“I did want to be normal… or what I thought that normal was supposed to be.”
Matthew Urango tried to find work around his hometown of Oxnard, California as a high school student, but was rejected from every place he applied. He says that most places were not open to people with disabilities, and he realized that the ordinary life he had expected and longed for was not necessarily an option easily available to him.
Urango was born with spina bifida, which is a condition in which the spine and spinal cord do not form correctly. The neural tube does not fully develop during the early part of the pregnancy, so the spinal cord protrudes out of the column. For Urango, this led to kyphosis and scoliosis, which are two different types of curvatures of the spine. He also had a severe clubbed foot, which led to him getting a prosthetic leg. When looking for a mainstream job, in the strawberry industry of Oxnard, for example, Urango was turned away when employers found out about his disabilities.
Urango, now known by his musical pseudonym, Cola Boyy, writes and performs disco-pop and punk music around the world. He organizes with a leftist collective to fight for justice in his immigrant community. While the mainstream working world would not hire him, Cola Boyy made his own path in the music and activist worlds.
From Pop To Punk
Cola Boyy began exploring the arts as a young teen, starting guitar classes at 14. He talks about his high school guitar teacher, Mr. Wingland, who tried to teach the students to play in a structured manner and learn how to read music. But eventually, Mr. Wingland relented, seeing just how talented Urango and his friends were when they explored music from a more freestyle and competitive perspective.
When Cola Boyy listened to music in those day—whether it be music on the radio or in Alpine, a local music venue–it always felt magical. He says that he didn’t think about the process of how music was made. At that age, it simply felt like the songs came into being. He liked pop, and decided that’s what he wanted to write and perform.
But it was punk that gave him his start.
He began attending punk concerts in his neighborhood once a week. Many of the concerts were in the backyards of his friends, and he loved the scene. After a few years of watching, Cola Boyy noticed that one of the bands he listened to, called the Sea Lions, was missing a bass player and he asked to join. The Sea Lions took him on. They toured outside of Oxnard, even traveling to Japan and New York to perform. When Cola Boyy describes his eight years with the Sea Lions, he lights up. Adrian Pillado, the lead singer, taught Cola Boyy how to write songs and run and band.
The Birth of Cola Boyy
But eventually, pop music consumed him. “I’ve always been drawn to pop,” he says. While the style of music is often dismissed as frivolous, Cola Boyy points out it takes just as much talent and dedication to pull of well as any other genre. “A good song is a good song.”
While a punk-turned-pop-artist may seem like a rejection of his previous lifestyle and friends, Cola Boyy says that his old friends are actually quite supportive of his music and enjoy listening to it. He says: “Who doesn’t love funky music? We’re from Southern Cali; funk is in our blood.” Ultimately, style is only one element, and Cola Boyy knows that his friends recognize his skills and effort. He says: “They’ve known me since I was 14. They’ve seen me through the years putting in work along with everyone else.”
In addition to concentrating on his music, Cola Boyy began working as an activist with the group “Todo Poder al Pueblo” and a leftist reading group in 2016. Those groups work to support immigrant rights and fight against police violence and gentrification. “[Music alone] isn’t going to change the system,” Cola Boyy says.
Why Representation Matters
At the end of the day, Cola Boyy believes that it’s important for people from disenfranchised groups to see themselves where they’d like to be, whether that’s on stage, in politics, or following any other dream.
“As long as I can remember, I felt that I wasn’t accepted,” Urango says. “I’m used to that. It’s kind of fun and funny to be the opposite [of what people expect], and to make people feel like, ‘who is this guy?’”
The ultimate success for Cola Boyy, though, would be to become so famous that people stop paying attention to the fact he’s disabled at all. “Every day I walk out the door, I’m still looked down on for the way I look.” But by fully embracing what makes him unique, and writing some killer songs while he’s at it, Cola Boyy is showing the world it doesn’t have to be that way.