“This might get a little personal/or a lot actually,” opens Angel Haze on “Cleaning Out My Closet,” her latest track. She forgets to mention that this is also a song that will punch you in the gut and leave you gasping; it’s an intimate, raw, searing, and graphic account of childhood sexual abuse that doesn’t mask anything behind pretty words, from talking about “imagine being 17 cum in your underwear” to “I know it’s nasty but sometimes I’d even bleed from my butt.”
It’s a song hot with anger and introspection that lays bare not just her abuse, which started as a toddler, but also its aftermath. And it’s a very difficult listen.
Angel Haze set her track to the beat of Eminem’s “Cleanin’ Out My Closet,” which came out 10 years ago, but hers blows his out of the water. He talks about skeletons; she talks about men using her as a “buffet for two.” He talks about his daddy problems, she talks about her scars and attempts to hide herself from the world. He says, “I’m sorry mama/I never meant to hurt you/I never meant to make you cry” -- she says, “I’m sorry mom/But I really used to blame it on you/But even you, by then, wouldn’t know what to do.”
Childhood sexual abuse is an ugly thing, and what Angel Haze maps out in this song is repeated and inescapable violence that occurred for years at the hands of multiple people. She takes you deep into the dark and doesn’t let up, talking about her fear and confusion as a child, knowing that people would think she was lying if she tried to tell, being terrified of her abusers. Describing the aftermath, she talks about behaviors common to people who’ve endured childhood sexual assault: self-harm, anorexia, and other measures to shrink away from the world.
This is also a song that is triumphant and defiant. Speaking about childhood sexual assault is incredibly frightening and traumatic, let alone releasing it in a format that will be heard by thousands, or even millions, of people. It’s a huge gesture in the face of her abusers, who preyed on her in a conspiracy of silence and fear, secure in the knowledge that a confused little girl wouldn’t report them, and wouldn’t even begin to know how to describe what was happening to her.
Angel Haze has found words and she’s using them like weapons, flinging them not just at her abusers but at the world around her. She points out that people obviously knew something was wrong and took no action, calling people to account for failing to act on the abuse of children in their lives. And her words resonate with me, and a lot of sexual assault survivors, as she speaks the things we dare not say out loud, not even in darkness and privacy.
The rage, the hate, the confusion, the feeling of rawness at every edge of your being, right alongside the ugly facts of sexual assault; the bleeding, the scars, the fear of intimacy. The words of survivors are so important because they don’t just confront society with the reality of our experiences: they give other survivors the courage to speak about their past. They create common ground and let people know that they are not alone. Someone like them is out there, and that person is surviving.
Survivors have long used art as a medium for self-expression to work through their experiences and present them to the larger community. Angel Haze performs in the context of a particular cultural and social community as a Black artist talking about the assaults she endured in her childhood, participating in a larger ongoing conversation among Black women about ending the silence when it comes to sexual abuse. There is a complex and important social and cultural history here that makes this song especially critical and notable.
Black women have historically been prime targets for sexual abuse, and that includes children. It wasn’t that long ago that rape wasn’t even considered a crime when the victim was Black, and this has direct roots in the history of slavery in the United States, where Black people were treated as property and nothing more. In a legal system where even today, Black victims are less likely to be respected and taken seriously, members of the community may struggle with reporting and debate whether it has any value, especially with internal pressures to stay silent in the interest of the greater good: “Black women historically have had to carry the burden of the community. You don't necessarily want to report because you don't want the community viewed negatively.”
Black women experience violence across the board at a much higher rate, and this is part of the larger culture of devaluing the lives of women of color and refusing to take action on threatens to their health and safety. The lack of interest in these issues in society at large doesn't go unnoted by Black women and their abusers alike, making it critical to challenge the status quo through means like this one.
Within this context, this becomes not just a great piece of music, not just a powerful song that speaks to survivors, but also a brave and revolutionary move from a talented young musician. Angel Haze is breaking down walls and boundaries and slamming through expectations. It’s no wonder the song is already attracting a great deal of buzz, and it will be interesting to see what it leads to.
Image credit: Phillip Nguyen.