The Beyoncé-Quoting Activist Who’s Changing Political Commentary

In our series This Is 30, Arianna Davis sets out to dispel the idea that turning 30 means it's time to panic. Throughout her own 30th year, she'll sit down with a range of successful women she admires to question them about everything from climbing the rungs in their industries to designing a life that works for them — plus hear the advice they'd give their own 30-year-old selves. Check out the first instalment here.
It was the eye roll seen around the internet in 2016. At that summer’s Democratic National Convention, a video of Angela Rye reacting to a conservative analyst as he defended Donald Trump’s philanthropic work inspired the Twitter hashtag #RyeRoll. The attorney, political advocate, and former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus quickly became one of CNN’s go-to commentators. Now, she regularly brings the heat to the network’s political coverage, which she passionately punctuates with both hard-to-argue statistics and Beyoncé references. (During an Obama vs. Trump debate with fellow CNN commentator Corey Lewandowski, Rye famously quoted a quintessential Queen Bey lyric: “Boy, bye.”)
This was liberating to watch. I’m someone who’s always full of opinions, both as a writer and person. But in the midst of the racist vitriol that surrounded our culture post-election, it was hard not to think about the angry Black woman stereotype. Angela Rye, however, didn’t seem to care. If anything, she’s only leaned into her outspokenness over her past two years as a public figure, despite the racist and sexist backlash that has ensued on Twitter. So how does someone cast aside doubt while still embracing who they are? That’s what I set out to discover in this second instalment of This Is 30.
“I recently saw a girl post something opinionated on Instagram with the caption that she was ‘on her Angela Rye vibe,’” Rye told me over lunch at New York's Bryant Park Grille in March. “So you can call me out my name if you want to, but even if I made just one person motivated to make change happen, that’s good enough for me.”
That’s not all that’s been good for her, though: Since election season, the 38-year-old has skyrocketed from talking head to celebrity thanks to more viral moments, her gig hosting BET’s four-part State Of The Union series, and her popular podcast On One with Angela Rye. She’s also been hailed for her fashion sense, which she credits to multiple stylists and advice from her friend, InStyle editor Kahlana Barfield. There was also by the way, a much-speculated-about romance with rapper Common. (More on that later.)
In person, Rye doesn’t hold back — whether it’s about reality TV (she no longer watches because it “vexes her spirit,” though she considers stars like Evelyn Lozada and Kandi Burruss friends), the #MeToo movement, relationships, and her decision to freeze her eggs earlier this year. By the end of our chat, one thing is clear: Angela Rye does not care one single bit about what other people think about her. And the biggest lesson I walked away with that afternoon was that the rest of us shouldn’t, either.
Photographed by Rebecca Smeyne.
You’re known for being outspoken, and your passionate clips often go viral. Do you ever worry about being too outspoken, or crossing boundaries? “I feel like the best thing that I can do to liberate Black women and women of colour is to be my unapologetic self. I feel like we have carried the burden of making people comfortable for too long, at the risk of our own comfort and physical and emotional health. And ain’t nobody got time for that. If being myself makes you uncomfortable, well, that’s just too damn bad.”
It's an interesting time to be a political commentator right now. How has your life changed since the 2016 election?
“Girl. 2016 was tremendously eye opening, because the things I had poured so much energy into got flipped upside down. And I’m not talking about supporting a particular candidate — I’m talking about the way that we engage in democracy as though it’s safe and always going to be protected. I was not prepared for our democracy to change the way that it was. So afterward I was like you know what, I need to lean into doing more work that has a larger impact, like media and commentating, instead of the run-of-the-mill consulting that I was doing in DC. As great as that was, it was resulting in micro level change, not macro level change.”
One of the biggest issues with our cultural climate right now is that there are a lot of people talking without listening. What’s your advice on how to debate with someone and make sure that you’re heard — but also process their perspective?
“That’s more challenging now than it has ever been. I work really hard to not to do to someone what I wouldn’t want them to do to me — cutting somebody off, being condescending. But I’ve definitely had my moments where I do those things. And there are some moments where I’m just pushed to the brink. Like, there was a moment where a former member of Congress, Joe Walsh — who served one term — talked about Barack Obama. He said the standards were lower for Barack Obama to be the President. Which is maddening, because it’s like, are you paying attention to who’s in the White House now, homeboy?! That couldn’t be further from the truth! There was no lowering of qualifications or standards for Barack Obama. So those moments are extremely frustrating, but I try to remember that as frustrating as someone’s perspective is, it comes from their experience. So I at least try to understand their experience so I can also know how to combat their ignorance. But God ain’t done with me yet...I still have a lot of work to do!”
You’ve known you wanted to be a lawyer since you were six years old, and you went to Seattle University for law school. But did you always want to be an activist?
“I first wanted to be a sports agent, but ended up falling in love with politics in law school when I worked in Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ office. I saw this woman marching in Manolos who was equal parts activist and politician. She helped me understand that activism and politics can and should be merged. They can co-exist peacefully. But it took Trayvon Martin for me to own the activist label. I always used to say ‘I’m an advocate, not an activist.’ Looking back, that was condescending — like being an activist was beneath me, which it is absolutely not. All activism is is people who are pushing for change in substantive ways.”
I love that Congresswoman Waters was a big part of what led you to activism. Why do you think it took so long for millennials to realise how great she is?
“It’s so funny, because millennials feel like they discovered her and are calling her Auntie Maxine on social media! And I’m like, she is Queen Maxine. She’s been doing this work! The South African Divestment efforts against apartheid South Africa in the 80s? That was her bill in the California State Assembly. She’s not new to this, she’s true to this.”

"I feel like the best thing that I can do to liberate Black women and women of color is to be my unapologetic self."

—Angela Rye
I’m sure it’s been helpful to have a female mentor in this business. But in the aftermath #MeToo, we’re all looking at the way women are treated in every industry more critically. What’s your experience been like as a woman in politics?
“Sexism exists everywhere, but to be real with you, before #MeToo I didn’t pay attention to it. I’d always just say ‘Oh, that’s just how men are’ and blow it off. But fortunately, all of my bosses on Capitol Hill and the men I’ve worked for in general have treated me almost like a daughter, so they were fiercely protective. Sometimes I say I have to check my privilege when I talk about #MeToo, because I’ve been protected in ways that so many of my sisters weren’t, not just by men, but women like Congresswoman Waters. I think the change starts with getting women at the top everywhere; Fortune 500 companies, grassroots organisations, corporations. If that was already happening, we might’ve never even had a #MeToo movement, because women would’ve been there in charge saying ‘Hey, this isn’t allowed.’”
“But it’s funny, one of the reasons I ended up in politics is also because of an incident I had when I was in college. Initially I wanted to be a sports agent because I loved the movie Jerry Maguire. After church one Sunday, my pastor introduced me to a guy who played for the Seahawks so I could talk to him about wanting to be an agent. And the player says to me, ‘You wanna be an agent? If I let you represent me, what are you gonna give me?’ Right there in church! I was immediately like, oh, goodnight. That was a fundamental shift for me and helped me decide nope, I don’t wanna be an agent anymore. And luckily I had the option to walk away.”
Photographed by Rebecca Smeyne.
I feel like as women, once we enter our 30’s the question of kids begins to affect everything from dating to career decisions. When did you decide that freezing your eggs was something you wanted to do?
“I’ve never been governed by a biological clock. I still feel like whatever I decide to do with my body is between me and my maker. But I first looked into it when I was turning 35, because they say your egg count goes down around that age, so I looked into it as a just in case. And after they ran some tests, I learned my egg reserve number was low. That scared me! But it also wasn’t an instant decision, because to be honest, the process is expensive. So I came back a few years later and this time, I went through the process and did some acupuncture and they were able to retrieve seven fully developed eggs — which isn’t the 20-something they typically hope for. But I’m good with seven, because that’s my favourite number, so it felt like it meant something. Now, I don’t feel any pressure as far as work timelines or relationships...I can just focus on my purpose and know that I have that option there if I want it.”
I appreciate you opening up about it, because I’ve read and heard about women freezing their eggs, but the first time I remember ever seeing a Black woman talk about it was Mary Jane on the TV show Being Mary Jane. I’ve never heard any Black women I know actually talk about it.
“Well, the thing is, it’s so expensive, so from an economic standpoint, it can be cost-prohibitive. So it’s a conversation we’re afraid to even have. But I feel like we have to if we ever want this process to feel more normal and more attainable. My manager actually encouraged me to document my whole process in case one day I want to share it with the world and show other Black women what it’s really like.”
Photographed by Rebecca Smeyne.
There’s been a lot of speculation surrounding your relationship with Common. What’s your status, and how did you two meet?
“We actually met at a meeting to talk about political activism. And we connected on a lot of levels...we had similar interests and desires to change the world. But I should clarify that no, we are not dating. We are really good friends. And I think that regardless of whether you’re in the public eye or not, personal relationships are challenging. People have different interests and different goals, and sometimes they align, and sometimes they don’t. He’s a really, really good person, and I feel like since I got to know him, I’m a better human being thanks to him being in my life. So it’s all love. But yea, we’re not dating.”
I’ve always been really career-focused, which can sometimes make relationships and dating tricky. Has that been the case for you? Do you feel pressure to find “the one” and get married?
“I think balance is a false concept. We go through different phases in life where we do one thing well, another not so well. And we need to give ourselves the grace to know that it’s okay, you’re not going to do everything well all the time — something takes a hit. Like for me recently, I was going around to eight different cities for speeches, so I’m doing really well professionally, but my personal life is taking a hit. And that’s okay.”
Photographed by Rebecca Smeyne.
Have you ever had a disappointment or failure that looking back, you’re really grateful that it happened?
There was one offer I had leaving Capitol Hill and the Congressional Black Caucus to go into the private sector. Their final offer was only a little bit higher than what I was making at the Capitol, so I was like no, if you can’t double my salary, I’m not doing it, because you don’t value me. Instead, I decided to start my own firm, which was a risk. But in the first month and a half alone, I had contracts that doubled my Hill salary. It was about taking a leap of faith and betting on myself. If I could tell young women any one thing, it would be to always bet on yourself.”
Are you ever going to run for office?
“No m’am! That’s a hard no. I don’t feel like that’s my calling; I feel like I can have more of a societal impact if I put myself in a situation to make a lot of money and then use those resources to create change. I feel called to the strategy side of politics, not to be the public facing figure in that role. Like, if I go talk to a coal plant, I’m gonna be like ‘You know this industry is dying, right? We need to find y’all some new jobs!’ I’m not going to lie to somebody to get their vote. Now to be fair, I’ve worked for a lot of members of Congress that haven’t lied to their voters. But if it were me, I know I’d be in for some tough conversations.”
Where were you when you were 30?
“I had just bought my townhouse, because my goal was to be 30 and own property. I was working at a job I really liked. I was happy, and thought I knew everything. But now I feel like everyday I learn something new. If there’s a difference between 30 and now at 38, it’s that maybe I was fully grown then, but I’m a grown ass woman now!”
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
“It comes from my mentor, Congresswoman Waters, from a discussion we had on my podcast. I asked her for her advice to young people that want to get involved, and she said: ‘Show up. So much falls into place when you just show up.’ We let the fact that we don’t know all of the steps keep us from moving at all. But whether it’s getting involved in politics or finding a plan for your life, you have to start somewhere. Go and be present, go and listen. Show up, and then when you get there, show out and make change happen. You have everything you need inside of you to make a difference.”

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