Sexuality and survival – Joanna Whitehead swoons over Angel Haze
Content note: ‘Cleaning Out my Closet’ (linked to in the first mention of the song) contains a descriptive account of childhood sexual abuse and its impact.
Angel Haze means it. Her most recent album Dirty Gold, which she leaked online in December 2013, much to the consternation of her record label, is a powerful, challenging and emotional melting-pot incorporating hip hop, commercial pop and dance music. The songs featured veer from generic, typical top 40 chart synth-pop to more heartfelt, inspirational and beautiful tracks. I’m a big fan of ‘Deep Sea Diver‘, which definitely falls into the latter category.
Born in Michigan, US, Haze was raised in the Greater Apostolic Faith, which she has described as a cult. In an interview with Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour in February, Haze speaks of having lived in a very restricted environment, where she was not allowed to communicate with people outside of the church, wear trousers or make-up or listen to secular music. Her father shot himself in the stomach, trying to pistol-whip someone in a fight, and died whilst her mother was pregnant with Haze. Haze’s mother met the ‘prophet’ of the church at what Haze describes as “a very vulnerable time in her [mother’s] life”. Haze has spoken frankly about the sexual abuse she endured as a child, reworking Eminem’s song ‘Cleaning Out My Closet‘ into an unflinching and harrowing testimony she recorded once and has never listened to since.
Talking to Jane Garvey about her experience of abuse during the Radio 4 interview, Haze states:
It did ruin my life, it did mess up how I view sex and, like, women and love and all that…
She also describes the amazing response she had in relation to this track, receiving more letters from men about their experience of abuse and acknowledging the stigma that exists for male victims.
Haze rejects labels of race, gender and sexuality, describing herself as “pansexual”. In an interview with the Guardian in 2012, she says:
Love is boundary-less. If you can make me feel, if you can make me laugh – and that’s hard – then I can be with you. I don’t care if you have a vagina or if you’re a hermaphrodite or whatever
After her fans “begged her to do it”, Haze went on to cover Macklemore’s ‘Same Love’ track, quoting queer poet Andrea Gibson:
No, I’m not gay
No, I’m not straight
And, I sure as hell am not bisexual dammit
I am whoever I am when I am it
Speaking to Woman’s Hour, Haze simply asserts, “For me, sexuality is fluid.”
Haze’s flow is fast and furious but this often clashes with the Pop Idol-esque piano, auto-tune and commercial conventions that populate Dirty Gold. The album’s producer, Markus Dravs, has won a Grammy for his work with Mumford and Sons and has also produced for Coldplay and so he seems an unlikely candidate for an artist of Haze’s vibe. ‘New York‘, which is the final track on Dirty Gold, is produced by The 83rd – and you can hear the difference: darker, dirtier and much, much better.
‘White Lilies/White Lies’ reflects Haze’s conflicted feelings toward a stripper, which subverts the often demeaning depictions that proliferate within hip hop, while Haze’s cool promise to “be April’s Fool/for you” in the lush ‘April’s Fool’ makes me feel a bit giddy…
The opening track on the album, ‘Sing About Me’, leaves me cold, however. It’s hard to identify it as belonging to the same body of work that gives us ‘Deep Sea Diver’. The interludes between songs can be excruciatingly earnest, too, even though I’m convinced by the sincerity of her sentiments:
I don’t feel like I went through what I went through just to keep it to myself. I have to tell people about it, I have to be honest, because at the end of the day someone out there needs it. It’s the end-all-be-all for someone (Woman’s Hour)
Meanwhile, ‘Angels and Airwaves’ begins with “If you’re contemplating suicide, this is for you.” Haze stated she was inspired to do something for kids struggling and in this sense, she’s succeeded. Cynicism may be fashionable, but I suspect – and hope – this resonates with many listeners, especially younger fans – Haze herself is just 22 years old.
Haze has clearly experienced immense darkness and tragedy in her young life and ‘Black Synagogue’ chronicles her complex feelings about God and religion. On this track, Haze appears to struggle to reconcile a God of love, with the potential to offer strength and meaning, with a religion that can also oppress, judge and hate.
Woman’s Hour‘s Jane Garvey notes the honesty within Haze’s music. Haze answers: “I feel like if the music is meant to touch you, you will get it and, if not, it’s not for you”. I actually cried the first time I heard this album.
I’ll leave you with this thought from Haze (shared during the Radio 4 interview above):
You should be able to have what you want in the world. I don’t know if that’s maybe a fairy-tale outlook to have in life but, like, if I had a daughter, I would never, ever want them to feel like they could not grow up to be what they wanted to be – a doctor, a firefighter – anything – you could be whatever you want and that just irritates me so much that we don’t have people saying that to girls in the world…
Haze is a survivor. For reaching out, speaking out, and trying to do something positive, for turning it around, striving, persevering – hell, for ‘Deep Sea Diver’ alone – Angel, I salute you.
Angel Haze plays Glastonbury 2014. You can listen to Dirty Gold on Spotify.
The image is a shot of Angel Haze from the waist up. She wears a black, cropped top, with a chain running round from her neck and down to her midriff. Haze is singing into a microphone; her second hand is raised to her left brow, as if looking into the distance. Image by Phillip Nguyen shared under a Creative Commons Licence.