One Awkward Black Girl Interviews Another Awkward Black Girl, Issa Rae

Photographed by Simone Lueck.
I've been an awkward Black girl for as long as I can remember. My frizzy hair, weird sense of humor, and way of speaking have always put me just slightly out of place. More often than not, I find myself searching for something interesting on a blank wall rather than making small talk with a strangers. In my 29 years, rarely have I seen girls like me on television; the spectrum of minority characters typically went straight from loud and angry to the confident and successful Claire Huxtables of the fictional world, without much in between. The one big exception? Girlfriends, UPN's sitcom of the early aughts following Joan, Maya, Lynn, and Toni, four layered women on TV that showed that Black women don't have to fall into just one bucket, but can span the gamut from eccentric to sexy, smart, and funny, just like everyone else. With the show's end in 2008, I stopped seeing textured Black women on television who were realistic, funny, and idiosyncratic. That is until Issa Rae. "I had this idea for a show inspired by the style of comedy in Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office, but with this like, eccentric Black woman," says Rae of her life as an aspiring TV writer post-Stanford graduation. "And then I read an article from a girl asking, 'Where’s the Black Liz Lemon? Where's the quirky Black girl like me that grew up in white environments?' That was what I needed to kick my butt into high-gear because I was like, This is my idea, and if somebody else reads this article, they're going to do it before me!"

We're telling a story, and that shouldn't be perceived to be every truth for a Black woman. I’m not aspiring to be anybody’s voice.

Issa Rae
The result was 2012's YouTube series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl starring Rae as J, a character navigating, well, awkward situations: Returning a wave that wasn't intended for her; witnessing her crush slow dance with her enemy at a house party; and throwing a temper tantrum at the office when her co-workers continuously steal her stapler. The series brought Rae attention from the likes of Pharrell Williams, who aired Season 2 on his "i am OTHER" YouTube channel, and Shonda Rhimes, with whom Rae worked on a series that ABC eventually passed on. But after three years of writing, the show that did get green-lit by HBO last year finally premieres October 9: Insecure, a show for HBO loosely based on Rae's own experiences in friendships, work, and dating. After a sneak peek at the first six episodes, I rejoiced. Finally, I thought. Here is our romantic comedy, honest enough to make me pull out the Häagen-Dazs, but funny enough that I had no qualms cracking up into the pint all by myself. Rae is a character who's been in a long-term relationship (with Lawrence, played by Jay Ellis) that she can't figure out if she even wants anymore (hello Me, one year ago!), and Molly (Yvonne Orji) is the best friend hilariously navigating single life in the world of dating apps. In between the romantic elements, there is Black female friendship (finally!), reflections on being Black in the workplace, and just Black people...existing. "I just want it to feel like it’s normalized regular Blackness," Rae, 31, told me. "That people will look at it and be like oh, this was part of the start of diversifying Blackness without it constantly dealing with crazy drama or racial strife. Insecure is just a slice of life. It's just Blackness, told in a regular way.” During a photoshoot here at the Refinery29 offices, Rae and I talked more about Insecure while listening to Solange's new album "A Seat At The Table," just one awkward black girl to another. Read on for more from our chat; I hope we made Joan and Co. proud.

Did you consciously choose to make Black female friendship the center of the show?
“Yea, because it’s a big part of my life! A lot of my women friends are the backbones of my personal decisions, career ambitions...and I hadn’t seen that depicted on television in a long time. I was tired of seeing us fight constantly on these reality shows that I love so much (love to hate, but if I'm keeping it real, love to love). So it was important for me to show what I thought was a real genuine friendship — and the ups and downs that happen in that friendship, too.”
The women talk a lot about the struggles of dating, and you've received some criticism for falling into Black single women TV tropes. What's your response to that?
“I didn’t want to make a general statement about Black women — I just wanted to show what I've seen in my own life. This is just what happens. I was weary of the depiction of single-life woman woes. But there’s an element of truth to it, so if it’s someone’s truth and it’s my truth, then I’m going to put it on the screen. One of the downsides of being a lone female voice is that people are going to look to me to either dispel all stereotypes or feed into them, and that’s unfair. We're telling a story, and that shouldn't be perceived to be every truth for a Black woman. I’m not aspiring to be anybody’s voice.”

You have been depicted in the media as the savior for Black women on television right now. Do you feel that weight on your shoulders?
"I don't. Even while creating it, I didn't allow myself to think that way. The good news is that finally there are so many other great voices out there, so people don’t have to [watch] Insecure and pretend to like it; they can turn to another option. They can watch Ava DuVernay’s show Queen Sugar, they can watch Atlanta, there’s just so many different slices of Black life on television right now that I love, and so that pressure was alleviated a bit. But I completely understand that because this is a show about Black female friendship and Black women, [so] people are going to look at this show and think I want this to speak for me and I’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t.” I'm so glad to hear you support other shows, because 50 Cent is always going on tirades against Empire, I guess because he feels it's too similar to his show Power. Which I think is ridiculous, because I love both shows and they're incredibly different.
“I always hated the way he marketed Power because it was at the expense of Empire, and people watch both! Just like, focus on your show, focus on the positives of your show, you don’t need to shoot another show down. It did feel very crabs in a barrel to me...that mentality that there's only one spot for us is what’s held us back for so long. A lot of people can shine, the light is bright.”
Photographed by Simone Lueck.
So getting back to Insecure: How did Solange become a musical consultant on the show, because I cannot think of anyone more perfect.
“So Melina Matsoukas is our director and [executive producer], who is amazing and has such a strong vision. And she just so happens to be best friends with Solange. So she was telling us that Solange is looking to get into music production, and if we didn't mind she wanted to ask if she's interested in Insecure. We were like ‘Girl, you better call Solange!’ And Solange took it really seriously."

Hollywood makes it seem like it's so hard to cast minorities, and yet your show is brimming with fresh brown faces. How did you go about casting?
“Lots and lots of auditions. I really wanted to make sure the characters were right and that they also felt real and that the chemistry was there and you believed it. There were a lot of like, super attractive guys that tried out and I was tempted to be like, ‘Well I mean, he could be my boyfriend,’ but it was really just about who brought the best performance at the end of the day. Jay was one of the first people we saw for Lawrence, but it always came back to him because he brought something special. We chose right.”

Hollywood, take note: There are Black actors out there! Speaking of diversity in Hollywood: Do you ever get tired of answering questions about it? Because constantly writing about it can make me feel kind of weary.
“All the time. It’s like, can we just be? Sometimes you just want to be like, ‘I’m just regular, and I want to just talk about dumb shit sometimes,’ or not have to address the fact that I’m Black all the time. It's like, I want to do it on my terms. I feel like I should be able to say, 'Now I feel like talking about being Black!' And then, 'Okay, now I don’t want to talk about being Black at all.' And that’s my right.” So for someone who's debating whether or not to watch Insecure, why should they?
“Because it's relatable. It's you. All the elements we’ve had in the show are elements that anybody has gone through. Anyone can be like, ‘Oh my gosh, I know that person, I am that person, I want to be that person, or I don’t want to be that person.’ And yes, it's relatable in a way that we haven’t really gotten to see Black people be before. But at the end of the day? You should watch my show because it's funny!”

More from TV

R29 Original Series