Angel Haze, one of the hottest young women in hip-hop, gives off an aura of casual, effortless cool when she talks, belying the devastating topics she raps about: anorexia and sexual abuse, religious fundamentalism and homophobia. Slumped in an office chair in her record label's midtown offices recently, the artist peppered her sentences on activism and social awareness with enough swear words to make an agent blush. Her message was simple: Be happy with who you are, and f--k anyone else who tries to tell you otherwise.
Since exploding onto the male-dominated, macho-oriented hip-hop scene last October with her brilliant, excruciating cover of Eminem's classic "Cleaning Out My Closet," Haze (whose real name is Raykeea Wilson) quickly proved herself a blazing star in a field of up-and-comers like Frank Ocean, A$AP Rocky and The Weeknd. That track tackled Haze's past sexual abuse with a brutal intensity, ultimately claiming victory over her rapists with a lyrical haymaker straight to the gut.
"And now it happened so often that he was getting particular/And I'm more scared every time -- my speed and ventricular," Haze descends into the song with a jackhammer delivery. But by the end of the nearly four-and-a-half-minute song, Haze re-emerges, scarred but triumphant: "I had to cut off the dead, I had to make myself proud/And now I'm just standing living breathing proof look at me now/I made it through everything, I made you look like a clown."
"Music is such a cathartic thing, its so therapeutic," Haze told The Huffington Post. "I kind of sort of came out the gate projective vomiting every single demon that I had, and everything I had been waiting to say, from jump."
One year after "Cleaning Out My Closet," Haze is getting ready for the January release of "Dirty Gold," her first studio album. Although her rage may have ebbed somewhat, her passion is clearly still of the white-hot variety. The Detroit-raised rapper's latest cover, of the Macklemore & Ryan Lewis hit "Same Love," again showcases her ability to weave skilled rhymes into a personal narrative. In this case, it's a snapshot of Haze growing up queer in a home that rejected any hint of otherness:
At age thirteen, my mom knew I wasn’t straight
She didn’t understand, but she had so much to say
She sat me on the couch, looked me straight in my face
And said you’ll burn in hell or probably die of AIDS
It’s funny now, but at thirteen it was pain
Until the age of 15, Haze and her mother were part of the Pentecostal Greater Apostolic Faith, a church Haze has repeatedly described as a "cult." Although Haze never officially "came out," her mother found out anyway, prompting the dramatic scene that opens the "Same Love" cover.
"When my mom found out she was so angry," Haze told HuffPost. "She was going through my s--t, and she staged this whole 'Nightmare on Elm Street' scene, where she opened the blinds and the curtains in the house so they were all flying around. It’s winter and she turns off all the lights. And she sits down and she tells me, 'God told me, you’re going to die of AIDS.'"
Looking back on those wind-whipped curtains now, Haze lets out a long laugh.
"That s--t is hilarious, when you think about it in hindsight," she said. Still, as a 13-year-old, the confrontation left her terrified and confused. "I knew that I didn’t believe in hell," Haze explained. "But I was also f--king afraid of it."
Roughly nine years later, Angel Haze may be able to joke about her upbringing, but that doesn't mean singing about it has become easier. When Haze wrote her version of the lyrics to “Cleaning Out My Closet,” she told reporters at the time how she "cried like a baby in the studio." Likewise, when she was getting ready to release “Same Love,” she tweeted about her trepidation in a message to her fans.
"It took me like literally 10 tries to say the first line [in 'Same Love']," she admitted to HuffPost. "I don’t want to make [my mom] look like a malicious person. But at the end of the day, the reality of this is that it does happen, it still happens and this is something that kids my age and kids who are so much younger have to deal with now … this whole 'you are going to burn in hell' thing. [Not to mention] all of the disapproval, all of the backlash you get for simply being yourself."
A desire to help others heal through her experiences is a big part of what drives Haze as an artist. She said she looks at her music as an 80, 20 endeavor: 20 percent a personal creative outlet and 80 percent a way to show her fans they are not alone. From this perspective, Haze said she often feels compelled to talk about the past, even if her frankness makes some people uncomfortable in the process.
"I’ve suffered from anorexia for 13 years, and I never shy away from talking about it, because s--t," she said. "I still know people who f--king suffer from it. And it's one of those things that’s an active struggle, and you have to talk about it."
The same thing goes for her outspoken advocacy on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens.
"I’ve got fans who email me every day," she said. "[They tell me,] 'I’m so ashamed, I wish I could be straight so bad.' And it’s like, why? Just be you, and that’s going to be so much better than wishing to be anything else."
While Haze has in the past referred to herself as pansexual, she admits she'd really rather not apply any label at all. Part Native American, Haze said she's always felt herself to be "two-spirited," a concept others often seem to have a difficult time wrapping their heads around.
This resistance to any sort of identifier is poignantly expressed in an excerpt from queer spoken-word poet (and Haze’s good friend) Andrea Gibson, whose poem “Andrew” Haze quotes in her “Same Love” cover.
No, I'm not gay
No, I'm not straight
And I sure as hell am not bisexual
Damn it I am whoever I am when I am it
Haze said the quote was an instant hit with her fans, who tweet it back at her many times a day.
“People ... really identify with that because the struggle and the kind of pressure to choose has always been there,” Haze said. “When you’re a kid, you choose pink or blue, and that identifies you.”
Not surprisingly, Haze was a stubborn kid with a wide color palette.
“To be able to have someone in life who comes out and says, ‘No, you’re not the only one, I like all those colors, too.’ That’s a cool thing.”
It’s such an essential perspective, this idea that love is a spectrum, and that being different doesn’t mean weak or sinful. That was a large focus of Macklemore’s original version of "Same Love,” which took to task the hip-hop establishment and its fans for continuing to associate the label "gay" -– and its corresponding slur “faggot” -- as being representative of the weak or lesser-than.
Despite an initially positive response, Macklemore has since received some pushback from rappers such as Le1f, who complain that a white, cisgendered male shouldn’t attempt to represent a community able to speak for itself.
When asked about her take on the controversy, Haze nodded knowingly. But beneath the rapper's trademark backward ball cap, her dark-rimmed eyes remained mischievous.
“I get it. I’m capable of understanding both sides,” she said, smiling. “But ... where there are so many people against you, why not accept someone who’s for you? At the end of the day, that’s another voice on your side.”
Ultimately, Haze stresses that having more voices in the mix is a good thing, but “joining the conversation is not good enough” anymore. The self-professed activist-for-life noted, “Talking doesn’t fix s--t.”
As proved by the music video for "Echelon (It's My Way)" -- her latest single -- which depicts a lawn party throbbing with neon-clad models on trampolines, Haze’s forthcoming album will have a decidedly different tone from her earlier remixes. However, while “Dirty Gold” (released by Republic Records) may be a more mainstream work, Haze denied that it would be a departure from her core ideals.
“My message is still the same, and it’s there,” she said. “It’s just said differently. … And if I can continue to be the persona I am, the f--kless person that I am, it will send all the messages I want to send.”
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