05.11.2012, Words by Steph Kretowicz

Comment: How Angel Haze is re-defining the modern popstar

With its brave revelations and smashing of taboos, Angel Haze's mixtape Classick is at the centre of a seismic shift in the formation of identity in hip hop, and music in general.

It starts with Bitch Bad. Over the grinding stride of a cautious beat drops the poised though frank assertion, “bitch bad, woman good, lady better, they misunderstood”, to open her latest mixtape ‘Classick’. It’s as though, after all the upstart braggadocio and new kid gibes of New York and Supreme, Angel Haze (aka Raee’n Wahya) has proven whatever it is she felt she needed to in ‘Reservation’, and now she can step in line and let it happen. But then Gossip Folks rolls around. Audaciously aligning an inimitable flow with the legacy of Missy Elliot, a familiar ferocity heaves up and slips coolly back into the classic groove of Love of My Life. Then there’s Eminem’s Cleaning Out My Closet, a passing remark that “parental discussion is advised”, and it’s on:

“When I was ten, I believed I could fly
I would flap my fuckin’ arms and I would meet with the sky
And in my mind I’d envision that I was speaking with God
And then I’d chop his fuckin’ fist off and beat him with mine.”

The effect is jarring. From the wistful daydreams of childhood innocence to the naked rage at long-term sexual abuse endured and vividly recounted, that track opens as some kind of perverse inversion of R. Kelly’s exalting Space Jam theme song, I Believe I Can Fly. I’ve never heard a woman, or anyone, rhyme like this before. As Angel Haze spits “Disgusting right? Now let that feeling ring through your guts”, she becomes a living, breathing reminder of what it means to close your eyes to injustice by violently forcing them back open.

Angel Haze – Cleaning Out My Closet

Angel Haze’s rise as part of an apparent new breed of pop “superwoman” isn’t an idea lost on anybody. Springing up along with the likes of M.I.A., Azealia Banks and a now disappointingly conformist Nicki Minaj, it should be noted that it’s a development not specific to gender conventions. Mykki Blanco, Le1f and Zebra Katz, are sending identity politics into a head spin with their refusal to be defined by, or shy away from, their sexuality. Azealia Banks alludes to seducing another man’s girlfriend in 212 (with the line “your bitch might lick it”), and Le1f is candid in the video for Wut, saying “This yuppie’s talking blah blah, he wants to Binks my Jar Jar” while perched on top of an oiled-up, half-naked dude. Angel Haze, meanwhile, acknowledges lesbian rumours in Jungle Fever (“This one guy thought I was a lesbian/ Lesbatron thespian”), while defining herself as “pansexual” when pushed to in press.

In fact, if you wanted to place Angel Haze on the spectrum of sexual politics, then the line “I was extremely scared of men so I started liking girls” in Cleaning Out My Closet, drawing a direct link between her childhood trauma and resulting sexual disposition, would be a problematic one for some. Particularly when you consider the furore over Cynthia Nixon’s comments on being “gay by choice” and her subsequent retraction. That’s where you realise just how radical, naïve even, a track like Cleaning Out My Closet really is. Because Angel Haze, in her bold honesty, isn’t so interested in fitting any political agenda but in telling the truth, the way that she sees it.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Raee’n Wahya is only 21 years old. Her exposure to pop music extends only as far as four years ago, as a staunchly religious upbringing in the Greater Apostolic Faith meant she wasn’t free to engage with it until she was 17. You can hear her greenness in the choice of tracks she works over: take Aaliyah’s Hot Like Fire in ‘Reservation’, or the clumsy rendition of Nicki Minaj’s Roman’s Revenge on the 2011 mixtape ‘King’. It sounds like a young and talented novice testing her flow over entry-level, mainstream icons and, intentionally or not, placing herself within a continuum of pop. From “Godfather of rap” Gil Scott-Heron’s New York is Killing Me, to Jay Z’s Song Cry, the spitfire artist is filling a gap of women in hardcore hip hop lost somewhere between the wildly carnal energy of Foxy Brown and the bizarre Barbie contortionism of Nicki Minaj.

Angel Haze – Roman’s Revenge

Cat Harris-White – of the gay, black and female Seattle duo THEESatisfaction – once told me that hip hop, in the simplest terms, “roots from the black struggle.” That struggle now extends across different minorities – from Eminem’s fatherless, disadvantaged childhood to Das Racist’s shared intercultural heritage. It’s an adversity M.I.A. overcame with the cluttered, “genre-hopping” oeuvre. And while her outspoken bent towards radical politics isn’t beyond criticism, as a UK-born ethnic Tamil from Sri Lanka who cracked the US market with two Grammy Award nominations and an appearance at the Superbowl, she’s certainly set a standard for similar artists to follow.

Progress, after all, has never come from suiting the status quo. It comes from invention, and invention is not only the inspired product of an unfulfilled demand, but often arrived at by accident. When you think about it, Angel Haze and M.I.A. aren’t meant to be pop stars; M.I.A. with her demented sound and gauche provocations, Angel Haze with her androgynous style and defiant disregard for boundaries. It was something an unnamed employee of major label Atlantic must have identified when turning the latter rapper down the first time around, only to open the door for Universal Music Group. They’d already recognised the star potential of Azealia Banks despite the censorship nightmare of tracks like 212 and the very fact that a radio presenter couldn’t even say the title of her brilliant Fuck Up the Fun on air without a bleep. But in spite of that, Azealia Banks is set to take on Nicki Minaj for hip hop pop stardom, her confrontational counterpart and soon-to-be collaborator no doubt following closely behind.

Azealia Banks – Fuck Up The Fun

That’s because the industry is changing. Musicians are neither beholden to the outmoded formats of radio airplay and TV time slots to make an impact, nor restricted by the sexist, heteronormative conventions they propagate. People now have the freedom to find their artists through a still largely unrestricted online medium that is both the cause and the product of the panethnic, pansexual consciousness of contemporary youth culture. It’s a world where vogue artists Mike Q and Zebra Katz don’t need the coat tails of Madonna to ride to the pop surface like Willi Ninja before them, and Dizzee Rascal’s Jezebel needn’t speak for the unjust sexual exploitation of women. Angel Haze once said, in defence of Azealia Banks, “Nobody wants to hear you complain, especially when you’re a girl.” Thankfully, there are tracks like Cleaning Out My Closet that are now making them listen.

This article was edited on 08/04/12 to clarify M.I.A.‘s Tamil ethnicity.

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