Current Issue__ Angel Haze: Can’t Stop Won’t Stop
Photography: Valentine Malone III
“Shut the fuck up, shut the fuck up,” rapper Angel Haze screams at the crowd, surrounded by a halo of spotlights at New York’s SOB’s. Dressed in a black sports bra with heavy gold chains around her neck, an Emporio Armani boxer band peeks out from under her black wax denim. Her thin, boyish frame rocks back and forth with so much force you wonder how she stays on two feet. The 21-year-old emcee, AKA Native Raeen has only performed in her hometown a handful of times, but she is already a comfortable and energetic performer.
The floodgates break at the show at SOB’s when a troupe of dancers rush the stage to body roll and booty pop behind her as she spits her fiery single, “New York.” Playful and engaged conversation with the audience and departures off the stage into the crowd put her in a special class of young rappers who have the confidence and charisma to hold the attention of a well-versed hip hop crowd. She is performing at a club where rappers like Schoolboy Q, Kendrick Lamar, and Shabazz Palaces have played shows in the last few months. Joining the ranks of these rising stars, Haze is ready to mark the industry with her own brand of enticing, substantial lyricism.
Haze has received waves of attention for her debut release Reservation—everyone from The Fader to Spin, Complex, Pitchfork and the Guardian likes what they're hearing. The album is a balanced collection of thoughtful narrative and energetic heat. Titled with a double meaning, it refers to the place she wants held for her in the music industry, like a restaurant reservation, and also nods to her Native American heritage. A military brat born in Michigan, Haze's upbringing was conservative and religious. It was only three years ago that she started the YouTube hustle that quickly earned her a place in the musical underground. Now, just barely past the legal drinking age, Haze is rolling with one of the biggest labels in the industry.
In early August she announced on Twitter she had signed with Universal Republic in the States and Island Records in the UK. With over 20,000 followers on Twitter, 300,000 views on You Tube and a rapidly growing fan base, Haze brushes off tired juxtapositions to other female rappers like Nicki and Azealia. Apart from the fact that those kinds of comparisons are sexist and unimaginative, her teenage-boy like build and the way her music plays with gen/sex issues make her a specific case study. In a time when people can't seem to get over asking if 2012 is the year of the femcee and whether Hip Hop is ready for gay rappers, Angel is ready and willing to beat her way into the spotlight to answer, "Yes." She’s open about her desire to be bigger than Nicki, make a lot of money, and do it without compromising who she is. And as far as Azealia goes? After shouting one other out on Twitter, the two have started working on a collaboration.
Twitter is a vital tool for Angel, she’s part of a growing group of musicians who have gained international popularity on the Internet. You can call them memes, user-generated, or viral, the reality of it is a new class of young talent has built essential relationships with platforms like Youtube, Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter. They reach listeners in a completely generation-specific mode. Figures like Kitty Pryde, Kilo Kish and Le1f communicate their personas digitally, not only because it’s a free way to gain access to literally anyone with an internet connection, but also because it's tapping into a language that is specific to gen-Y. Like so many 90's babies, Angel Haze was able to explore things online in her youth she couldn't access in real life. It's a logical progression to start using social media platforms for personal expression and elevate that familiarity to something that helps build a career. Plus, releasing music on the Internet allows a creative freedom many artists signed to major record labels do not have.
For Haze, having a growing attentive audience is both invigorating and challenging. Being a public figure invites people’s opinions and judgments as much as it facilitates connections. Haze tweets without abandon, at times about what she’s wearing (usually something that shows her washboard abs), who she’s with "Taking my boo out on a date tonight #trillshit," or her philosophical ramblings of the moment, "Things money can buy? Not any of the things that I value inside." "You never make it til you fail and you take it in stride." She appreciates her new voice, and isn't letting herself get phased by the negative feedback that comes with being in the spotlight. “It’s like damn all these people from all over the place have the ability to hear me, its amazing but its also kind of crippling. I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘I thought I liked you until you said one thing,’ and I’m like ‘Okay well that’s your problem, not mine, move on bitch. I don’t care.’”
Headstrong and fervently honest, that same attitude runs through her music. You won’t hear Haze rap about the fashion brands she’s repping or the parties she’s at. As much as her style centers on bragging rights and getting to the top of the game, she is open and brutally honest about her emotions, life experiences, and the bouts of violence that she has been subjected to. Dealing with issues like sexual abuse, hooking up with girls, parties, drugs and growing up as an outsider, the emotional value of her words is bold and unafraid. Haze’s music holds a refreshingly authentic combination of a poet’s sensitive artistry and the brash, at times reckless attitude of a biker. Her low- pitched alto gyrates over Frank Ocean and Ellie Goulding samples to unearth a broodingly resilient energy. But the rapid and frantic delivery coming out of her tiny frame is aggressive and domineering. She’s about as far away from a crooning Drake as she is from a body-baring siren like Ciara.
She’s acutely aware of the kind of artist she wants to be, citing Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation Pt. 2 as a reference for the type of album she wants to make next. “Helped along by some intense vocal training and guitar practice,” she adds. Guiding us through her Brooklyn apartment for the photoshoot, she dons a white beater, black jeans, a plaid shirt around her waist and a clean face. Her black combat boots clomp heavily against the hardwood as she jumps off the platformed stripper pole that rests in the center of her living room.
When we get a chance to converse it's easily and freely, she doesn’t shy away from talking about the experiences behind her weighted and personal lyrics. “Castle on a Cloud,” is one of the singles off Reservation that addresses her history of sexual abuse: I just want you to know how much it hurt me/ because of you I feel I’m not a person/ so I sit here with this blade in my hand/ I got the pain of a child and the brain of a man. These lines, like most of her lyrics, are autobiographical. Her normally emphatic voice drops to a near whisper as she recounts the horrors she had to deal with in her girlhood. “As a kid I was molested, so now I’m 21 and I’m a virgin. I’m freaked out by vaginal penetration. I grew with it and harbored it so much that it naturally became a fear that holds me back.” Her emotional maturity runs years deeper than her actual age as she speaks directly about the abuse in her past with such an embodied awareness. She doesn't victimize herself as a result of that trauma, she uses her music and her channels of communication with her fans to take control of her sexual image and body.
Angel reps a unique aesthetic that embraces a gender-bending slant, criticizes homophobia, and is purposefully ambiguous about her sexual orientation. Tweets like, “I'm so over people thinking that being gay is a choice...like excuse me, but spreading the work of satan through homosexuality is a calling.” She doesn’t call herself a gay rapper; instead she says she's pansexual. That chosen descriptor is loaded, both with the fears of penetration that are residual from the violence in her childhood and with romantic relationships Haze has had with other girls. But any definitive explanation for her sexual identity is defiantly ambiguous because Haze makes it that way. She’s sex positive without having sex, and without answering to the people who want to know.
“I’m comfortable with who I am. That took me a long time and I don’t like to pretend. It's cool because with that attitude comes a whole different side of me that’s really girly.” Angel straddles the boundaries between what is and isn’t considered feminine, what constitutes being or acting “gay” or “straight,” and her unwillingness to explain herself is one of her greatest strengths. When fans question her about her sexuality she understandably reacts, “it’s none of their fucking business.” It’s empowering and feminist in a particular way to see a young artist with the depth and performative confidence like Haze refuse to explain herself.
Claiming privacy in certain arenas is still an option in the age of the online personal confession. And at a time when all people seem to be able to do is pit female rappers against one another, you've got Angel Haze talking about how she has the brain of a man and cross dresses like a dude. “You learn, you take all your anger, animosity, everything that you’ve been through and you let it be an example and a teaching experience,” Angel says. It is clear that Angel’s appeal lies in an inner strength that shines through her lyrics. And for all of the critiques and crap that come with being young and dealing with rising fame, one thing Angel is sure of at this moment is she’s not going to let it stop her.