The Emancipation of Angel Haze
Photography by Janette Beckman
When you accidentally embarrass the 22-year-old spitfire rapper Angel Haze, she does the cutest thing: She giggles, actually giggles, and buries her head in the crook of her arm like a kid playing hide-and-seek whose turn it is to count down.
And when you embarrass Haze, it will be an accident, for two reasons. First, you won’t have intended to, because she’s all-around fantastic, thoughtful, open, and fun, and only a jerk embarrasses a person like that on purpose. Second, she doesn’t get uncomfortable talking about the many things in her life that might make another artist shy: her extremist Christian childhood and subsequent troubled relationship with her mother; the fans who write to her for advice; the evolution of her sexuality. Ask Haze, born Raykeea Angel Wilson, about any of these things, and she doesn’t flinch. She just looks you in the eye and answers.
She’s not even embarrassed—and this might be a first, for a rapper—to tell you, matter-of-factly, that her earliest musical influences weren’t Biggie or NWA but John Mayer, Jason Mraz, Paramore, and Tracy Chapman. (“To be honest, I have no greater aspirations than to be Tracy Chapman,” she says.) Oh, and the New Radicals, whom she got into after seeing...A Walk to Remember: “I literally hated them, to the core, for only making one album.”
You won’t find much of the New Radicals in Haze’s impassioned, tightly produced debut album, Dirty Gold. In its balance between swagger, emotionally raw lyrics, and Haze’s impressively tight flow, the record owes a debt instead to the first rappers she fell in love with: Kanye West and Eminem. “The 8 Mile soundtrack—I knew all the freaking freestyle rap from that movie,” she says. “Totally could still do it. I could probably do it better than Eminem, to be honest.”
Haze gets a little reverential when she starts talking about Eminem, though she admits the obvious: “It’s sort of hard to explain, being the craziest feminist ever, my love for Eminem,” she says. “I don’t always love the things he says, but I’m just like, he has to be fucking joking. I’m not gonna take that seriously.”
Though their upbringings were very different—until age 10, Haze was raised in a Greater Apostolic community, a Pentecostal sect that she has said prohibited jewelry, pop culture, and even friendships with those outside the group—she grew up near Eminem’s old stomping grounds in Detroit and strongly identifies with him. “He’s from 8 Mile, I’m from 7 Mile. It’s one of those things where you connect with someone so genuinely, like, ‘If you can come from literally a block over from where I come from’—and it’s terribly disgusting; the poverty levels in Detroit are just crazy—‘and you can become this fucking iconic figure, why can’t I?’ ”
Though she didn’t hear his music—or any secular music, for that matter—until long after she left Detroit, it ended up going a long way toward helping her sort through the feelings of alienation and bewilderment that her childhood had caused. “I feel like my life would be in shambles without him—without ‘Lose Yourself,’ ‘Cleanin’ Out My Closet,’ ‘Hailie’s Song,’ ” she says. “That’s the music I had growing up to make me feel like I belonged somewhere.”
On her Classick mixtape, released a year and a half ago, Haze borrowed the title and beat from “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” to exorcise some of her own demons: the molestation she suffered at the hands of multiple men starting when she was only 7, as well as her struggles with eating disorders, God, and her sexuality. The track is brutal—and beautiful. “I focus on being as honest as I can possibly be,” she says, “because I feel like music, to an extent, is philanthropic. In all my ventures, I set out to reach people who are just like me.”
It’s working. Haze’s fans are tremendously devoted to her—and grateful for her openness. “I’m an avid Tumblr user, and sometimes I see myself on my dashboard,” she says, laughing. “People talking about me, like, ‘I’m glad there’s an actual woman of color representing queerness and pansexuality, someone who is like me in the spotlight.’ You don’t want to have so many goddamned people who are exactly the same that people who are inherently different aren’t connected to anything.”
Through her teens, after leaving Detroit for the Bronx and later Brooklyn, Haze went through what she calls “a lot of different phases.” She thought she was a lesbian, and then bisexual, before she had a revelation: “Sexuality is like having a favorite color. It doesn’t rule you, you know? And I should be able to do whatever and whoever I want at any given time.” It was a freeing moment. “And then I realized I was attracted to transgender people and people who classify themselves as ‘other.’ It didn’t change anything about how I looked at life. There was no brand-new, kaleidoscopic view of everything: ‘Holy fuck! I like a transgender person. God is real.’ No. It was one part of me that just evolved.”
It’s a considered, honest statement, the kind you’ll come to expect from Haze. And she’ll start to answer in much the same way when you ask her the question that will end up embarrassing her: whether she is the sort of person who falls in love often. She is, she says; she does it a lot.
“I can fall in love with anything,” she says. “I’m the type of person who can find beauty in, genuinely, anything you put in front of me. It doesn’t take me very long. I don’t fall for exteriors. I like mentalities—internal values and views and all the stuff that makes a person—and then if they’re beautiful on the outside, it just happens to help.”
Then again, “I think there’s a difference between falling in love and actually being there,” she reasons. “I’ve only been in love...”—she pauses for a split second, deciding whether to say it—“still am, actually, once.” Then come the giggles. “I’m blushing. Holy shit.”