Nellie McKay

By Bobby Allyn

Nellie McKay is a precocious, sweetly brash, and unashamed singer-songwriter who blends jazz, cabaret, pop, and rap into scathing ballads about feminism and animal rights. Her almost indescribable genre-crossing musical infusions leave reviewers unable to fit her in any categorical boxes.

Aside from her zest-filled eclecticism, McKay has been a passionate advocate for animal rights from a young age, and she has not been afraid to express her message in her songwriting. "You can't preach with veganism. You need to be funny and lively," she said. "A lot of people treat veganism as a my-way-or-the-highway type thing, but it's good to keep a sense of humor. You can do this while still moving toward a more compassionate world."

When McKay was 2, she and her mother moved from London to Harlem, New York, where they rescued stray cats and attended PETA protests. She said her mother's universal compassion toward all creatures shaped much of her early life and became a facet of her worldly perspective. "In Harlem, we saw so much poverty and destitution on the streets," she said. "But even compared to the people, the animals were in so much worse shape."

McKay's earliest memory of animal rights activism in New York involved imagery that strongly resonated with her: "I remember going to an animal rights protest at New York University and seeing photos of a monkey all hooked up to electric wires; it gave me an instant feeling of empathy. Everyone has true empathy; it just gets beat out of them." Today, she continues to draw on her experiences in New York for her music and her activism. Her sophomore album, Pretty Little Head, features the song "Columbia is Bleeding" about Columbia University's controversial animal testing.

McKay said a lot of progress has been made but acknowledges how much more needs to be done. "Now, there is an animal rights movement, but more animals are killed than ever," she said. "The past couple generations have been so cynical; this has been a big impediment. There is a serious dearth of hope. We're so aware that there are so many problems in the world, but the animal rights issue really affects so many things: factory farm workers, class, race, economics... It's not just a question of the animals. But it's also the people who work for these multi-billion dollar corporations who make the bill."

Where would McKay like to see the future of the vegan market? In the Doritos aisle. "I think we need more vegan junk food. Who has time when you're out in the world to get something quick? Why can't we have a dollar menu? So many people don't respond to animal rights as a whole because they know they will have to change their lifestyle so drastically. Why not make it easier for them?"

McKay hopes that large national corporations, despite being disapproved of in progressive communities, will begin to embrace cruelty-free and vegan products.

"I completely understand why people are leery toward corporations in any way because you can end up compromising yourself into the ground and they win," she said. "You can feel like you're moving to a world where animals are not exploited at all, so you end up shaking hands with the oppressor. I do think people can be too puritan in their thinking and not realistic enough. But if the first thing is to inject humane ethics into your way of thinking, maybe it will lead to further conscious-making."

Bobby Allyn previously interned at The VRG office and continues to volunteer at VRG booths. He is currently studying journalism and international relations at American University in Washington, DC.