“Some of you might not know who I am,” admitted Angel Haze on Friday night, as she performed in the Pandora Porch parking lot at SXSW. “But this is a night of f–ing dreams for me.”
Just a few years ago, it would’ve been hard to imagine Haze here. Born in Michigan, the 21-year-old rapper grew up in the Greater Apostolic Faith, which she once compared to living in a cult. Struggling within the church, she found the only way to cure her depression was to write.
“I wrote a freaking suicide letter, and it was kind of amazing to me,” she recently told the Fader. “I had to mature much earlier than everyone else.” When Haze was 16, a pastor threatened her mother, and they broke from the church. The next years were rough. She dropped out of school. She was homeless for a while.
But then Haze started making mixtapes and posting them online, and after a handful of her homegrown tracks earned critical praise, she signed with Universal Republic. Then last fall, a breakthrough moment arrived: Haze recast Eminem’s “Cleaning Out My Closet,” reworking it as a stunningly personal tale of lifelong sexual abuse that started when she was raped at age 10.
The lyrics were harrowing: “It happened in a home where every f—ng one knew/And they ain’t do sh– but f–ing blame it on youth/I’m sorry mom but I really used to blame it on you/But even you by then/wouldn’t know what to do.” The track caught fire online, with music blogs praising Haze’s bravery. Suddenly, people were listening.
Haze didn’t play that song on Friday night. But she still kept things personal. After kicking things off with her swaggering single “Werkin’ Girls,” she had a confession to make: “I just broke up with my boyfriend, and I’m a little sad about it,” she admitted. “But I wrote you this song!” She launched into “Hell Could Freeze,” spitting the lyrics so fast, it was hard to keep up: “I wrote this to tell you how much I’m missing you / And how, ironically, I’m feeling crazy as an institute… / Now that the madness over and the fog’s been cleared and I’m sadly sober / I could see the break fails and the crash before us.” Dressed in brightly-colored pants and a bra top, Haze’s stomach was bare, and she was rapping so hard you could see her stomach muscles clenching.
For a while, she brought it back to her early years. “I’d come from being homeless,” she said, “and the only thing that kept me going was a song by Ellie Goulding called ‘Starry Eyed.’” Her DJ started up that Goulding song, looping it for Haze’s track of the same name, which finds the rapper making peace with her mom: “I wrote a poem to my mother / I told her that I really loved her / and everything I am / is still intact just because of her.” The song kept building and building to its chorus, a mantra that Haze repeated to get herself through her worst times: “You never stop f—in’ reachin’ / You never stop f—in’ reachin’ / You never stop f—in’ dreamin’.”
There was a brand new brag track (“I’m now the queen b— / Give me my crown / Everybody let me see your hands right now!”), but the night really belonged to the finale, “New York,” a booming ode to the city that’s now her hometown. Haze started on stage, calling out “I run New York!” but she quickly worked her way down into the Pandora parking lot, spitting the lyrics straight into the faces of the people in the crowd.
She was skinny and small, but she was tough. “I’m gonna beat you ‘til I die,” she bragged, “Ask why? / Because I’m better than you’ll ever be / That’s why my s–t make your s–t seem lighter than Heavy D.”
If this crowd didn’t know who Haze was before, they did now.
SXSW: Yeah Yeah Yeahs premiere new songs, new look — VIDEO
SXSW: British buzz band Palma Violets bring fake IDs, real ruckus on their first trip to Texas
SXSW: Austra chills out, Icona Pop turns it up