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How Issa Rae Created A Platform Where Black Music And Art Could Thrive
Ahead of Issa Rae's appearance at the Inaugural Black Music Collective GRAMMY Week Celebration during GRAMMY Week 2021, GRAMMY.com explores how her work in music supervision brings more diversity to the landscape.
Issa Rae may have one of Hollywood’s greatest underdog stories, but now the actor, writer and producer has her eye on the music industry.
While Rae is not a recording artist herself, her work with music supervision on her creative projects has shown that her influence on music is pivotal in bringing more opportunities for Black artists. Rae’s biggest move into the music industry yet is her label partnership with Atlantic Records, Raedio. The label will serve as an "audio everywhere company," and in an interview with Variety, Rae said Raedio will allow her to continue to "work within the music industry and audio entertainment space."
Perhaps this step into the industry is largely thanks to "Insecure," her Peabody Award-winning show that follows the life of Issa Dee, a woman in her late 20s navigating the complexities of relationships and life in Los Angeles. The sounds of the HBO comedy-drama, which is coming up on its fifth and final season, place an emphasis on under-the-radar, Black, independent, and Los Angeles-based artists. This has crafted the opportunity at possible mainstream breakout successes for numerous emerging music creators.
Rising West Coast rap duo Blimes and Gab's single "Feelin' It" appeared on season four’s "Lowkey Distant" episode. After the episode aired, they felt the feature would bring them more exposure. "People are still reaching out to us and congratulating us and stuff, so it's been really, really dope," Gab told GRAMMY.com May of last year. “I can't wait to see how [the show] catapults us.”
— Blimes and Gab (@BlimesAndGab) April 22, 2020
Simultaneously, the show has embraced music as a genuine way to introduce audiences to Black and brown L.A.s’ present-day sound. "Issa deserves a ton of the credit for creating a platform for all of these artists to have a place to expose their music," "Insecure" music supervisor Kier Lehman told Variety. "But also putting all of this music in the context of this show and the setting — the location helps to give a deeper connection for the fans."
Rae has highlighted South Central Los Angeles, the show’s primary location and an area of the city that historically hasn’t always had positive representation on screen, in a refreshing way.
No episode brought the essence of Issa Dee’s L.A. like season four episode "Lowkey Movin’ On." While the season situated Rae’s character Issa Dee in the midst of brewing tension with best friend Molly, Issa was concurrently preoccupied with organizing a block party in reverence to the Inglewood and South Central communities, two areas historically underserved but that continue to breed notable artists— R&B singer Syd and rapper D Smoke to name some. The block party becomes a space where music helps bring the community together. Compton’s Vince Staples makes an appearance as the artist who stepped in as block party headliner after Schoolboy Q pulled out of the gig. The season also boasts an appearance from Inglewood’s SiR. Past seasons pay homage to L.A. sounds as well. In season two, 1500 or Nothin performed a cover of “Girl” by The Internet in the fourth episode of Insecure, perhaps being one of the most coveted performance moments on the show.
Another one of Rae’s important contributions to the industry is her effort to showcase women creators, specifically Black women. Before becoming a household name on "Insecure," Rae created the web series "The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl." In the series, she starred as J, a woman who navigated her love life and the microaggressions of being one of the few Black employees in a rigid office setting. In the show, Rae made music a part of the character, too. Sharing the same oddities as Issa Dee on Insecure, J would often vent her frustrations through rhyme, cathartically imagining herself in freestyle battles and writing diss tracks against coworkers.
Embracing the "awkward" quirks of viewers, Issa Dee’s rapper alter-ego landed its status as fan favorite while centering various female rappers in the score for Insecure, including Kari Faux, Rico Nasty and Sasha Go Hard. Furthering her love of women in rap, in 2019 it was announced that Rae was writing a new show about a fictional South Florida-based female rap crew trying to break into the industry under the working title "Rap Sh*t." Last month, Rae assembled a comedic team of writers (including The Read co-podcaster Kid Fury), landing an eight-episode series of Rap Sh*t on HBO Max with production going underway in the summer. Both hailing from Miami, JT and Yung Miami of City Girls will be making their debut as co-executive producers along with their label heads Kevin “Coach K” Lee and Pierre “P” Thomas of Quality Control Records.
Being a force in the ongoing rise of female rap while breaking new ground for women and independent artists, Rae’s hand in music is concurrent with her inclining progression in media. Evading local radio programming, avid millennial and Gen Z music listeners often flock to television and online playlists to curate their listening experience, an expertise that Rae perfected on Insecure. Now, Rae is making music discovery her next business venture aside from the show. Building connectivity with new artists, in 2020, Rae’s Raedio will be a hub for syncing music for film and television. Under Rae’s diverse entertainment corporation Hoorae Production Company (which also has television writing brand ColorCreative under its umbrella) Raedio’s current roster is led by singer TeaMarr and Atlanta-based rapper Yung Baby Tate.
Building an empire with creatives across media platforms, Rae’s myriad of efforts also shows a lasting impact in connecting with her audience. In a 2020 interview with Variety, Lehman spoke on Rae’s ascension in music:
"There’s been a movement of modern alternative R&B music that we were able to champion and it all coincided [with making] the show a powerful place to come and discover that new music. The show is an outlet — a place to come if you like the sound that we’ve created. Labels and streaming companies need curators to give music context when it’s released and to help to bring in fans."
Over the past five years, Issa Rae’s star power has been ubiquitous with television and film as it has been with Black music. As fans await Rae’s next move, her range has proven to be undeniable, inspiring a generation of Black creatives not to limit their vision to a singular pursuit.