Issa Rae’s ‘Rap Sh!t’ Spotlights Black Women Being Their Authentic Selves in Hip Hop

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Image: Alicia Vera/HBO Max.

Issa Rae is still rooting for everybody Black and remains committed to telling the stories of Black women. The Emmy-nominated writer, actor and producer, has become one Hollywood’s most heralded creatives. For her latest series Rap Sh!t, she continues her vision of centering the lives of Black women who are unapologetically living their truths out loud in the world.

The series, which premiered yesterday on HBO Max, chronicles two estranged friends from Miami who reunite to follow their dreams of making it big as a rap duo in the music industry and the barriers that they encounter as Black women in the entertainment industry.. Shawna played by Aida Osman, is a hotel employee who’s been a conscious rapper since she was a student at Spelman College but hasn’t truly recovered after losing her record deal. Mia, played by KaMillion is an all-around hustler, an aspiring rapper and a single mother who works several jobs to support herself and her 4-year-old son. Syreeta Singleton, who previously wrote for Insecure and Showtime’s Black Monday, is also an executive producer as well as the show’s showrunner. Miami’s own, the City Girls are co-executive producers of the series and contribute original music to its soundtrack. Classic songs by Trina, the Iconz and Khia were enlisted to bring an authentic Miami vibe.

“Black women are at the center of my life. They’re my friends and my family. I am who I am,” shared Rae, about how the experiences of Black women are at the center of her work and how Black women as cultural influencers are at the nexus of her creativity. She also wants to ensure that Black women are given credit for all of their contributions to pop culture. “For me, I’m most drawn to stories about us. I think we’re only scratching the surface in terms of our stories so I’m always just compelled to find what I want to say through the women that I either know or that I want to know. Rap Sh!t is just another installment and this particular story takes place, obviously, in the rap world, which I’m a huge fan of, but also through the lens of social media, which Black women are at the center of popularizing. It’s our memes, our voices and our vernacular that has dominated the social media universe.”

Added Singleton, Rap Sh!t captures Black women unashamedly living their own truths on their own terms. One of the driving forces was conveying the real Miami experience and how two Black women on totally different paths come together to create their own story.

“In our show, we have Shawna and Mia and they’re really coming at it from two different angles. They are both aware of this kind of male dominance, the male gaze, that’s projected onto them but they’ve done different things about it,” explained the first-time showrunner on how showing the lives of everyday Black women chasing their dreams to change their realities is one of the major themes of the series. “Shawna has previously kind of rejected it but Mia is like we’re going to use it to our advantage. So I think together, they’re able to find something that feels special and authentic to them. They do it themselves, as you can see where they say that no one’s going to control them and they’re going to curate this image for themselves, but at the same time, they know how to sell it and package it. I think that was really exciting for us to explore.”

Rae goes on further to explain how Rap Sh!t, inspired by women in hip-hop and the recent meteoric rise of so many female MCs over the past years, was also an expansion of her Insecure character Issa Dee’s rap aspirations.

“You know, in a way, I think they’re cousins,” muses Rae. “I looked at an old pitch document of my original idea for Insecure, and in that version, Issa Dee was an aspiring rapper and then I scratched that and kept it more insular. So this is the opportunity to go deeper into that world.”

For Osman, who was a writer for several shows including Big Mouth, Betty, and was an executive story editor for Insecure, Rap Sh!t allowed her to transition from being a creative behind the scenes to starring as a show lead.

“I’ve always wanted to be involved in TV writing. That was my big goal,” shared Osman. “After writing for a couple of shows, you could get comfortable being in the background forever. I could be in the writer’s room, pitching my little jokes. It’s fun. It’s good. But I didn’t expect to make the transition because, honestly, I didn’t see any characters that looked like me.  I was like, ‘Who’s gonna write a character that is as weird, awkward, and an overthinker like me?’”

For the Grammy award-winner KaMillion, it was destiny that led her to play the role. “Landing the role was crazy because I was like, “Damn, this is really meant to be. I’m really playing a rapper from Florida,” said the native Florida rapper. “I mean, I’m from Jacksonville, Florida which is about five hours away and it’s been such a great experience. I feel like I’m one of the luckiest and most blessed girls in the world.” 

“I’m a loner, and I’m a loyal person. I grew up around boys and I always created these relationships and friendships with them,” shared the “Mr. Moneybags” lyricist. “So to be a part of this project and to learn what female friendships are supposed to look like was great.  You know, sometimes girls can be catty They can be jealous of what you have going on. But then there are Black girls in the world who uplift each other and it’s so powerful. Also, meeting Aida and finding somebody that’s just like me, I love it. I think there should be more stories about friendship because they sell.”

“Even though I have a feminine side and I’m a girl, I feel like a dude inside. So when I was trying to get people to pay attention and to listen to me, I didn’t realize at first that it was because I’m a woman. On top of that, I’m a Black woman and sometimes people don’t realize that can be a barrier and you have to learn to work through that because it’s not gonna change,” continued KaMillion. “So you either gonna carry that sh** on your shoulder, are you gonna make it work for yourself. I feel like once you get accomplished and you know how to carry yourself by how to fight the good fight no matter who it is, people get to understand who you are, and that’s where the respect opens up. But I don’t care. I’m doing whatever I have to do to be heard and to accomplish my dreams.”

“You have to learn to grow up fast, I guess because white men or men, in general, can walk into a room and they have a clean slate,” added Osman, on the barriers Black women continue to encounter in the entertainment industry. “They’re like, ‘Whatever. I’m here to help.’ But when you see a Black woman, no matter what, because we live in America, you have prejudices that you need to work through. Some people are there and some people aren’t. So I feel like I’m constantly telling people, ‘Listen to me. I’m eloquent too. I’m smart, too. I’m not just this or I’m not just that.’ You have to learn to do so much more because you don’t get to have a clean slate. You have to do so many things when you walk into a room.”

Lastly, above all, Rae simply wants the show to be enjoyed without judgement or bearing the burdens of the politics of respectabillity.

“I want viewers to have a good time watching it. That was something for me that was important while writing it,” said Rae. “I wanted to write something fun. I think as Black creators, sometimes we’re put into a box where everything we do or every story has to have a deep message. We do encourage conversations around the show like what was happening with Insecure but I think there’s a nuance to it. First and foremost, I had so much fun writing the show and to have a partner like Syreeta and the incredible writers who are bringing this world and the characters to life has been so fulfilling. I am having a good time making the show and I hope viewers enjoy watching it.”

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