The time for Rap Sh!tthe new half-hour comedy Issa Rae, really couldn’t be better. The series follows two young Miami women who decide to form a rap group; Shawna (Aida Osman) and Mia (KaMillion) are appearing on the small screen at a time when women are undisputedly responsible for the rap narrative. From Cardi B to Megan Thee Stallion and City Girls to Doja Cat, female presenters have never been more embraced by the mainstream than they are right now Rap Sh!t about as culturally relevant as any show in recent memory.
His timing is also important because during Rap Sh!t could have been a superficial exploration of music industry politics and typical rapper drama — you know, beefs with other rappers, run-ins with law enforcement and so on — it goes much, much deeper. Rap is both the milieu for the series and a Trojan horse for a thoughtful, deep meditation on female empowerment, both for the characters’ inner growth and for navigating an industry that has long been male-dominated.
“What really got me to put pen to paper,” says Rae, who wrote the pilot and is executive producer on the project, “was the criticism of female rappers and the subjects they rap about. Because I just felt like that was a huge double standard.”
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She’s talking, of course, about female rappers like, say, Cardi and Megan, or, for that matter, Lil’ Kim — the subject of an intelligent existential debate between Shawna and Mia later in the series — whose sexually uninhibited imagery and lyrics raise questions about whether she’s empowering are or only serve the male gaze. Rae and the team, which includes the first-time showrunner Syreeta Singleton, Mia and Shawna painted not just as opposites — Shawna is a principled, “conscious” rapper who rejects a sexualized image, while Mia is more than willing to strip and shake to make ends meet to take care of her daughter – but also drew them as estranged friends. “It just all felt like, ‘Oh, here’s something,'” says Rae.
There is indeed something – actually a lot. When we meet Shawna and Mia, both are stuck in their lives and careers. Shawna is a C-list host who has a mind-numbing job at a mid-range South Beach hotel, her rap career has faltered in part because she refuses to bow to industry (sexualized) standards. Mia, on the other hand, buckles under the burden of being a single parent. Once good friends in high school, the two end up spending a night on the town, and at the end of their boozy reunion, we learn their backstory: Mia’s resentment that Shawna left her when Mia got pregnant.
Shawna, who is now back in Miami after leaving Spelman College and her rap career dying, must quietly contend with her own morally superior judgments of Mia as an unintended, disposable pawn for male desire as opposed to a woman who is responsible for himself, dismantle bodywork. Shawna, who happens to be hiding a big secret about her own criminal activities, is a fair-skinned black girl of relative privilege; Mia is a dark-skinned black girl who grew up in a poor household, also run by a single mother. As they work through their stuff on that first night – all streamed live to Mia’s thousands of followers – they playfully do a freestyle rap. When this rap becomes an unexpected hit, the girls have an aha moment: let’s start a rap group.
“In this conversation that Shawna and Mia are having,” says showrunner singleton, “they are assembling this identity of who they are going to be. I think identity is a big thing that we expect from people [take away] – the possibility that you can create this yourself, that you can decide who you want to be and how you want to express yourself.”
It might sound pretty simple, but for a long time female rappers were bogged down by the perception that they weren’t truly self-made artists but rather products made by men — from their looks to the lyrics they sang. In fact, some did. Rap Sh!t got viewers seeing real women (well, real fictitious women) with agency and speaking about their lives and experiences create their own narratives on their own terms.
Many other themes and provocative ideas unfold as the episodes progress. (Six of the first season’s eight episodes were leaked to the press.) Shawna is in a long-distance relationship with her Ivy League law student boyfriend, and as she and Mia’s group begin to actually take off, she becomes increasingly suspicious of the put-together, “respectable” Barack and Michelle Obama fantasy she created with him.
But the most poignant and amazingly powerful storylines go to Mia, whose struggle to get real help from her child’s father might seem frustratingly familiar to single moms. Additionally, Mia gradually becomes more awake to the generational trauma she inherited from her mother and unwittingly passes on to her own daughter through short-tempered outbursts and attitude issues.
“Mia sort of checks that out for herself: ‘Yeah, that was my circumstance, but I don’t have to lug it all around with me,'” Singleton says. “‘How much of it am I letting go of because it’s holding me back now?’ she watches [her daughter] Melissa says, ‘What do I want to make her better, but I don’t necessarily know how to make her better?'”
She continues: “There’s a lot of things happening on so many different levels and I think we all make sense of that. It’s like we’re that generation that’s going into therapy, really digging deeper and trying to unpack old traumas and figure out what we want to give to the next generation.”
As Mia and Shawna uncover their own struggles as girlfriends, as aspiring artists, and as black women, they lay bare the core truth of the series: no one else will have your back like your friends. “There’s so much that could be taken away,” Singleton says Rap Sh!t. “Being in this age, pursuing a dream and working together, but also believing in yourself and relying on your friends.”
Rap Sh!t Premieres Thursday, July 21, on HBO Max.
Malcolm Venable is Senior Staff Writer at Shondaland. Follow him on Twitter @poorly understood.
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