The Evolution Of Angel Haze
"I spent a lot of time, in my earlier years of limelight, suppressing myself." The rapper, who tackles homophobia and rape culture in verse, is making forays into TV and photography, working on a new record — and refusing to be suppressed any longer.
On an evening last October, when the first hint of winter's chill was descending upon New York City, the rapper Angel Haze was getting dressed. In a few hours, Haze would be performing at the Keep The Child Alive's 11th Annual Black Ball at the Hammerstein Ballroom with Alicia Keys, Nas, and David Byrne. The evening's honoree, Italian fashion designer and Givenchy creative director Riccardo Tisci, was responsible, fittingly, for Haze's stylings.
Tisci's team pulled out outfit option after option — a few tapered suits, a leotard — and Haze slipped into one haute couture ensemble after another.
A styling session like this one is an exercise in glittering, commercialized femininity. Haze, having just pulled on a high-glamour bodysuit popularized by girl power performers like Madonna and Beyoncé, started worriedly wondering how to convey to the team that this world — this aesthetic of gender presentation, this way of living — had never been a part of the plan.
"You look so beautiful," one of the stylists commented, admiring the leotard. It was a compliment, meant kindly, but the descriptor came loaded with gendered implications: Women are beautiful. Beautiful, pretty, gorgeous, lovely — these were words that Haze had been fielding through countless fittings and photoshoots (standard occupational hazards for any musician who dabbles in modeling) with increasing discomfort and unease.
"To be honest with you," Haze told the team, in a moment of personal reckoning, "I'm not really a girl. I don't feel comfortable in these clothes. If anything, I feel more on the guy end of the spectrum."
Haze — who identifies as agender, and prefers the pronouns "they" and "them"— laughs a little when they relay this story to me over the phone, barely half a year later. "[Tisci] was like, 'It's fine, it's totally fine! Be who you are!' That was only a few months ago. And now I'm like, 'What the fuck? I've just been sitting here accepting it, you know? What have I been doing all these years?'"
While Haze has been openly identifying as pansexual since the early stages of their musical career, they have only recently become publicly vocal about their gender. Especially in situations that tend to be bloated with feminine energy, like the Black Ball styling session from which they managed to emerge unscathed (read: in a fancy T-shirt and leggings), Haze has struggled with conveying a simple fact all too easily misconstrued as a radical one: They do not identify as a woman. "When I hear people use the word 'her' around me I'm like, Who are they talking about, you know?" Haze says. "I just have felt this about myself for so long."
And yet it's starting to seem as though the world might be ready to begin welcoming this reality — one in which plenty of people, like Haze, identify someplace outside of the gender binary.
Haze struggles to express the momentousness of the Givenchy occasion, which they credit as the first time they've felt truly comfortable being styled by strangers. "I'm talking in circles around myself trying to explain it," they sigh, searching for the words. "It's so fucking...it's such a load off my shoulders. Now, I don't have to be like, 'Hey, don't put that dress near me', or, 'Hey, I'm not a her.'"
Haze's shifting relationship with their gender identity is, of course, just one element of a young career in a constant state of evolution. Now 23 years old, Haze first secured their place in hip-hop when they dropped their widely acclaimed free EP online, Reservation, in late July 2012. The title celebrates Haze's Native-American heritage, while also serving a more utilitarian function. "It's like when you go to a restaurant, you make a reservation," Haze said in an interview with Billboard that year. "[...] For me, it's like that with the rap industry. I made my reservation there [...] and now I'm finally arriving." Within a month of their ceremonial arrival, Haze had signed with Universal Republic Records (which has since shortened its name to Republic Records.)
Reservation, all swagger and menace ("I run New York," Haze asserts in the most popular track's refrain, over a disconcerting clap track demanding respect and recognition), preceded their 2013 debut album, Dirty Gold. But before Dirty Gold there was 30 Gold, a project for which Haze released a new freestyle track every day for 30 consecutive days — and asserted their status as one of the most talented rappers of their generation.
Haze has been borrowing backing tracks over which to lay their own verses since the earliest mixtapes of their career. With the sheer force of technical skill executed throughout 30 Gold — for which they borrowed beats by the likes of Kanye, Jay Z, and Drake — Haze wrested control over hip-hop's canon, tapping these cultural behemoths on the metaphorical collective shoulder and requesting that they kindly step aside, and make room.
Of all the 30 Gold freestyles, none resonate quite so resoundingly as Haze's reinterpretation of Macklemore's "Same Love." The original — a comparatively limp call to arms for marriage equality by a straight white rapper — is put to shame even as Haze is gearing up: "Hi Mom," they say, over the first bright jingles of piano keys, "I'm really scared right now but, I have to."
"At age 13 my mother 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."
This wasn't the first time Haze had infused their verses with personal trauma. For a subtly dropped SoundCloud track in 2012, Haze rapped over the beat of Eminem's "Cleaning Out My Closet" about having been sexually abused as a child. It's excruciatingly graphic, sparing no brutal detail, and closes with catharsis — "The makings of a legend are often hidden in trials."
Haze's childhood trials were many. In an interview with The Guardian, they refer to their upbringing in the Pentecostal Greater Apostolistic Faith as "a cult." Haze wasn't allowed to wear jewelry, date, or speak to anyone outside of the religious community. A Detroit native, they grew up on 7 Mile Road, a stone's throw from Eminem's own 8 Mile. Eminem would eventually become a huge influence, but Haze didn't hear their first secular music until they moved to New York at the age of 16. Five years later, Haze was borrowing Eminem's "Closet" to decry, in verse, a community which failed to stop the perpetuation of their sexual trauma: "And then it happened in a home where everyone fucking knew / and they ain't do shit but fucking blame it on youth / I'm sorry, Mom, but I really used to blame it on you."
Like so many of Haze's raps, the song's power to startle and astound is two-fold: there's the seemingly effortless hairpin-turns of verse, controlled yet raw-edged, and there's Haze's willingness to step out of the shadows into which abuse survivors are so often relegated, and transform their pain into a kind of glory.
In "Same Love," Haze uses personal heartache as a launching point with which to more broadly condemn a culture that breeds the self-harm of queer youth. ("I stand for the girl with the cuts up her sleeve and her heart in her hands.") The song closes, in a beautiful homage to the queer poetry which has so monumentally shaped Haze's work, with a few borrowed lines from Andrea Gibson's poem, "Andrew," about sexual fluidity: "No, I am not gay / No, I am not straight / And I'm sure as hell not bisexual, damn it / I am whoever I am when I am it / Loving whoever you are when the stars shine / And being whoever you'll be when the sun rises."
By using music to directly address their own mother — as well as to call upon other parents with anti-gay views to rethink their choices before it's "too late" — Haze positioned themselves as an ideal mediator for the first episode of MTV's brand new show Truce, nearly two years later.
Nev Schulman, the Catfish creator and host, had been considering contenders to co-host a new reality show centered on conflict resolution with him; a friend suggested Haze.
Before Truce, Nev and Haze co-hosted an episode of Catfish together. "Nev and I didn't know each other," Haze tells me, "but it was very organic. We just happened to get off well." It also just so happened that the mid-March premiere episode of Truce dealt with a mother, Chiquina, struggling to accept her daughter Briyonza's bisexuality. Schulman and Haze were tasked with repairing the pair's quickly crumbling relationship.
"It resonated with me very deeply," Haze says. "At some points I was very, very afraid. At others I was really nostalgic. God! But it doesn't matter how I feel. It's not about me."
And yet, of course, the episode was very much about Haze. Chiquina, who attributes her feelings of disgust toward homosexual sex to her religion, did not want her daughter dating another girl — and, in standing by this opinion, was willing to jeopardize their relationship. It was not until Haze told Chiquina that they haven't spoken with their own mother in over five years because of Haze's pansexuality that Chiquina began to consider listening to her daughter. Chiquina, remarkably — or, depending on how you look at it, not that remarkably at all — invited Briyonza and her girlfriend over to dinner the next night.
"I had a bias in the beginning," Haze admits. "I was totally team Briyonza. But a truce requires people to be unbiased. With a softening heart — understanding another person's perspective — anything can happen. You just have to let go."
"This is philanthropy," Haze adds. "This is going out into the world and being selfless and learning more about others. And learning to care again. And giving others a chance." In an interview with Out last year, Haze said the same of their primary career: "I feel like music, to an extent, is philanthropic. In all my ventures, I set out to reach people who are just like me."
People just like Haze — agender, nonbinary, pansexual, and otherwise queer people of color — flock to Haze's Tumblr and Twitter in droves. An avid social media user, Haze laughs when asked how performing onstage or onscreen relates to their performance online.
"OK. Twitter—" they groan. "It's stupid we're talking about it—"
"It's a real thing!" I protest.
"It's a real fucking thing," they agree. "OK, Twitter — I can say what I'm thinking. It poses a challenge to be witty, because of how stupid I am."
(Haze, during our conversation, was casually self-deprecating, a blunt reversal of the bravado that floats many of their verses.)
"On Tumblr," they continue, "I'm just like whatever. Whether it's sexuality, agenderness, I don't know, anything. I feel like I say everything. People know what to expect but they also don't, because they don't think I'm actually gonna say it all in person. When Catfish and Truce were on, so many tweets came in being like, 'Holy shit, I can't believe you're actually saying all this shit right now, you're so real.' Like, you have to look around and realize everyone is looking at you."
Everyone is looking, in many cases, because Haze actively draws their virtual gaze. Particularly on Twitter, Haze is consistently provocative, and at times explosively confrontational — whether they're live-tweeting homophobia, feuding with fellow rappers, or calling out reporters for misogynistic journalism. At the end of 2013, Haze opened fire on their label for delaying the release of Dirty Gold; in a series of tweets, they leaked the album themselves.
Haze also uses their various social media platforms to project an intimate, Californian sun-drenched depiction of their relationship with 19-year-old girlfriend Ireland Baldwin. Last year, Haze infamously told off the media for various outlets' infuriating tendencies to paint female-bodied couples as "best friends" or "gal pals." "We fuck," Haze told The Independent with extraordinary candor. "An interracial gay couple, I mean that's just weird for America right now. We fuck, and friends don't fuck."
In February, they inadvertently caused queer panic to reverberate across the Internet when they tweeted, "lol at my life. break up with someone immediately after u put out a love song about them. loool gonna go cry forever." Haze was referring to "CANDLXS," a love song they wrote for Ireland backed by — of all things — a flute instrumental. "Forever, baby, we can make it," they croon. By the next day, Haze had deleted the breakup tweet, and was back to Instagramming Ireland snuggled in bed with them. All had, it appeared, returned to normal.
When asked about the difficulties of maintaining a relationship while keeping such an absurdly busy schedule, Haze is cool and flippant. "She gets the gist of it," they tell me. "[Ireland] knows she's dating an artist. She'll just sit there at my studio sessions with her phone."
Haze's lengthy studio sessions, at this point, are a stubborn reality. "I'm the only artist stupid enough to work on a mixtape and album at once," they say. "Well, besides Drake. So we're both stupid. It's exhausting, mentally and emotionally. I'm basically killing myself — but it's fun."
Haze cuts everything from their home in Los Angeles, working with friends who live in the neighborhood. For Truce, Haze will be booked on shoots for days at a time. Their working life is a fine balance of creative priorities: "I don't do what I don't feel like doing anymore."
In what little exists of their spare time, they are working on a body image project, to be titled "The Naked Eye." Haze, along with their father, the photographer Dorian Caster, plan to photograph people with body dysmorphia, spanning the gamut from gender identity to eating disorders. "We'll shoot them naked," Haze tells me. The purpose of the project — Haze envisions a book, filmed interviews, and an exhibition, for starters — is geared toward sparking conversation about the confines of conventional beauty. "It should be really cool," they say. "I feel like the media constantly [focuses on] skinny size-zero models." As an antidote to mainstream beauty narratives, "The Naked Eye" endeavors to capture a much wider swath of body diversity. "I have an endless fascination with inclusiveness," Haze says.
They intend to include those who, like them, step outside the boundaries of normative acceptability. It will be a formalized version of the advice Haze offers daily to queer and nonbinary people struggling to accept themselves — messages of solidarity and strength conveyed in a steady stream through Twitter, Tumblr, Truce, and, most strikingly, their music. Haze performs for those who have been pushed to the margins, but with music that is anything but defeatist. In rapping about humanity's oppressive ugliness — abuse, neglect, intolerance — Haze fashions adversity as an impetus of triumph.
"People need representation," Haze stresses. "It means a lot to have any sort of representation."
All the more impactful, then, that Haze has been increasingly more vocal about their gender.
"I feel like my agenderness and my gender identity have evolved," they say. "I spent a lot of time, in my earlier years of limelight, suppressing myself." That age of suppression is coming to an end. They add that in their language — Haze is Creole, Cherokee, and Blackfoot Indian, and a self-taught speaker of Tsalagi — their identity means two-spirited. "It's normal that people can feel like they're two things trapped in one body." They will continue, through their various forums of advocacy, to further this message of normality. No big deal, nothing to see here — nothing, that is, besides a really, really good rapper.
Though Haze's gender identity has evolved with the passing years, and their stint on Truce prompts their week-to-week evolution in the television personality game, there is one thing that seems, always, to come easy.
"Performing is natural," they tell me. And I'm inclined to believe them, if only because their force of presence behind the mic — their vitality, their singular style, their certain brand of fearlessness — always makes it seem so.
Onstage, Haze says, "everyone knows what I'm about. What I'm going to do."