Talking to Angel Haze
Written By: James C. McKinley Jr.
Originally Posted October 24 2012
Troubled childhoods often produce artists, although more often than not the source of the pain driving a young musician remains shrouded, only surfacing years later in memoirs or biographies. But Angel Haze, apromising 21-year-old vocalist and rapperresiding in Brooklyn, has decided to speak plainly about some of the demons behind her art.
On “Cleanin’ Out My Closet,” Angel Haze raps (over an Eminem beat of the same name) about the sexual abuse she says she suffered for several years starting when she was 7, and the mental turmoil that followed: suicidal thoughts, anger, self-hatred and an eating disorder. The track will appear on a mixtape she plans to release on Thursday. She also talks about her bisexuality and how she thinks it is linked to the abuse.
These would be difficult topics for an established artist to take on, but Angel Haze, whose real name is Raykeea Wilson, is just starting a career. Last summer, she signed a contract with Universal Republic Records just three weeks after her first set of songs, “Reservation,” was released for free on the Internet and drew critical praise. Hoping to win fans and build expectations for her major-label debut next spring, Ms. Wilson, a Detroit native, did two shows last week during the CMJ Music Marathon in New York, including Mass Appeal’s showcase at the Gramercy Theater.
She spoke to The New York Times recently about her decision to release a song about being raped as child and about why she decided to abandon a chance to study neurobiology at Penn State for a career in music. These are edited excerpts.
Whom do you admire in the world of hip-hop music?
Not many people, honestly. I can’t really even name a person I like in hip-hop music. I don’t know, I feel like as time has gone on, hip-hop has become really redundant and repetitive. There is no point in listening to anything, because it all sounds the same and everyone is saying the same things. For me, the people I have admired are from the late 1990s and early 2000s. People like Missy Elliott, Lauryn Hill and Queen Latifah.
Tell us about the “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” single on the mixtape, in which you describe how you were repeatedly sexually abused as a child.
This is one of the most honest songs I have ever done in my entire life, and I was extremely nervous to put it out because of that. I’m anxious, because I don’t know what the response is going to be. I don’t know how crazy it’s going to sound. I literally bared my soul there. So it’s a giant step for me, and hopefully it helps a lot of people.
What do you hope to accomplish with this song?
My ultimate goal was to let go of all of it, the things that kind of haunt me in a way. I know it’s important in music to be honest with who you are, because this world is so full of lost kids who go through the same thing I went through, whose end result is ultimately suicide or drugs. And they don’t know they are strong enough to get through it. They don’t have an example. Too many people are afraid to say, “This happened to me and look what I did with it.”
When did you start rapping and writing songs?
I started when I was about 17, about four years ago. This was when I was in Virginia. I’ve moved around a lot, and I’ve lived in several different places throughout my life. I moved away from Detroit when I was 10, and I’ve been hopping around ever since.
Where did you go to school?
I bounced back and forth between being home-schooled and going to public schools and private schools. I actually ended up graduating home-schooled.
Your mother taught you?
No, I did it myself. I was in a private online institute where they school you. You had to teach yourself everything, basically.
Did you go to college?
I was going to start at Penn State, but I decided to do music instead of that. I was going to go to school to become a neurological surgeon.
What made you change your mind?
I had been studying neurology for about a year before that, before deciding I wanted to major in medicine, or rather biology. It was a fascination with me at first, learning the brain and how it works. Basically I wanted to learn how to control myself. I ended up getting really bored with it. I decided I would always do something I couldn’t grow bored with. Music was such a relief for me, a coping mechanism. I figured I would so something I would never stop loving.
Were there artists who were important to you when you made that decision?
Jason Mraz. Train — I love Train. The New Radicals. Paramore. Bob Dylan. Their artistic expression and emotion via their work helped me a lot with my own.
And yet you decided to write raps instead of writing in a pop, folk or rock style?
I’m shaping myself up for the crossover. I really am. I am taking vocal lessons and guitar lessons.
So you want to do songs in other genres?
That’s the goal. I want to be an artist you cannot categorize at all. You can’t put a box around me. You can’t put anything around me.