International celeb – Issa Rae
As creator and star of the hit series Insecure, ISSA RAE, 32, has become Hollywood’s go-to girl. It’s a far cry from the days when she didn’t fit in.
Black filmmakers are thriving at their art, narrating our stories the legit way. Locally, shows such as Tjovitjo, iNumber Number and others are breaking viewership records. Abroad, director and screenwriter Ava DuVernay has transformed screen depictions with her unapologetically black-themed movies, series and documentaries. Lead roles for black women have materialised and gained dominance and respect from viewers. There’s Kerry Washington’s brilliance in the TV drama Scandal, Gabrielle Union in Being Mary Jane, and Taraji P. Henson in Empire. They’ve set the bar sky-high and now, a new crop of black women has surfaced. Issa Rae is one of them – she’s the creator, cowriter and star of the US hit show, Insecure, which airs locally on the DStv channel Vuzu.
The show explores the black female experience from the perspective of two women, best friends Issa (Issa Rae) and Molly (Yvonne Orji). They’re in their 20s and are trying to move ahead in their careers and love lives. Issa was in a long-term relationship with Lawrence (Jay Ellis) and is currently exploring life as a single girl who still yearns for love. Molly is a successful corporate attorney who has career success but difficulty with dating men. Insecure is an original because it doesn’t typecast black women as ghetto chicks, or as power hungry, or as wholesome, long-suffering housewives. Instead, the show explores and normalises the black female experience in a humorous, if not raw, manner. So, black women can be fun, vulnerable, ambitious, awkward and sexy. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Issa says: “In creating and writing the show, this is not for dudes. It’s not for white people. It’s the show that I imagined for my family and friends. That’s what I think of when I’m writing the scenes. We are telling specific stories with a universal element.”
She also had strong reasons for focusing on the challenges that single black women face on the dating scene,
telling Glamour US magazine: “We’re combating being undesirable. That’s a lot of the narrative: that black women are undesirable. Every day an athlete or a rapper says something along the lines of, ‘that’s why I don’t date black women.’”
The show is so relevant, it even caught the attention of former US president Barack Obama. In the same interview with Glamour US, Issa recalls meeting the man. “I brought my mom to a party at the White House. She got to the front of the line and got a hug from him. Then I got in line with Yvonne. The president held my hand and said to Yvonne, ‘Oh, she’s having a good year!’ I was like, ‘The president knows me?’ We started screaming! He was like, ‘I love the show and the soundtrack, and I love to see black women being creative.’ I walked away and collapsed to my knees.”
The show has just wrapped its second season, and Issa recently announced on social media that she’d signed on to do a third one. It’s all part of her quest to “be a pop culture staple. I want a place in the culture. I want people to reference this show and identify with the characters for years to come.”
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
So who is the woman behind all this success? She was born JoIssa Rae Diop in Los Angeles. Her father, Abdoulaye Diop, is a paediatric doctor from Senegal and her mother, Delyna, is a teacher from Louisiana. Issa is one of five children. The family lived in Dakar, Senegal for short while and later, her parents divorced when she was in high school. As a youngster, the star says that the affluent neighbourhood she grew up in aligned her “with things that aren’t considered ‘black’, like the swim team and street hockey”. When she later attended a predominantly black school, she says she was blasted for “acting white” and initially found it hard to “fit into this ‘blackness’ I was supposed to be”. It’s this awkwardness that led Issa to graduate from Stanford University with a major in African and African-American Studies. She also attended the New York Film Academy.
Issa made a name for herself by creating a web series on YouTube called Awkward Black Girl, which followed the highs and lows of a black woman who finds herself in uncomfortable circumstances in love and at work. It went viral. Insecure stems from this series. She has gone on to create a YouTube platform that features content produced by black creatives. It has attracted more than 20 million views and 260 000 subscribers. As a result of this online success, another of her digitally produced shows, Butter and
Brown, a cooking series hosted by Seth Brundle and Leslie Antonoff, was recently picked up by American TV channel Aspire, founded by basketball icon Magic Johnson.
Issa was just 28 when, together with producer and actor Larry Wilmore, she pitched the now Golden Globe nominated Insecure to HBO. Following its huge success, she’s accumulated honours galore, making it onto Glamour magazine’s 35 Under 35 list of achievers, as well as Forbes’ 30 Under 30 and Entertainment Weekly’s Breaking Big lists. Rapper Jay Z recently asked the actress to appear in his music video for hit track Moonlight. Her first book, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl – a collection of essays in which Issa opens up about her struggle with not fitting in and not being considered black enough at times – made it onto the New York Times bestseller list.
With success there often comes criticism. Insecure was recently lambasted for showing people having sex without using condoms. Viewers voiced their concerns on Twitter. Issa responded with a post of stills from the series showing condoms were out on the characters’ bedsides. She captioned the post: “We tend to place condoms in the backgrounds of scenes or imply them. But we hear you guys and will do better next season.”
It seems there’s no stopping Issa. She has created a cultural phenomenon with Insecure and her creativity has led her into Hollywood’s inner circle. On accepting her Star Power award at the Black Girls Rock 2017 ceremony in August, she said: “For a long time, I defined myself by what I wasn’t. My life changed when I focused on what I was, what I was good at, what I liked most about myself and what made me stand out. Once I learned to like me more than others did, then I didn’t have to worry about being the funniest or the most popular or the prettiest. I was the best me and I only ever tried to be that.”■
TOP TO BOTTOM: CHATTING TO TREVOR NOAH, AND ACCEPTING AN AWARD.
TOP TO BOTTOM: ISSA WITH HER CO-STARS, AND HER BEST-SELLING BOOK.