If you're heard "By Ourselves," the opening track of Blood Orange's new album Freetown Sound, then you'll recognize this powerful spoken-word interlude—an excerpt of the poem "For Colored Girls (The Missy Elliott Poem)" by Ashlee Haze:
If you ask me why representation is important
I will tell you that on the days I don’t feel pretty
I hear the sweet voice of Missy singing to me
pop that pop that, jiggle that fat
don’t stop, get it til your clothes get wet
I will tell you that right now there are a million
black girls just waiting to see someone who looks like them
The Atlanta-based spoken word artist, whose real name is Kiera Nelson—Ashlee Haze combines her middle name with an ode to Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze"—was inspired to write the poem after hearing Elliott's song "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)" on the radio. “I’d heard the song a million times, but my mind had been on representation, feminism and intersectionality,” she told Atlanta INtown. “When people talk about feminism, they don’t mean hip-hop girls. It’s through the white woman’s gaze.”
And her unapologetic poem was just that: Nelson's own idea of what it meant to be feminist, feminine, and beautiful. Black women like Missy Elliott, Queen Latifah, and Lil' Kim taught her to love themselves in the body and skin they were given.
"Being a fat black woman, it’s just not the popular thing to be," she told me. "But I’m not going to apologize for it."
I talked to Nelson about how she ended up on Blood Orange's album, her definition of feminism, and why it's so important have representation as a black woman.
How did you come to be on Freetown Sound?
I guess he heard [my poem] somehow and his record label reached out to me a few months ago. They were like, "Dev Hynes is interested in using your piece." So they let me hear it and took all the necessary steps. Then when they dropped it I was like whoa. I didn’t expect it to get all of the attention that it got.
What’s been your favorite response that you’ve gotten so far?
Well, the New Yorker did a really nice write-up so I would have to say that one. But, then just the Twitter love and Instagram and people posting my quotes. That’s the most amazing thing to me.
Did you always know you wanted to write poetry?
I didn’t actually. My mom knew. She was asked to write something for a mother-daughter banquet, and she was like, "Well, write this thing with me." And I’m like no, you can’t force me to be a poet, poetry is boring. But we wrote that poem together and ever since then I’ve been writing.
When did your writing start to have a more feminist angle?
It was more recent, more as an adult and in college because of course in middle school and high school my world was super small. But once I got to college, people started naming things. For a while we knew it was feminism, but we didn't use it as casually. And then intersectionality became a thing, how black women’s feminism is different. So, I grew up and as I walked through the world different and in different spaces and realizing the lens I had made me take a different tone in my poetry.
Do you remember the first time you learned what feminism was?
There was a class I took, I think it was called Section Womanhood, in college and that class really opened my eyes because it really broke down theories that a lot of times the world is seen through the lens of a white heterosexual Christian male between the ages of 25 and 32. So when you realize that 1) you know have that lens and 2) that the rest of the world is combatting that lens everyday, that opened my eyes. And I was like oh, I see. I see where oppression comes from, and why people who are really the majority can be misconstrued as minority based on the structures of power.
Aside from the song that you mentioned in "For Colored Girls," what are some other moments in music that helped you come into your own womanhood?
There’s a track with Missy Elliott and Lil Mo’ and it’s called "Hot Boyz," and that joint is so cool to me. It’s literally a track of women saying, "you know how guys do this I want this in a woman and she has to have this and that." And it’s women doing the same thing and it’s just so dope to me.
Why was that song so important to you?
I think it's important because so often women are silenced, even when people don’t mean to silence us, they do it. A good friend of mine, he wrote: People treat black women like the Hulk, you don't like her when she’s angry. So, to take a stance and to literally take a microphone and turn the volume up and say, This is what I have to say and you’re going to listen to it, it’s a revolutionary act within itself.
What are some of your other favorite poems that you’ve written about black womanhood?
"The Help" is probably my second favorite. I wrote that in a film class in college, and my teacher brought in an article and it was a white lady pretty much saying that black women should be outraged about watching The Help. And I was like, yeah, that’s cool, except that was my grandmother. I come from a line of women who clean for a living. My grandmother was a hotel maid and she also cleaned white people’s houses in Chicago. So, for me that story, her saying that, was another way of silencing. So, I decided to tell the story from my viewpoint. To say that these women clean houses so that I could go to college, they were silent most of their lives so that I could be a poet in 2016 and say what I have to say.
What’s your relationship with the term feminism even though it was created without women of color in mind?
I still own it. I have a lot of debates about people saying that, well, when you say "feminism," it’s just white women’s feminism, and I’m like, no, because there is still a feminism for me. I can still call it that and approach it differently. We are building the same house with different tools. For me, as a black woman, my feminism shows up differently, but I can still own it.
Do you have your own definition?
I like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s definition which is a feminist is a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. And I like to say that feminism is not women necessarily asking to be treated equally, although that’s a big part of it. I also think it relies on asking to be treated fairly. Which is to say that if I’m not doing the same amount of work as my male counterpart, then I don’t ask to be paid equally. If I am, I do. But I always ask to be paid fairly and to be treated fairly.
In your poem "For Colored Girls," one of the things that stuck out to me is your mention of how important representation is. What representation did you see growing up in terms of beauty?
It’s truly Missy Elliott. And then Queen Latifah. The way they were always who they were. They showed femininity the way that they wanted to. For Missy, that could look like a baseball jersey and bamboo earring and her hair is always dope and her makeup is always dope. For Queen Latifah, even when she was playing Khadijah, she wasn’t necessarily the most feminine dressed person, but her hair was always going to be on point. Just watching them and just being able to say I can own it and do it the way I want to do it. There’s a quote and I wish I knew who said it, but it says being a black woman in America is like growing up in a house and never seeing any pictures of yourself.
What about recently?
Gabourey Sidibe coming to the forefront and just being like: hey, this is me and I’m here. Amber Riley. Orange is the New Black. People have their opinions about it, but at the end of the day every year for 12 episodes we get to see at least five black women play major roles and that’s amazing to me. And they are in prison, so they are not glamorous but I am able to connect with them.
Why is it important for you to be unapologetic in your work?
I always aim to be unapologetic. I did a college gig last semester, and a girl came up to me and she was like, I’ve been wanting to see someone like you because you are so unapologetic. And I just kind of took it. I want to own that because who I am is not popular. Being a fat black woman, it’s just not the popular thing to be, but I’m not going to apologize for it. Sonia Rene, who’s an activist, she has a really cool movement called The Body Is Not An Apology. I just love that, saying I ain’t sorry a la Beyoncé.
When black women read or hear your poetry what do you hope they take away?
I always hope that the self-love comes across. The loving yourself because of who you are but also in spite of what others think about who you are. I want it to feel like I’m telling my story, but also telling someone else’s story.
Tahirah Hairston is a style writer from Detroit who likes Susan Miller, Rihanna's friend's Instagram accounts, ramen and ugly-but cute shoes.