Aida Osman Put Her Life Into 'Rap Sh!T.' Literally

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Photo credit: Abdi Ibrahim
Photo credit: Abdi Ibrahim
Photo credit: Abdi Ibrahim
Photo credit: Abdi Ibrahim

When Aida Osman and I first connect, she's sitting in the front seat of her car, parked outside her parents home in Lincoln, Nebraska. We're on Zoom and her camera is off and she's just spent the day helping her mom clear out her garage. She's cool, calm, and extraordinarily polite. Funny, too. We talk about ambition and insecurity, sex scenes as well, which, for a Black muslim woman are heady things to consider. I get it, I tell her at one point. Because that's me, too. At that, Osman clicks on her camera to flash her diamond encrusted chain. She excitedly tells me that her mom bought it for her because very rapper needs some ice. The massive necklace, roughly the size of her palm, hung over somewhere between her long braids and purple cardigan. It's design was in Arabic, but it didn't take my eye too long to understand what it translated to: "Allah."

It's out there, for sure, but the extravagant bling is a sweet way for her mom to show her support for the 24-year-old's career. A career that is about to catch fire as her co-leading role in Issa Rae's Rap Sh!t makes its debut on Thursday. She bills alongside Grammy Award-winning songwriter and Love and Hip-Hop star, KaMillion, and the two play Shawna and Mia, respectively, two estranged high-school friends who reunite years later and spontaneously decide to start a rap group. Shawna is a hard-hitting lyricist and true creative mind that is currently working at a hotel by day and trying to nurse to life a struggling rap career at night.

Osman's career in TV thus far has mainly been behind the scenes, writing and producing for hit shows like Big Mouth, Betty, and Group Therapy. It's also included a lot of stage time as a stand-up comic. And a few viral moments online thanks to some quirky and incredibly saucy raps, like this one about pegging. But, Rap Sh!t is set to be a turning point for her, and her very first time on screen in a major role.

Esquire caught up with Osman about hopping in front of the camera, pursuing music and comedy, and breaking the news of some steamy sex scenes to her mom. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Esquire: Tell me about the casting process for Rap Sh!t.

Aida Osman: I was really lucky to find a show and that had this perfect synthesis. I had written this pilot for an animated show about two rappers when I got an email that Issa Rae was doing a show about two girls starting a rap group. So I threw out my show and was like I'm not competing with Issa Rae. Then I just tried to get involved and tried to get staffed on that show.

You've done a lot of work behind the scenes, mainly writing and producing. How was that jump to in front of the camera?

I think before you're given an on-screen role, you kind of believe that you're not meant to be on a camera because nobody's solidified that belief for you. Maybe in your bedroom when you dance in front of the mirror, you're the shit—like, you are the dopest person alive. You are Janet Jackson and Prince reincarnate, whatever. But, I wasn't getting roles and auditioning for stuff for like, two, three years. It was always like "quirky, neoliberal, Black girl who's a pansexual and kind of mean." Those were all the roles that were coming in for the Gen Z girls. I wasn't getting them and I wasn't feeling seen. I was so fucking dramatic. I was like, "I'll just never be an actress and that's okay. That's okay because I'm a TV writer by heart and that's what I got into industry to do so that's fine."

[Rap Sh!t] was really scary at first. I spent the first like two or three episodes of filming like "Are y'all sure? Like we could start over? Recast me and it'd be cool. Like nobody would know, I haven't even told people I've been cast in this like, are you sure?" Issa was like, "Girl, say the line. Shut up."

That's great. I mean, you've joined in a lead role too. So it's not even building your way up. You went straight into it.

Yeah, it kind of forces you to stop believing your own bullshit insecurities. Because if Issa Rae believes in me, and HBO Max will take a gamble on a first time actress who was someone who was in the writers' room that has no real acting credit when so many other Black women exist that could have taken the role... My notion at first was that anybody could have done this. Why would they pick me? Anybody could have done this. It wasn't until after I finished the role of Shawna where I was like, I don't know any other actresses that are like me. It took me eight episodes of filming to go, "Wait, maybe I was the only person that could ever do Shawna and this was supposed to be this way."

I helped develop this character with a group of amazing writers and we kept giving Shawna my personal stories about my life [from] trying to become a rapper in LA. I wasn't taking it super seriously, but was still, you know, spending time in studios and dealing with manipulative producers, dealing with competitive women who didn't want to support me, and getting my lyrics stolen from popular musicians that I would sometimes sit in the studio with and they would not give me credit or not publishing. They didn't think they needed to because I was just a little comedian girl that was there to hang out. In retrospect, I'm like, "Damn, Shawna is me. And I'm Shawna."

Photo credit: Abdi Ibrahim
Photo credit: Abdi Ibrahim

Once you saw yourself in the role, just how much did you see yourself in this role?

She's the type of person to want this so bad, she's corny about it. We talk about the things we're excited about in life and for Shauna, it's her music. It's figuring out how to excel. It's figuring out how to play this game, but still also maintain integrity. She's not a dummy. She went to Spelman, she is dating a great guy who's gonna be a lawyer, she hangs out with a bunch of smart girls. She's just seeing the music industry kind of formulaically. She's doing calculus instead of just living and making art.

I was approaching comedy that way, I feel like, for the longest time. [The comedy world] has heart, but ultimately it can be kind of formulaic, and there's rules to writing and rules to doing being a good stand up. That's what I was doing before I got Rap Sh!t and before the pandemic kept us all inside. She's also funny and shy and awkward and I like to believe I'm all those things–I know I'm the last two, but I like to believe I'm the first one.

Were you part of any of the writing process, especially the rap?

I was involved in pretty much every step of the way of creating the show. Something when I was reading the pilot I was like, "I think I'm gonna be her, but I'm gonna pin that. Let me just finish these 30 pages, see if I wanna staff on this show." I got the job and that's when I started developing Shauna and Mia, as characters. It was a long writers' room—I think it was like a 16 or maybe a 20 week writers' room. We were talking about characters and talking about our personal lives. I wrote episode 106 with Kid Fury. So I'm really excited about that one. It's obviously my favorite episode, because I'm really biased and I love that Kid Fury and I just got to giggle on Zoom together until we found all the jokes that we wanted to put in the show.

[On] writing the music, Issa's record label, Raedio, had writing camps for Rap Sh!t just like they did for Insecure. KaMillion and I crashed one of the writing camps to hang out and see what songs were coming about. So we weren't really involved in the original process of writing the raps, like the raps would come to us finished. But KaMillion and I always got a say when we went to the studio to record them. What lyrics to change, what lyrics to add, what things made sense. Ultimately, we knew our characters better than the writers that are writing the music, even though they did a phenomenal job with the material that they had.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background? I know you're from Nebraska, but just a little bit about where you're from and what got you here?

So Ammal, I found the weirdest thing. I'm about to get real informal, my coffee is kicking in. [Laughs] I am in Nebraska right now. My mom had to get her gallbladder out so I had to come home. She cool, she cool. She in the house running around acting like she doesn't have four holes in her stomach right now—I'm like, "You aren't superwoman, you need to relax." She's wild. She's like, "Nah, I was like this when I had my C section with you too, I could have run a marathon."

I'm like "Nobody's asking you to do all that, sit down!"[But] as I'm getting older, I'm realizing how I'm just like my mother, like carbon copy her personality.

So I'm cleaning the garage for her yesterday. And I found my toddler examination forms, where they say like, "Oh, your child's a joy to have in class, but they talked too much." Essentially those things, but from when I was to like two, it was 1999, so I'm looking at this this rundown and all of the cognitive stuff is like,"Amazing, she's super great." And it says, "Aida love singing and she loves listening to stories." It said everything that I'm doing now. I was like, "Damn, we don't really change, do we? We just build on the skills that we love, and have always loved."

Is this your dream?

Yeah, every step. Like when I got hired at Big Mouth, that was my dream. When I got cast in Rap Sh!t, that was my dream. When I got to be a co-host on Keep It, that was my dream, Every time I achieve a new thing, that's everything I wanted. It's everything I put my energy into, and then I got it. That's so beautiful and cool. That also goes to show that my dreams are changing and mutating as I achieve new things. Like I'm already on to thinking about how I want to be a musician now and how I want to work on helping other artists create their worlds, and write shows for my favorite people. So right now, I'm living my dream. But I'm also discovering what other dreams I had.

Is doing music is something that you would seriously consider down the line? Maybe even releasing a project or an album?

Yeah, definitely, I've been working on music for the last three or four years, I kind of put it down because music was really emotionally taxing and it was also something I shared with my brother who passed away in 2017. When you're in a low place, playing a chord can make you cry, you know—like, give me an E minor, bitch I'm out of here. I'm out.

It was easier for me to throw myself into comedy, which is not emotional. You're talking about ideas and concepts and if you don't want to share your personal life, you don't have to. That's what I always thought was beautiful about comedy. With music, you're talking about yourself, you can't really get away with just talking about the world.

I think it's interesting the way that you talk about music and comedy being so different in terms of vulnerability. But do you feel there is anything you're carrying over from comedy, like a skill, that would help you?

Ideally, everything I do feeds the other thing. Somebody told me recently that for artists that like to exist in different fields, their magnum opus, the thing they're most proud of, is going to coalesce into everything that they love. For me, that means how to put beats and pussy jokes together. That's my life challenge, and I'm honored. Growing up, I loved Reggie Watts. I thought Reggie Watts was a genius and I wanted to figure out how to do that. My version of that, and I am still working on that. Who knows, maybe the music comes out funny or maybe it doesn't.

To me, comedy helps with lyricism a lot. If you go back and analyze your favorite rap songs, you're gonna find that on the fourth bar or whatever, it's mostly punch lines. It's mostly that building up to something, which is exactly what you do in stand up. You build a story around a concept and then you end on the most exciting or most surprising thing. That's what songs are. It's not necessarily even a funny punch line, it can be an emotional one too. So it all bleeds into each other and, if anything, at the root of both music and comedy is still retelling which, remember from my toddler examination, I'm pretty into.

I saw that you had a viral rap video from 2019 about pegging. Did that rap play play a part in this whole process?

I don't know if it got me cast in the show. I do know Issa saw it and it told me it was really funny in my callback. But it was something that Issa had gotten weeks after I originally interviewed, so it might have been the hook line and sinker. But I mean, the pegging rap is just one of like, 50 disgusting songs I wrote when I was finishing college. And maybe one day, there'll be an album that comes out that'll normalize all these heinous sexual acts. Maybe I'll do it under a pseudonym, like MF Doom or some shit, and y'all will get the disgusting pervert reps that I'd be writing.

So, like a comedy rap album?

Yeah, yeah. Like Lonely Island but Black women having sex.

Speaking of Black women having sex, Issa Rae makes it a point in her work to present Black women romantically as the object of ultimate desire, which has never been mainstream in culture. For you, how did it feel to play that role and create that kind of art?

I haven't even considered that before. I think I was so focused on trying to get past my own insecurities about being naked on camera. I've never seen myself in a sex scene so I didn't know how I was going to be portrayed. I didn't know it was gonna come out beautiful, romantic, sweet, and soft. Like, the production team made me look so delicate and beautiful. I didn't know I could look like that, so it made me a lot more comfortable about doing sex scenes, how I can portray myself and redefining what sexy means for me. I think it was scary at first, like, I'm not a standard body. I'm a size 14 and I'm the lead of an HBO Max show and that doesn't happen a lot. So I was worried, but I'm really proud of how they turned out. I'll deal with the fallout with my Muslim family at another time. I'm just really happy.

As a Black muslim woman, how does it feel to represent that demographic? Do you feel pressure?

Oh, yes. I feel a lot of pressure that we haven't even uncovered yet. I saw the trailer with my mom and there's a scene where Shawna is having FaceTime sex. My mom didn't realize it was me, because at certain angles me and KaMillion can kind of look similar, and she was like, "Wow, they have your co-star doing so many sex scenes" and I was like, "Yeah, isn't that crazy? That's craaaazy."

I told her I'm gonna be naked, but I need her see it to know that she understands the level of nudity–like, I'm talking "no clothes nudity," Mom. I am worried for a lot of reasons, but I think it's a beautiful, complicated worry that I'm gonna have to deal with and learn how to deal with. There hasn't been a lot of Black Muslim girls on screens. It's undisclosed really what [Shawna's} religion and spirituality is, but I'm still a Black muslim—Aida is a Black Muslim at the end of the day.

Is being representation for a demographic something that you willingly accept?

Of course, and not only do I willingly accept it, I'm excited to champion it and keep talking about it. One of the things I'm most passionate about is understanding that Black women are sexual beings as well. Black muslim women are sexual beings as well. It's something I'm learning to be able to speak about. So not only am I honored to be representation, I hope I do it responsibly, and hope I continue to educate myself so I can speak for us.

It's important that we understand there's no shame around our bodies, and we can still be a Muslim woman without hiding any aspects of us because we are this amazing, beautiful mess of Muslim, but also carrying American trauma and carrying trauma from our parents and learning how to navigate seven different spaces at once. Like, this shit is not easy. And we also want to have sex at the same time. That's already hard. Just being a woman is hard. This is what I was talking about earlier about me saying like, there were no roles for me. Who's gonna cast a Black, pansexual Muslim girl from Nebraska? Who's gonna do that? It happen[ed], so now I've gotta stand in that shit and really own it and make sure I'm being responsible with that with that honor.

Do you have a message for people like you who are trying to make it in this industry?

My message for people is the thing that I learned here in the show, that you've really got to be your own hype man. You've got to consistently believe in yourself and lay down doubt. That's the biggest thing for me. I was the only thing getting in my own way for the past few years. The reason why I didn't put out music, the reason why I didn't try to sell my own show, the reason why I wouldn't get on every stand up stage and try and tell jokes is because I was getting in my own way. So acknowledge the fact that it's you, girl, you are the problem. You are the problem. If you can, you can just stop and and say "No, no, no, I'm it. I'm the one I'm the one that's gonna tell my story. All I have is my background and my perspective and the talent that the universe has given me, God has given me and that's it." Just do it. Just do the thing. Do the damn thing.

Hair by Marcia Hamilton
Make-up by Autumn Moultrie
Styling by Sakinah Bashir

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