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Insecurity may have been what Issa Rae began building her TV empire on, but her latest offering is anything but.
Rap Sh!t, Rae’s latest half-hour comedy series for HBO Max, is a case study in confidence; the show follows two estranged high school friends from Miami who form an unlikely rap group, determined to achieve their dreams of making waves in the music industry.
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“I came up with the show while we were doing season five [of Insecure], and it’s always been gestating in my mind. I always wanted to do a show in the music world so I was like, ‘What’s a show that I want to watch right now that feels fun, of the moment, and that’s a reflection of the culture right now?’” Rae, who serves as head writer and executive producer, told The Hollywood Reporter at the show’s premiere on Wednesday. “I saw these comments from a prominent producer about female rappers and how all they rap about is their vaginas, to say it euphemistically, and I thought that was so unfair. So I thought: let me start telling this story now.”
Rae — who has signed onto Greta Gerwig’s Barbie film and will reportedly play a version of the iconic doll (“It’s so much fun,” she confirmed) — says she never considered having a role in Rap Sh!t, unlike her other creations.
But KaMillion, a rapper who stars as the energetic and unapologetically raunchy Mia, knew a role in the show was her destiny. “When I went in the audition room I literally said, ‘I am Mia and Mia is me,’” she said. Shooting the show over the course of six months in Miami (from South Beach to Little Haiti) was familiar for the Florida native, and working with Rae, an inspiration. “Issa is a great multitasker, boss lady, actress, writer…this lady is a mogul and I aspire to accomplish a piece of the things that she has,” she said.
“[KaMillion] embodied the character that I envisioned in my head and she actually helped us define who [her counterpart] Shawna was,” Rae said. “[I was] writing the pieces of Shawna in me but I didn’t want to cast someone like me, so that was such a long process to try to find the right Shawna — seeing her in every single audition bringing something new to the table made me recognize what I wanted to see in Shawna.” When KaMillion and Aida Osman, who landed the role of tame and intellectual Shawna, did a chemistry read, “it was a wrap,” Rae added. “They had such a great connection.”
Osman, a writer on the show and one-half of the rap group, said toggling between writing and acting was a “constant ebb and flow.”
In terms of creating the eight-episode series’ storyline, Osman said, “All of us wanted to talk about the fact that our bodies get politicized so much and policed; women’s bodies in rap become intellectualized before they become celebrated.”
“Any young woman trying to make it in the rap game is not going to be free of those critiques and she’s going to have that inner monologue and have to figure out what she feels about it,” she continued. “So we wanted to show all the different sides of the come-up journey.”
The premiere took place at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, where the first two episodes were screened for guests and other members of the cast, including Jonica Booth, RJ Cyler, Daniel Augustin and Jean Elie. The museum courtyard was transformed into a quasi-club in celebration of the show’s premiere and the show’s underlying summertime party mood.
Fans have pointed out the show’s similarity to the lives of Yung Miami and JT of real-life rap group City Girls, who are executive producers on the show. Syreeta Singleton, who worked with Rae on Insecure and is Rap Sh!t’s showrunner, said, though the team wanted to “have the City Girls’ blessing” — since the show is set in their native Miami and follows a story that somewhat resembles their ascent in the music industry — “when it came to creating Shawna and Mia we pulled from so many stories. We pulled from our personal lives, and a lot of other women in rap as well – Tierra Whack, Noname, Rapsody, Azealia Banks. We were looking at everyone’s story to try to infuse their journeys with some real authenticity.”
One thing many of these artists have in common is the challenge of blazing their own path in an industry that at once sexualizes women, but also criticizes them if sensuality is their central focus. “We were enraged and inspired by this double standard in female rap, wanting to have conversations about that on our show and also explore both sides [of that point of view],” Singleton says. “I think a lot of women rappers that we’re seeing right now are refusing to compete with each other; they’re instead collaborating with each other, and as a culture, we are all stepping into our power as women. That’s the same thing we want to do on our show and it’s what I see in music right now.”
Speaking of women in power who are controlling their own narratives, Osman gushed over working with Rae, saying: “Issa is the most intelligent, poised, perceptive, attentive genius. The fact that my success could come from someone who looks like me is the sweetest thing in the world.”
Rapsh!t starts streaming on HBO Max July 21.
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