Issa Rae: The Lady
written by: iman n. milner
“Awkward Black Girl was necessary to me. I see awkward white girls all the time. And awkward Asian girl? Well that’s just obvious. But never an awkward black girl. We’re all supposed to be cool or super hood—there was no Black Liz Lemon” says Issa Rae, the one woman army who turned the internet on its heels with her comedy driven webseries The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl. She identifies herself with the term ‘awkward’ but to us she is quite simply one of the most creative women of our generation.
Just two years ago, Rae was an artist looking for a way to make her voice heard while coming to grips with who and what she is. “I made a Facebook status one day that said I was awkward and black”, she remembers, “my now producer replied with ‘those are the two worst things anyone can be’ and I was like ‘haha bitch’ but it got my gears turning”. Soon after, Issa began to work on what she thought would just be a brand of t-shirts promoting the not so popular idea of being, well, awkward. But when a thought to turn the brand into an animated series proved to be too big of a financial commitment, she then took matters into her own hands and shot the first episode of ABG which garnered national appeal and started a much needed movement of multifaceted African American female characters.
To date the first episode has close to 1 million views.
The popularity of the first offering from the series stood as a testament to not only the void it filled for many women searching for their reflection in the biased mirror of Hollywood but also of Issa’s dry comedic genius that until now has been reserved for the Tina Fey’s of the world. Issa’s character “J” is hilariously passive aggressive, a closet violent lyricist and horrendously bad at dating. Yet Issa’s portrayal is so loveable that fans got behind the series in droves to ensure that not only episode 2 hit the net but an additional 10 episodes followed. They rallied behind the movement raising over $50,000 on the popular fundraising site, KickStarter.
The show’s success catapulted Rae to instant notoriety and she found herself discussing everything from natural hair to how to create your own work in Hollywood on some of the world’s biggest news outlets, namely CNN and Huffington Post.
But the beauty in being awkward has not always been a clear picture for the creator.
The struggles of a socially ridiculed middle school student often bleed into some of ABG’s more painful moments, moments that a young Issa thought to be a part of life’s unfair luck of the draw. “If I could go back and tell my younger self anything it would be that it all gets better” she says, “and to write it all down and use it later, I didn’t understand why all those things were happening to me then but now it’s so clear. I wish that I could remember some of the incidents in greater detail, honestly”. Perhaps what I was most curious to know was if Issa would be an exact replica of her character “J” and if the magic surrounding her work would be depreciated by my findings. In our time together she displays an inspiring confidence in all the right ways, a quality not possessed by her character in the least, but the one thing her and “J” share? A hysterical sense of humor. When we dive into what makes Issa Rae tick, her quick wit takes over and she is brutally honest about what, well in this case, who she dislikes. “I hate Steve Harvey. I’d like to physically assault him”, she says with a straight face, “like, the way he carries himself, all his horrible advice and he just thinks he’s the funniest thing since funny things, you know?” And the barrage of funny doesn’t end there; every second with her is like an episode of Seinfeld.
Either you get it or you don’t.
There is something to be said about how she’s turned her talent into an avenue to live out her dreams but even more to be said about the work she’s created for other young artists. Awkward Black Girl features an entire cast of little to completely unknown actors, a truth unseen in the programming on primetime television. Her reach expands to other projects as well, she is the creator of a mockumentary series, Fly Guys present The ‘F’ Word. And as with ABG, ‘F’ Word allows Issa to shine a light on young artists we’d maybe otherwise never know. ‘F Word’ follows the lives of an up and coming rap group, The Fly Guys, as they attempt to make waves in the music industry. Though Issa herself is not on the show, her brilliance shines through in it. As if being a fly on the wall of rappers waiting for their chance to shine isn’t an amazing enough concept sprinkling Issa’s no holds barred wit on top makes it the next big thing to hit the net. She’s worn creator, director, editor and actor hats all at once while also juggling her ABG school tour and her growing number of interviews and appearances.
So how does she make sure her ideas stay fresh and above the curve?
“I only make things that I’d like to see. I create because I want to put my voice out there. If I don’t think it’s funny, there’s no way I’m doing it”. And in that moment it occurs to me just what makes Issa Rae so special. It’s even more alluring than her wit, more captivating than her short haircut that frames her natural beauty so perfectly and more inspiring than her willingness to lift up others as she climbs the ladder of success–yes, more meaningful than it all–is her courage.
The courage it takes to create a brand based on the “two worst things anyone could be”. The courage it takes to remind black women of a part of us that maybe we found safety in pretending didn’t exist. The courage it takes to stand firm and defend your artistic ideals.
She speaks for us with the courage of a leader.
She speaks to us with the courage of a lady.
Salute, Lady Rae.
For more on Issa Rae: IssaRae.com
To watch episodes of Awkward Black Girl: Awkward Black Girl Season 1
To watch episodes of Fly Guys present The ‘F’ Word: ‘F’ Word Episodes
Makeup By: Rebekah Aladdin
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