Among her panoply of onstage appearances over the last year, the one that cemented Doja Cat’s Main Pop Girl status didn’t initially look like a Doja Cat performance at all; had Grammy Awards host Trevor Noah not announced her name, people might not even have recognized her. Covered head to toe in black latex, Doja appeared silhouetted in a row of dancers, just barely lit by lasers. “I’ve been preparing,” she purred. “Grammys, welcome to Planet Her.” She then launched into one of her many live reimaginings of “Say So” — this one with sex-robot choreography and a glitchy EDM breakdown.
Given that ultra-polished performance, it feels like divine comedy that the super-low-fi “Mooo!” was what got RCA to sit up and pay attention to Doja. Before then, the label wasn’t exactly sure what to do with her: Was she a rapper? An R&B singer? A pop star? “I would play her for people all the time, and it was strange to me how some people didn’t seem to get it,” says songwriter-producer Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald, the former head of Kemosabe Records, over email. “It’s like people weren’t listening with their ears but were more concerned about how many followers she had. I don’t know how it happened, but she just got better and better, and one day, she was like, totally there.” (In 2014, Kesha sued Gottwald, alleging sexual assault and emotional abuse, among other claims; Gottwald filed his own defamation and breach of contract suit against her that is still ongoing. Because Doja’s commercial success occurred in the wake of that, she has faced some criticism for working with Gottwald. In early 2020, she liked tweets pointing out that she had signed with him before the suit; she didn’t speak further about their working relationship in this interview.) Fleckenstein recalls an RCA meeting, just post-“Mooo!,” where Doja played the songs that would become Hot Pink. “We were just blown away,” he recalls, “and I think that’s when things started to kick into the gear you’re seeing today.”
From the beginning, the arc of Doja’s life path has veered left of center. Born Amala Ratna Zandile Dlamini in the Los Angeles suburb named after Tarzan, she spent a good deal of her childhood living in the mountains on an ashram, a commune where she, her parents and her brother practiced Hinduism, wore head-covering scarves and sang devotional songs called bhajans at temple. Both of her parents are artists: her mother a Jewish painter, her father a South African Zulu actor-filmmaker. “There were snakes and coyotes and mountain lions and everything. It was wild, but it was really beautiful and peaceful most of the time,” says Doja. “But as a kid, I wanted to do whatever I wanted, and it felt a little too controlled.”
When the family moved to the predominantly white suburb of Oak Park — the ashram was mostly Indian and Black people — the transition wasn’t easy. “It was really rough for me at times,” admits Doja, noting instances when classmates were racist toward her and her brother. In school, she was placed in special ed classes; outside, she skateboarded and competed in a local dance crew. By 11th grade, Doja had dropped out and fallen headfirst into music, spending her days writing and producing songs on GarageBand in her bedroom, oftentimes live on social media.
Was her early music good? “So … no,” says Doja with a laugh. “But I saw potential in myself even though I was still aware it wasn’t good. And I really wanted it.” She focused on visuals as much as the music itself, toiling over DIY music videos for her own songs or Minaj covers, unplugging her massive desktop computer and moving it from room to room to get different shots. In 2013, through Facebook, she befriended Yeti Beats, a DJ-producer who has collaborated with her ever since. With Yeti, Doja found herself in an actual studio for the first time, free to explore whatever she wanted. Occasionally, she would bring her cat, Alex, to sessions on a leash.
At around the same time, a self-produced song she had casually posted on SoundCloud, “So High,” caught Gottwald’s attention. In 2013, he signed then-17-year-old Doja to Kemosabe and to his publishing company, Prescription Songs, and released her debut EP, Purrr! By the time co-manager Kaplan joined Doja’s team, he saw the low-stakes “SoundCloud rapper mentality” limiting her. “People at the label knew she was talented, but they just didn’t put anything behind her because she had the ‘So High’ success on SoundCloud, and that was how she was being identified.” The question was how to nudge her toward her full potential. “Everybody always says, ‘Oh, yeah. I knew she was going to be a star,’ and all that good stuff, but there’s so much luck and timing with those things,” says Kaplan. “But did she have the talent? A million percent, yes. I knew if we could position her in the right way, yes, she’s a pop star.”