INTERVIEW

The Detroit rapper who grew up in a cult, experienced sexual abuse, became estranged from her family and leaked her own major label debut to honour a promise to her devoted fans

angelhaze

It’s a dark and blustery February evening as I take shelter under the flimsy covering of Shoreditch’s Boxpark, a pre-fab shopping village made from welded shipping containers. A venue intended for East London’s more balmy evenings, I find the raindrop-studded clear plastic of its walls nevertheless packed with about a hundred fans huddled in quiet reverence at the sight and sound of Raykeea Angel Wilson, known to them, simply, as Angel Haze. She’s holding a question and answer session for her London support base who hang, spellbound, on her every word. As hands shoot in the air and anxious, giggling teenagers get the chance to quiz their hero, the syllabus can be summed up thus: be yourself and work hard. All else, Angel Haze preaches, will follow.

After all, just look at her. Not yet 23, a large chunk of the hype around her work has concentrated on the glaring biographical details that have informed it, rather than the music itself. That’s not to say, however, that the media have dwelled on her background for any longer than necessary, or any more than the artist herself has dictated. Angel Haze’s music is so deeply rooted in a story that includes childhood years spent in the oppressive, cult-like surroundings of Pentecostal Greater Apostolic Faith and several incidents of rape.

Since 2012’s ‘Cleaning Out My Closet’ burst on to the scene by foregrounding the realities of sexual abuse, it’s been difficult to separate Angel Haze’s art from her upbringing, and to attempt to do so would be missing the point. Her cover of Macklemore’s ‘Same Love’ bravely hinted at her sexuality, something that caused conflict between herself and her family. Again, context is always key and the goal is always to empower.

It’s her sheer survival that makes Haze such a role model for this group and thousands of others around the world. It also means that the fervour of the queue that seems to form instantly, post-Q&A, restricts my time with their idol to less than 20 minutes. Though my mind admittedly wanders to the ever-distant prospect of a hot dinner, I find myself amazed at how remarkably patient she stays as she spends the guts of an hour perfecting the autograph of the Instagram age, the selfie. Luckily for me, she speaks at a rate of eloquent knots as we tick off life, love, music and endurance in a whizz of words. She stares at me, eyes wide, as I deliver my list of questions and she seems to take each one as the starting gun of a hundred-metre sprint.

When we get into Boxpark’s security office, the makeshift pressroom where we finally get a chance to chat, it’s strewn with bags. I ask if she’s indulged in a spot of retail therapy during her time in the UK. “No, my fans brought me it.” What, all of it? There are about 6 bags of clothes and at least two pairs of shoes. She laughs. “Yeah.” It’s obvious, however, that the relationship between artist and fans runs a little deeper than trinkets. “To me music is philanthropy. If I can get out into the world and spread a message of positivity, self-acceptance, pain becoming promise, I’ll be happy. I want to be a voice for the voiceless, for the people who have been too afraid to say or don’t know how to say or just won’t say.”

She doesn’t hold back in her assessment of where this leaves her on the cultural landscape. While it means she cuts an incongruous figure (“It makes me a very controversial artist, it makes me sometimes a jagged pill that’s too hard to swallow.”), it also, she says, sets her apart in a more positive way. “It makes me painfully real and it makes kids like them relate to me every single day because they’re going through shit actively and no one’s saying anything about it. Everybody needs a push. My music isn’t always pain, pain, pain. It’s pain, progress and then promise. You go through it, you grow from it and then you walk into something that’s better than you came out of. I think that’s very important.”

This determination to take negativity and channel it into something not only beautiful but also tangibly useful is at the heart of her debut LP, ‘Dirty Gold’, and when I ask her about its title it’s as if she’s been practising her response all day. “It’s sort of how I view people as a whole. I think that everybody has a past. Everybody has dirt they need to get through to get to the point where they are priceless, worth something. All of their pain is worth something in the end. So I chose to name it that genuinely because of that reason.”

With the name of the album agreed upon, however, there was still one glaring detail left to be ironed out. The album’s release date. With her label pushing it back to early 2014, Angel’s promise to her fans to put the album out before the end of the year was looking as though it would be left unfulfilled. On 18th December she took to Twitter to announce that she was taking things into her own hands. Her pithy sub-140 character release note read: “So sorry to Island/Republic Records, but fuck you.”

She admits that it all became a bit much after she clicked send. “I think that I was having a rush of all different types of emotions. Nervousness, excitement and then it just kind of felt like nausea. It was cool because I was getting so many tweets from people going, ‘You’re fucking going to get dropped from your fucking label. They’re going to sue you and your whole life is going to be over.’” Fortunately, they chose not to turn on one of their brightest stars. “I go into my label and they’re like, ‘We understand why you did what you did.’ They were super cool with it. Then the album came out. The only thing they kept stressing was, basically, no new artist basically puts out an album in the last quarter of the year. It just doesn’t happen. I was like, ‘I want to do it,’ and we did it.”

Coming from a young woman who once posted a pseudo self-help video on her Tumblr titled ‘How To Give No Fucks’, ‘Dirty Gold’ functions as a manual on how to get through in the face of negative forces. Its unrelenting conviction is striking as its lines – often shocking, always defiant – are set to the massive production of Markus Dravs. Its huge, reverbed beats and nightclub synths imbue it with the feeling that its creator is taking long, confident strides out of a somewhat darker place. “I want ‘Battle Cry’ to go big,” she says. “I mean, like, Billboard top 100. I want it everywhere. I’m working my ass off, dude. I haven’t seen my bed in like a month and a half. I believe in my music and I believe in that song particularly because it touches people in ways I didn’t expect.” A hip-hop ballad, it’s clearly aimed at occupying the airwaves while drawing upon a more leftfield palette. That, she says, was the aim. “I wanted to make something that was genuinely genre-defying. I wanted to make an album meshed of all the sounds that I’ve grown to love. I wanted to construct an album that people could dance to, that people who love lyrics can listen to and that people who want the duality of both of them can have.”

As well as providing a platform from which to reach out to others, Angel’s art has also allowed her to focus on herself and exorcising some of her own demons. She tells me: “Music is a very cathartic thing. You find means to release and I’ve always found means to release in writing. And putting it to music was a totally different thing.” It allows her to put things into a box and move on. “At any point I can completely revive those feelings. I can listen to ‘Cleaning Out My Closet’ and go through all of those feelings but I did it and I threw it away. I don’t listen to that song. It’s not on my iPod, it’s not anywhere in my house.” She opens her eyes wide as though to signal that she isn’t joking. “Just don’t fucking play it near me. Because you let go, and that’s the best thing about music. I let go of it, but my pain and my heartache and all that other stuff became someone else’s promise, someone else’s reason to be like, ‘Holy shit, I’m not the only person in the world going through this. If she made it out I totally can ‘cause she’s fucked up.’”

Starting life as an amateur poet-cum-blogger, the written word was the original conduit through which Haze let her feelings flow from within towards a safer place outside of her. “Tumblr blogs about my feelings like a girl only would do.” She giggles coquettishly, as if to underline her status as a young female. “That’s pretty much it. I’ve written two books to date but I keep them private because that’s the thing that I’m most shy about. I’ve got a private Tumblr blog that I sneak away and write too. It’s always a part of them that I’ll have to keep. It lets me know where I am in my head.”

As someone who thinks things through to the minutiae of their detail, it also allows her to make sense of what’s happening to her on a daily basis. “I go through life so much daily where I’m doing X, Y, Z all the time and I’ve no idea how to feel until I sit down, and then by the time I sit down I’m asleep. I carry my journal everywhere and I’m scribbling and writing and ignoring everyone around me. It makes me feel like I’m still real, basically.”

An undoubted feature of ‘Dirty Gold’ is its bluster, yet much of its most rewarding moments come when Haze lets her guard down and engages on a more gentle level. The album is also much more layered in its themes than it has been given credit for since its official release on the last day of 2013. On first listen, a track like ‘Deep Sea Diver’ sounds characteristically aggressive, but delve deeper and it’s a tender paean on lost love and longing. “I fell for you hard, babe.” Haze has admitted that the concept of love has always fascinated her and when I bring it up she gets bashful. She bows her head and fidgets with her fingernails in mock awkwardness but it doesn’t last long before she’s back doing what she does best, speaking from the heart with a machine gun staccato of words. “I’ve always said that I think I’m going to die alone, still wanting this unachievable, unattainable, completely inexplicable and unimaginable love that I love in my head. It’s really hard to translate that to someone who loves in reality. They rely on actions and they rely on everything to think that love is real, and inside of me.” Mere seconds after clamming up, her voice rises to a booming declaration. “I’m just bursting with it, you know? It’s difficult and I don’t have successful relationships at all ‘cause feelings – oh my God, people and their feelings! But yeah, I’m still obsessed with it.”

This idealised view of love appears to stem from her inauspicious upbringing, which was at times painfully lonely, particularly the years within the church, which she describes as a cult. She is remarkably open about its effect upon her. “I don’t have my family actively in my life. I’ve never really known my family because I don’t know them. I grew up with just my mother and my brother.” Her language is disarmingly blunt. “Now that I don’t have them the amount of loneliness I feel is so immense. I feel like everything else I’ve ever felt in my life pales in comparison to this. It’s one of those things that has influenced me so much. I have active issues with being alone, with feeling alone. I had to bring my best friend on tour with me because I cannot for a single second feel like I’m the only one here.” She stops and becomes more circumspect. “But then I realise I have fans, I have kids who are just like me, who are going through exactly what I’m going through, except for they live at home with their families and their families ignore them on purpose.”

Her story is humbling and I find myself fumbling for a response that doesn’t undercut the gravity of her words. The best I can do is to ask if she feels like her situation is, at least, improving. “Yeah, totally.” She shrugs her shoulders as if to say ‘of course’. “Because I’m tired of her being here right now. It’s like babysitting. I swear to God.” She collapses in raptures of cackles before switching to serious. “I had to learn how to be alone and not feel alone. I don’t have a problem with being alone, I have a problem with feeling lonely. I’ve just learned over time that you can’t choose your family but you can choose your friends and your friends basically are your family. And I’ve got the best friends in the fucking world. All around the world, so I can go anywhere and not feel alone.”

Having tossed an album into the public domain, she has a couple of ambitions yet to achieve in 2014. “Finding a house finally, finding somewhere that feels remotely like home so I’m not like a fucking hobo, travelling the world.” After that she wants to, “move to Montana and live in the forest and write books,” though luckily that doesn’t mean we won’t get to hear album number two (“Oh yeah, I’ve already started it.”) With that, the Boxpark security guard tells us we’ve already overstayed our welcome. With fans banging on the window and chanting her name, it looks like 2014 might just be the year when Angel Haze fulfils everything. She collects her bags of gifts and goes, once more, to meet her delirious public.

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