Rae’s new show shines spotlight on aspiring female rapper duo
Working the grind in Miami, a pair of old friends from high school get back in touch and decide to form a rap group in “Rap Sh!t,” created by “Insecure” star Issa Rae, who remains off camera this time around. Music stardom might actually be in Shawna and Mia’s grasp, if they can get enough traction, push through their insecurities and get a handle on their evolving friendship, as well their complicated personal lives.
Shawna (Aida Osman, also a writer on the show) works the front desk at a hotel, and her instincts are on the brainy side, leaning in the direction of conscious rap: “I want people to focus on my lyricism, not what I look like.”
Mia (played by real-life singer-songwriter and rapper KaMillion) is a single mom who juggles a number of gigs, and she considers Shawna’s earnest words and then replies: “I mean, the game is the game.” Her tastes are more of Megan Thee Stallion than Common.
Can you make music that says something but is also commercial and fun? That question underscores their interplay, which is part oil and water, part true-blue friendship. Finding common ground is a process. A closet becomes a makeshift recording studio. And the first time they hear their single playing in the club? Thrilling.
The show is thoughtful and curious about the double standards Black women in rap inevitably face. There’s industry pressure to embrace their sexuality (in lyrics and in looks) but once they do, they’re dismissed for only being about that. “I saw these comments from a
prominent producer about female rappers,” Rae told the Hollywood Reporter, “and how all they rap about is their vaginas, to say it euphemistically, and I thought that was so unfair. So I thought: Let me start telling this story now.”
With Syreeta Singleton guiding the series as showrunner, all of it is portrayed with wit, exuberance and real intelligence. Sometimes deep, sometimes silly, the series is a canny depiction of the specific contours of female friendship. And in its quieter moments, it taps into that inner voice that keeps us awake at night, full of anxiety about why we’re going nowhere in life.
Osman and KaMillion have a wonderfully unpredictable chemistry and their performances defy easy categorizations — their blerd-raunchy dichotomy is only part of it because, like any human being, they each contain multitudes. That’s also true of the supporting characters, who are far more than their archetypes, whether it’s the butch musicmanager-in-the-making (Jonica Booth); or Mia’s ex, who is an exasperating co-parent but otherwise a halfway decent if goofy guy (RJ Cyler); or Shawna’s straight-laced boyfriend,
who is in law school and has serious political ambitions (Devon Terrell).
HBO has another series about the music industry set to premiere soon, called “The Idol,” from “Euphoria” creator Sam Levinson and singer-songwriter Abel Tesfaye (aka The Weeknd). That show went through a creative overhaul after much of it had already been filmed because, according to reporting, Tesfaye felt the show was leaning too much into a “female perspective.”
“Rap Sh!t” is intentionally and unabashedly from a female perspective, and the diplomatic view might be that the existence of both shows means there’s room on HBO for a variety of portrayals of the music industry.
Or maybe we’re just incredibly lucky that Rae is one of the few Black women to achieve this level of Hollywood clout. And that she’s interested in offering a counterapproach to Hollywood’s usual reticence when it comes to telling stories centering on the experiences and point of view of Black women in an industry still dominated by male power players.