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meet ashlee haze, the powerful poet sampled on dev hynes' freetown sound

On Missy Elliott's 45th birthday, Atlanta-based spoken word artist Ashlee Haze explains how her viral slam poem dedicated to the rap queen ended up on Blood Orange's recently released polyphonic opus.

Emily Manning

Image via @ashleehaze

Earlier this week, Devonté Hynes surprise released Freetown Sound, his eagerly anticipated third record as Blood Orange. On the project — one he's often referred to as a kind of personal mixtape — Hynes powerfully positions legends like Debbie Harry, Arthur Russell, Miles Davis, Venus Xtravaganza, and De La Soul in conversation with some of today's most exciting artists, like Kelsey Lu, Empress Of, Ava Raiin, and Vince Staples. The record's opening track, By Ourselves, sets the tone for such electric collisions. It features a sample of spoken word poet Ashlee Haze performing her piece For Colored Girls (The Missy Elliott Poem) at the 2015 Individual World Poetry Slam.

In the piece, the Atlanta-based Haze explains why boundary-smashing rap visionary Missy Elliott has been doing feminist work for decades, and beautifully celebrates the immense impact she's had on black womanhood: "It is because of Melissa Elliott/ that I believed that a fat black girl from Chicago/ could dance until she felt pretty/ could be sexy and cool/ could be a woman playing a man's game/ and be unapologetically fly." Freetown Sound was originally supposed to be released today, which, cosmically, also happens to be Missy Elliott's 45th birthday. So we called up Haze to learn more about her work, how she got involved with Freetown Sound, and the time Missy showed up at her house.

Tell us about yourself.
I was born in Chicago but moved to Atlanta when I was about ten years old, so I've been here for most of my life. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a back-up dancer; that's how I first ended up getting into Missy — the choreography in her videos was always dope! Back when VCRs were still a thing, I would wait for the videos to come on TV and record them; I'd keep rewinding them until I learned the moves. It wasn't until I moved to Atlanta that I even thought about poetry. My mom always said I should become a poet, but I used to think it was boring. After I wrote my first piece, I just kept going.

What was the first piece you wrote? Has your work always been spoken word?
It was a Mother's Day poem; my mom and I collaborated! As an 11-year-old, you mostly write about what's going on at school; when I got older, I took more of an activist tone. But I always knew I wanted to perform, I knew I needed to be in front of people. Most people are afraid of the spotlight, but I actually ran towards it — I loved putting on a show.

Are there any recurring themes that run throughout your current work?
Absolutely. I always write about my personal experience of being a black woman, which is dynamic within itself. Feminism is a recurring idea, but specifically intersectionality in feminism — how this idea of bra burning is not really how the black woman relates to the idea of feminism, how our struggles and our goals are seemingly different than what mainstream media's goals may be. I always write about my family and the women who raised me. And — even in the Missy Elliott poem — about being a woman who walks in a space where mostly men dominate; about being a heavier person, being a fat girl, and all these added layers and complexities that can make life difficult.

Tell us about your relationship to Missy. What led to the creation of the piece?
The piece kind of wrote itself. Atlanta has these newer old school hip hop stations; it's really hard to believe but Missy is considered old school now! So I was riding in a car they were playing Ladies Night [a 1997 collaboration between Missy, Da Brat, Angie Martinez, and Lil Kim] and my wheels just started to churn. I realised how novel an idea it was: to have four women who were equally dope on the same track sharing that spotlight. Now if there are two female rappers at any given time, it's gotta be a diss or you have to pick one. They were putting their minds together, putting their voices together, and making this really feminist anthem before we were naming it that.

What was Missy's response to it?
She messaged me on Twitter first to get my phone number, then she called and we talked for a while. The next day, she was like, 'I'm gonna send you something,' and asked for my address. But then she showed up to my house! I was just in shock; I shut the door at first! It really was a feeling of bringing something full circle — of being heard by the person who you want to be heard by.

Did you know about Dev Hynes' his music before Freetown Sound?
I didn't, no. Well, I was familiar with his writing through other artists, I just didn't know it was him. But I got an email saying he was interested in using my sample, and I thought it sounded like a really cool opportunity. I didn't know that it would be this big!

When was the first time you heard By Ourselves?
Tuesday, when the album came out. I was able to hear the part where they used my sample, but not in the full context of the track and the album until it was released. I've been listening to it at work throughout the day and I'm in love so far! It really is a dope piece of art.

What are your thoughts about musical artists using spoken word samples? Beyoncé recently used another poet's work throughout Lemonade. I think it adds so much richness.
I think it's super cool, and I'd venture to say it's past due. We've been sort of this underground community; Def Poetry put poetry in the front of people's minds, but once it ended, we had to work really hard. But in the age of YouTube, more and more people are recording what we do every day at these national poetry slams, competitions, and open mics. I think it's truly an amazing phenomenon that poets are being recognised for the work that we do, and that mainstream artists are putting some volume behind our voices and magnifying them.

Why is Missy still so important today?
I don't know if intersectionality was a word that people were using in broader conversations 15 years ago; we're in the process of naming things. But I've realised they're things I already knew. Missy has been saying, "ain't no shame ladies do your thing, just make sure you ahead of the game." That's feminist; that's empowering. People like Missy and Left Eye are still super relevant because we still having to fight slut shaming and issues of what womanhood means. And then Missy puts out new music; she's still doin' it!

How do you plan to celebrate Missy's birthday?
By being supa dupa fly.

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Text Emily Manning