openly gay is frequently met with hostility, existence is resistance. To be on the dance-floor as a gay woman, to have fun, to exist in spaces that heterosexual men have traditionally ruled, is political. The irony in Cumbia being a traditional heterosexual love dance, and its fusion with Reggaeton as the site of female exploitation, uses the genres to situate queer women in positions of power.
Don’t be fooled. This is not an exclusionary political movement. Like the riot grrrl movements of the 90s, this new feminist Reggaeton is a safe space for all women-identifying and gender-queer individuals.
Take Krudas Qumbensi, an afro-Latinx hip-hop duo from Cuba who represent “Womyn, Immigrants, Queers, and People of Color”. Their early albums with songs like ‘Horizontalidad’ push a pro-socialist message, but it is in their 2014 album Poderosxs that they begin using their lived experiences to craft their message.
“Whose bodies? Our bodies” they cry in their hit single ‘Mi Cuerpo es Mio’, an exploration of the intertwining of Church and State. The music video features the duo dancing, superimposed onto protest photos. If the electro-soul synth backing hadn’t already made it clear, the message is obvious. Their revolution will be danced. The track is in Spanglish, calling in their American Diaspora. This is not a battle that can be fought by them alone, it requires unity.
Sisterhood is recurring on this album, with the spoken word track of ‘Vamos Juntas’, an ode to solidarity through subverting the traditional forms of the Catholic hymn. “Destroy what hurts us, solidify what unites us”. Is this a prayer or a battle-cry set to lo-fi? The listener is left to decide.
Sisterhood and solidarity become the focus of their latest release, their 2019 album LNL. These themes are the foundations of their exploration of afro-liberation, gender liberation, and queer liberation. Relying more on spoken word, beat-boxing and acapella than on heavy production, this album is musically complex while remaining emotionally raw. The human cry heard in the background of ‘Un Dia’, a lament to lack of safe abortions, is overlaid with ominous humming. Is it a woman crying? Who is she? Remaining nameless, she could be anyone. She could be you. Naked. Harrowing. Intimate. “Who looks after us?” questions the album, and the answer never comes. This is a worldwide system failure. If we don’t care about each other as sisters, who will?
“One thing is clear: the revolution may not be televised, but it can definitely be danced.”
In a world where women are divided through issues as banal as whether they’re a hi girl or a bruh girl (Buzzfeed has multiple quizzes addressing this clearly important matter), music is a cultural force to be reckoned with. Asserting themselves as non-conforming, queer women of colour, bands like Krudas Qumbensi and Kumbia Queers are entering, reimagining, and restructuring the space that was built upon actively excluding them. The call to arms for sisterhood, not one based on patriarchy, but one based on a recognition of intersectionality, is an act of defiance against a structure that profits from female competition. Female and queer existence is resistance; how better to showcase that than through taking control of the music? One thing is clear: the revolution may not be televised, but it can definitely be danced.
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?
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?
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
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?
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.
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?
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