Issa Rae doesn’t make niche television. The 31-year-old, Los Angeles-based comedian makes funny, relatable, authentic television that flies in the face of Hollywood’s whiteness. Her YouTube webseries The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl blew up in 2011 precisely because it spoke to viewers who craved more authentic and meaningful representations of people of color. Awkward Black Girl’s protagonist J—played by Rae—wasn’t confined to the stereotypes non-white women on the screen often get sorted into. She was real. Rae was creating stories that were almost impossible to find on television.
The word-of-mouth success of Awkward Black Girl’s first season led to a second, which aired on Pharrell Williams’ i am OTHER YouTube channel. In 2012, the show won a Shorty Award, and Rae made her first appearance on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list (she made it again in 2014). Eventually, mainstream television caught on. In 2013, Rae and television superproducer Shonda Rhimes teamed up to develop a new project pointedly titled I Hate L.A. Dudes. It was set to be ShondaLand’s first comedy project, but ABC passed on the pilot, and the show was shelved.
Four years after that disappointing setback, Rae’s work is finally coming to television. In 2015, HBO green-lit Insecure, a new series created by Rae and Larry Wilmore, former host of Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show. She wrote and stars in the new half-hour scripted series, which follows Issa, a black woman navigating her tumultuous personal and professional lives with the help of her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji) and freestyle rap. Melina Matsoukas—who has created music videos for stars like Beyoncé, Rihanna, Jay Z, and Lady Gaga—will direct, while Solange Knowles will serve as a music consultant for the show.
Fans of Awkward Black Girl will recognize the bright, immersive world of Insecure (which premieres on HBO on Oct. 9). Rae is operating on an HBO budget now, but the intimate character work of her new show evokes the same specific and personal tone of her beloved web series. Like Awkward Black Girl, Insecure uses fantasy sequences and the performative and therapeutic aspects of rap to dig deep into its characters’ inner and outer selves. Awkward Black Girl’s Sujata Day also has a recurring role. Most strikingly, Insecure brings all of Awkward Black Girl’s candor about race, its authentic portrayals of black people, and its relatable storytelling to a major network saturated with whiteness and exclusive storytelling.
Insecure certainly isn’t niche. It’s just something HBO has never had before. And Rae is ready for the world to see it.
In July, you spoke at the Television Critics Association press tour about how stories about people of color are relatable. Networks unfortunately tend to label these stories as “niche” or “limiting.” What’s your response to that and how is Insecure working against that?
We’re working against it by being on a major network. That’s one way. We’re being totally unapologetic in who our leads are and the story that we’re telling. If you watch Insecure you’re watching a specific story, but you’re also going to relate to it whether you want to or not. You can get past being like, “Oh, there are two black girl leads, and I’m a white male or I’m an Asian girl, so this might not be for me.” By choosing to turn on your television to watch Insecure, you’re already going past those preconceived notions and investing in our story. I think that’s already a statement.
Do you feel like the questions that you and other creators of color often face about the lack of diversity in Hollywood are misdirected?
At the end of the day, I get it. I just wish that the conversation was an equal opportunity conversation. I wish that all the black people, or all the Latino people, weren’t the only ones who got these questions. We’re already here. It took us a long time to get here, and now we have to answer questions about how we got here? The questions should go to the people who are perpetuating the problem or the people who are very much unaware. That’s the most frustrating thing. Ask the same questions all around to everybody.
You’ve said Insecure is just about “black people living life.” What’s the top priority for you in writing about the vast range of experiences black people have?
Making it as specific as possible. I don’t want people to watch this show and assume this is the black female experience. It’s not. There will be stuff that any black woman who watches the show can relate to and there will be stuff where they’re like, “Oh, that’s not me.” The most important thing is telling a very specific, authentic story, not trying to answer for all black people. This is not going to be a resource for the black cultural experience. It’s just one story in the same way that [HBO’s] Divorce is a story about one divorced couple. Insecure should be treated as one story of many stories that we’re going to see on television and many stories that we’re going to see about black people in general. But it’s one that I have not seen before now.
“questions [about diversity] should go to the
people who are
perpetuating the problem.”
Did you always know you were going to name Insecure’s main character after yourself?
Yes, I guess I did, because I knew that it was reflective of who I am as a person. There are some things that are exaggerated just a little bit, but for the most part, this character is me if I’d made different choices. The core of me is there. But now I kind of wish I had named her something else just because I hate using the third person. That part sucks. It’s the worst.
The friendship between Issa and Molly is going to resonate with a lot of people. It’s a fully realized relationship; they seem to know each other at their worst and their best.
I hope so. If you’ve ever had a really close friend, you can relate to Issa and Molly’s dynamic. We tried to depict a real friendship—the kind that’s like, you do fight from time to time, you call each other out on your shit, but at the end of the day, you know that they’ll be there for you no matter what.
Like Awkward Black Girl’s protagonist, Issa uses rap to process her feelings. What is your own relationship with rap?
I love it. I love the alter ego that it provides you. Rap is rooted in this bravado element, and I tend to be a very modest person in general, and rap as a device forces you not to be, because you have to pop yourself up. You have to show how you’re the baddest or the tightest or the coolest or whatever, and it’s just a raw form of expression that all the characters that I write need, because they’re not as straightforward or as confident or as aggressive. It’s such a funny dichotomy between having a modest, humble person, and then cutting to them spilling out all their guts in an uncharacteristic way.
And in my own life, I love the raunchy element of rap. I hate it and I love it, because a lot of it is just dumb and repetitive. But there’s just something so culturally cool about it. You have these strip club anthems that are derogatory, but they’re also seductive. You can’t help but bounce and shake to them. There’s a push and pull there that I’ve always struggled with. But now I just embrace it. It’s a part of our culture.
How did Solange’s involvement in the show come about?
Through [Insecure director] Melina Matsoukas. Melina and Solange are best friends, and Melina hinted that Solange had wanted to get into a music consultant or music supervision role and thought this would be a cool opportunity. I’ve always respected Solange as an artist and as a DJ. So, Melina was like, “Hey, what do you think about her?” I said, “Uh, hell yes!” She has been amazing. So many great music choices have come from her. Music is such a huge, great part of the show because of her.
The setting of South L.A. is really important to Insecure. What do you see as that setting’s purpose in the story?
Whenever you see L.A. in movies or television, it’s either the glamourous Hollywood/Beverly Hills-type of life where you’re depicting the industry, or it’s the Valley or Silver Lake or something like that. They’re always super white. And the only time that you see South L.A. is when it’s associated with gang violence or crime—the scary parts. But it’s beautiful. And we’re making it sexy in a way that hasn’t been seen before. South L.A. isn’t just the way you go to the airport. That’s insulting, but that’s a real perception people have. We wanted to highlight a different area in a different way and also to just get excited about where I grew up. We’re highlighting faces that don’t usually get the same spotlight.
Is there a dream project you want to work on in the near future?
There’s a personal dream project I still want to do that’s set where I grew up and it would have a Frank Ocean soundtrack. I just love that man so much.
A lot of the humor in Insecure is very similar to the humor of Awkward Black Girl. What draws you to comedy rooted in embarrassment?
[Laughs.] I just think embarrassment is funny. There’s nothing more funny and relatable than people’s discomfort. Being like, ‘Oh my god, you’ll never believe what happened to me.’ ‘Oh my god, that happened to you, too? Let me tell you my story!’ There’s just something funny about the simple to me. That’s always been a part of my sense of humor. I’m fine with people laughing at me and with me. I like being in on a joke, but there is something funny about being laughed at that I don’t mind.