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Angel-HoPhotography Jody Brand

Angel-Ho’s radical, communal neo-pop

We speak to the South African producer, rapper, and vocalist about Death Becomes Her, a debut album of love, sex, glamour, and struggle

On Angel-Ho’s debut album, Death Becomes Her, the South African producer, rapper, and vocalist makes radical neo-pop that’s both chaotic in its sound, yet streamlined in its package of authoritative femininity. As Angel-Ho explained when she first announced the album, Death Becomes Her encompasses themes of “love, sex, glamour, struggle, and universal fantasies treated with an ambiguity that restructures the narrative within a trans identity”, which she articulates and delivers with razor-sharp precision.

Angel-Ho first started making music in 2015, responding to the colonialism of her home country, and with the conception of NON Worldwide, the record label and collective that she co-founded with Chino Amobi and Nkisi, she explored the way that culture and community intersect online. The label helped incubate talent like Argentina’s fierce tango artist MORO, the thunderous club sounds of South African gqom trio Rudeboyz, and her own earliest releases, like the gun-wielding, caustic “Miss Kitty”. NON is currently on indefinite hiatus, but since then Angel-Ho has joined Hyperdub (home to Burial, Fatima Al Qadiri, Laurel Halo, and others) and become the closest thing to a pop star that the UK experimental label has represented. Her music has also caught the ear of fellow activist and rapper M.I.A., who she opened up for in South Africa last summer.

On Death Becomes Her, Angel-Ho and her community of collaborators (such as Asmara, half of Nguzunguzu, as well as fellow South African MC Queezy) use their music as a form of resistance. Opening track “Business” frames the release: a hybrid of bass, rap, and electronics, it’s a 21st century anthem of self-expression, with Angel-Ho citing everything from sliding into someone’s DMs to drooling over Gucci blouses. On “Muse To You”, she signals to her sisters and brothers that she stands with them in telling her story: “No longer beaten and abused, you are the girl who paid her dues, you are the muse.”

Speaking on what transpired to be the hottest UK winter day on record from a grey listed building in Manchester, Angel-Ho discussed identity, art interjecting with African diasporas, as well as pop divas’ with a hint of deadpan wit with Dazed.

What music did you grow up listening to in South Africa? 

Angel-Ho: I was always listening to both local and African music, but I would say I was listening to the radio. It’s always on in my house. I’m constantly listening to old music – really old Elvis, Whitney Houston, all the greats, all the time.

Growing up, did you always express yourself, both personally and artistically, in a free way?

Angel-Ho: Yes, yes! I’ve never let anything restrict me from being who I am. I always stay level-headed when it comes to other people’s assumptions of me, or other people's’ assumptions of what it means to be queer or trans. I’m always schooling the kids. I really just believed in what I was doing all the time, no matter what it was. I would dress up in drag and do a DJ set and be perceived as a superstar in the club, or I would do a performance or art piece and be received as a great artist. I’ve never really been ‘restricted’, in that I needed to break any kind of mould or barrier. I’ve always just been breaking those barriers anyway. I’ve always been an oracle in that sense.

NON has disbanded for now, but what were your original aims in starting it? Do you feel like those aims were achieved?

Angel-Ho: As a collective, our original aims were to create a platform for artists that are, despite their geographical location, still African, and are breaking moulds in terms of identity and with regards to other notions of blackness, or not being black enough, or, like, whatever those kinds of constructs mean. We wanted to break those down politically, and create a runway for the artists to present themselves on, and to celebrate their music and themselves, their identities. NON Worldwide was created by Chino (Amobi), Melkia (Nkisi), and myself. We created this amazing platform, but it is now taking a break.

And so you’re now calling Hyperdub your home for this release. How long have you been working on your album, and what was it that made you feel that they were the outlet you wanted to release on?

Angel-Ho: I have been working on the album, roughly I’d say, for about a year-and-a-half, and I was thinking about what I wanted it to sound like, what I wanted to achieve with the record, and what I wanted to present to the world. What did I feel was worthy for my sound, as a pop icon? I wanted to think about all of those things and create something that was encompassing all of those feelings and ideas. Hyperdub, for me, was a place that I wanted to release with as I felt like they engage well with music and musicians from the underground transitioning into more… what is the word? Not ‘structured’, but more...

The way as a label they allow artists to not only explore the underground and club music, but also their pop side?

Angel-Ho: Yeah, to create something that was more tangible for people. Something that could withstand the test of time, and that’s more elegant in its format.

You just called yourself a “pop icon”. I know you’ve made no secret that your heroes are Björk and Lady Gaga. What do these artists mean to you? Do they have an effect on the art you create?

Angel-Ho: For me, listening to their music every day, really digs deep within my soul and feeds me to be better and to trust in my intuition making music. If I’m in a low place or in a moment of doubt, I always play their music just to bring me to the surface of reality. They make me feel like I don’t need to give up on my dreams and that I can always succeed, regardless of my circumstances.

“Being trans doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to experience the hardship of being trans. You’re going to experience life in all its wonders. I really wanted those messages to come across” – Angel-Ho

Death Becomes Her is very experimental, but your delivery makes it pop – the way you rap, the way you sing.

Angel-Ho: Definitely. I wanted to explore and break the idea of what it means to create ‘pop’ music, or what it means to create something commercially successful. I really wanted to push the delivery and my vocals to challenge those ideas.

The album features South African artists Baby Caramel and Queezy. Was it always important for you to not only include voices from South Africa, but also those from LGBTQ+ backgrounds?

Angel-Ho: Yes, it’s always been important for me to engage with my community and for my community to collaborate and be open with each other. It’s always something I’ve been pushing in the forefront of my work – collaboration, and celebration of our identities with self-expression. I really wanted the album to be a beacon for that.

How did the collaborations come about? Queezy’s dominant discipline isn’t strictly music…

Angel-Ho: We actually worked with a contour fashion house for a few months. We made couture that we haven’t actually released or (included) in anything we’ve done. We’ve done campaigns, we’ve done fashion, we’ve created theatre productions, and collaborated on fashion in performance art. We just haven’t got a chance to release that yet. I don’t know if it will ever be released – maybe when we die it will be revealed.

How does that work in your live shows?

Angel-Ho: When I was last in the UK, the crowds were yelling at me, like they wanted me to give them everything I’ve got.

In a positive way?

Angel-Ho: In a positive way, definitely! One lady came on stage – I educated her about show etiquette and stage performance in front of everyone. I don’t think she’s relapsed into her audience coma. I think she’s good.

What have you learned from making the album?

Angel-Ho: I’ve learned that you can express yourself in more than one way, and that being trans doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to fall to a death sentence, (or) that you’re going to experience the hardship of being trans. You’re going to experience life in all its wonders. I really wanted those messages to come across from the way that I wrote the music ambiguously around trans narratives that also, to some extent, appeals to the lives of those that are straight. I really wanted that to be something that came to the forefront of the conversation that I hope everyone enjoys.