How to be unapologetic: An interview with Ashlee Haze
The best word to describe Ashlee Haze, a poet and spoken word artist, is dynamite. The Chicago and Atlanta native’s nickname is “Big 30,” and for good reason — she consistently scores perfect scores at poetry slam competitions because she’s just that good and she has the accolades to prove it. Performing since she was 15, she has been a part of the Atlanta Poetry circuit for over a decade and has been writing over 15 years. Haze was the most booked artist at the 2017 NACA Nationals Conference, she completed a 100+ city college tour, and she is a 2-time Women of the World Poetry Slam Finalist. But more than that, Haze is a brilliant wordsmith by the way she crafts and tells stories about life, heartache, struggle, and what it means to be a black woman now. Her body-positive messages coupled with raw and unfiltered descriptions of love, sex, and what feminism actually means are what makes her stand out from the crowd.
The first time I watched Haze perform, she commanded the room with her booming voice and expressive face. It doesn’t matter if she’s performing in an intimate thirty-person setting, or on a stage in front of hundreds — her presence is known.
We talked to her about what making the jump to living off your craft is like, how philosophy has informed her work, meeting Missy Elliott, and what it means to dare to do more.
When did you know it was time for you to make the jump and become a full-time poet and artist?
Ashlee Haze: I knew it was time when the amount of days I needed to take off for poetry exceeded the amount of vacation time I had in the bank. I had gotten to a point where I was either going to be reprimanded or fired for my absences. So that was a clear sign to leave.
I’m curious about the first piece you wrote and performed at a church's Mother/Daughter Banquet. What was the poem about?
Haze: That was almost 20 years ago! I remember nothing about the poem. It was probably about family lol
People often don’t think about a poet or artist's “greatness” or “talent” until after they pass away. Why do you think that is? And how do you make sure you stand out from the crowd?
Haze: I think until recently poetry has been highly inaccessible. It was available to academics and those who searched for it, but only in the past 50 years or so has it really been available to the masses. It is my goal to make my work as accessible as possible. That looks like performing locally, in academic spaces, in commercial spaces, and anywhere, really.
You graduated with a B.A. in philosophy, and I like to think many poets are philosophers on their experiences. Do you think your educational background and training has influenced your art in any way? How do the two work together?
Haze: I know for sure my formal education has affected my work. Philosophy is about asking questions and making conclusions about what we don't or can't know for sure. It's about persuasion and getting as close to the truth as possible. Poetry does that work as well. So I think it's a natural sort of synergy between my philosophical mind and my poetry mind.
I love the way you capture the boldness and beauty of black women in your work, and particularly your poem “For Colored Girls who don’t need Katy Perry when Missy Elliot is enough.” Why is it important for you to be candid about the experience of black women? And how you make sure you’re doing that in all your work?
Haze: There is a quote I read once that said something to the effect of "being a black girl in America is like growing up in a house and never seeing any pictures of yourself on the walls." It is important for me to discuss (lack of) representation and also contribute to representation, because I needed that so much growing up. So I try to detail my experiences in a relatable way. If even one black girl hears my work and says "yes, honey! me, too!" then I have done what I've set out to do: which is to make space for us.
What’s the scariest part about being an entrepreneur and an artist?
Haze: Definitely the ebb and flow of income. You might have a killer tour and then it could be followed my months of little to no income. Then just when you're ready to give up, something comes your way. It's a matter of balancing risk, responsibility, work, and faith.
What is something about working full time as a poet and being a black woman entrepreneur that you didn’t expect?
Haze: I think I was well prepared for this life. I have some great mentors who made sure I knew the pros and the cons. I would have to say the one thing I wasn't prepared for was how much health insurance would cost. I also wasn't prepared for how much my tax bill would be.
I know you love Missy Elliot. Is there anyone else who inspires you and why? How important is it to have a mentor in this business?
Haze: My mom first and foremost. I also look up to women like Queen Latifah, Ava Duvernay, even Cardi B. Mentorship is invaluable. There is a merit in having someone to talk to who has been where you want to go.
What advice would you give to black women and women of color about being an entrepreneur?
Haze: Save! Going from consistent income to inconsistent/variable dependent income can be jarring. It's always good to have a couple months of expenses in the bank "just in case." And also to have some cash to invest in yourself and your business.
I listened to a few episodes of your podcast with Kelundra Smith, and it’s really good! Do you have other projects you’re working on as well? Is there another book in the works?
Haze: Thank you! We are about to record Season 3 of the Unbasic Podcast. I am also creating a show with Joan "Lyric" Leslie that will be happening at Apache Cafe My new book "Fruition" will be released this Summer! I'm so excited about it.
What do your mornings look like?
Haze: If I'm on the road, it looks like waking up around 4 am, rushing out of the hotel, driving anywhere between 30 minutes to 2 hours to the airport, returning the rental car, dealing with white privilege in airports, and boarding a flight to go back to sleep. When I'm home, I'm usually going to the gym, working on my computer, or running errands.
What are your thoughts on failure or taking risks?
Haze: Failure is not a bad word. Failure is what happens when you dare greatly (Brene Brown). I think that when you do brave work, especially unprecedented work, you're bound to fail- or miss your mark. But the merit is in doing it again. And again. And figuring out what you can control or change. I believe in a balance of risk and responsibility. There's a difference between taking a calculated risk and knowing what outcomes are reasonable and acting recklessly. It is my goal to do the former.
What is your greatest entrepreneurial achievement to date? What do you hope to accomplish in the future?
Haze: The fact that I have sustained my life of independent artistry for over a year already is amazing to me. Not once did I have to get another job. It is my hope that I will continue to sustain this life. It is a blessing, and I want to continue dedicating my life to the work I do.