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Creativity Shan’t Be Policed in Issa Rae’s 'Rap Sh!t'

Rap Sh!t has been confirmed for a second season by HBO! Go watch it and support this creative exploration of Hip-Hop culture from Issa Rae.

Arguably most famous as the creator of the wildly popular and universally beloved award-winning series Insecure, Issa Rae is a trailblazing woman in an industry that is still largely male-dominated. As a homage-of-sorts to the Black women taking over another largely male-dominated world, the hip-hop music industry, she’s back with a new show called Rap Sh!t. The story is about two female friends who find overnight success with a rap song and decide to become a rap duo. The growth of the careers of Grammy-winning hip-hop artists like Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B, and Lizzo inspired the two characters. The popularity of hip-hop, especially Black women rappers right now, makes Rap Sh!t a relevant and fun watch for Black History Month.

Rap Sh!t closely follows the lives of Shawna (Aida Osman) and Mia (KaMillion) who join forces at the end of the pilot of the half-hour show. Shawna daylights as a hotel receptionist while trying to grow her music career. Her platform of choice is social media, where she releases political rap songs in a provocative mask. Her lyricism and ability to freestyle rap are apparent from the first few scenes when she spits bars impromptu for a colleague.

Mia is a high school friend of Shawna’s, who is working three jobs to provide a good childhood for her daughter Melissa. Melissa’s father, Lamont (RJ Cyler), is also a rapper, but doesn’t seem to be a very responsible parent. One day, Lamont, like many times before, won’t show up to watch his own daughter for Melissa. Mia ends up asking Shawna to watch her daughter, and the two reconnect in the process. Mia and Shawna discuss the latter’s rapping and end up recording a video for a song.  Shawna continues to display her skills,  literally freestyling an entire verse. The next day, the newly minted duo find that the song is going viral, and decide to capitalize on the momentum and pursue their passion in Rap & Hip-Hop music.

[L-to-R] KaMillion and Aida Osman as Mia and Shawna respectively, in ‘Rap Sh!t’
Over the course of several episodes, Shawna uses her resources to create a makeshift studio to record more songs, while Mia uses her connections to help them find an audience. Their first song as duo, “Seduce and Scheme,” is significantly different from Shawna’s usual solo music. The subject matter isn’t obviously political: it’s more a hype song where Shawna sings her own praises. It is also an outlet for the two to voice their frustrations with men, especially in a financial context – a theme that resonates with their community. Shawna’s boyfriend, Cliff (Devon Terrell), criticizes the song by pointing out that it’s flippant and doesn’t sound like her. While she initially sides with him and tries to over politicize their next song, something that Mia doesn’t approve of, Shawna eventually realizes that she enjoys writing and singing music that’s focused on sexual empowerment just as much as making songs about anti-capitalism, racism, and the patriarchy. Shawna comes to enjoy this widening of subject matter and the duo end up creating a sexually charged choreography for their song, eventually performing it publicly. This was great storytelling commentary on the differences in political vision that feminist and/or sexually liberated lenses can have in contrast to traditional male gaze/patriarchal slut shaming point-of-views about sexuality and sexual displays in hip-hop.

The controversy around the sexually charged performances and music videos of some Black women rappers are often used to mask blatant misogynoir, slut shaming, and body-shaming. From Megan Thee Stallion and Lizzo to Nicki Minaj and Cardi B, there is an unfair backlash rooted in racism, sexism, and respectability politics against artists who openly display their sexuality. This misogynistic critique can often be hidden in fake concern trolling, where people pretend to be worried that the artists are being “exploited,” no matter how often they say they are choosing to display their sexuality consciously. Haters will also often engage in dime store psychology, insisting that the women must not be truly confident if they have to “resort” to sexual displays. If not that, it becomes the no true Scotsman fallacy, where “talented women don’t have to rely on their looks or sex appeal to sell music.” The goalposts often change when we are blaming women for why men are sexist.

Rap Sh!t is an essential viewing for everyone. Issa Rae doesn’t deliver lectures on these topics, but instead presents an insider perspective about the creative choices made by female rappers. You realize the concerns about presentation within the community itself. The idea of empowerment takes its time to have an impact. The court of public opinion initially manages to introduce self-harmful notions in the heads of these impressionable adults whose careers depend on fan’s fair-weather opinions. But through the series, Issa Rae sensitively introduces us to the idea that it isn’t derogatory or provocative, but literally just self-expression with the intention and effect of liberation.

The cast of ‘Rap Sh!t’ with show creator and executive producer Isaa Rae

Rap Sh!t isn’t just essential viewing from a sociopolitical perspective, it also explores the current phenomenon of exploding on social media. A major part of the series is presented in the form of Instagram lives, stories, videos, and social media posts. It depicts how networking works, showing how Instagram Lives are the open mics of the digital age, especially post-COVID. Mia and Shawna’s growth as a rap duo is largely due to their choice to put themselves out there on social media. Reach is essential, and so is the confidence to make bold choices. Their consistent efforts to make time for going out with Mia’s contacts to play their music in person and perform at parties may seem like obvious steps, but Rap Sh!t takes nothing for granted as it develops the storyline. So while these are fairly well-known milestones, their inclusion alongside the repetitive depictions of the two trying to stand out in a crowd of a million hopefuls adds to the authenticity of the show. It feels like a real lived experience, almost documentary-like because of the depictions of social media presence. It doesn’t take long for you to get invested in the success of the duo.

Apart from the fact that this is a series with a lot of potential, covering a story that’s largely popular but that no one’s ever really bothered to do a deep dive on, Rap Sh!t is funny! It’s not hilarious in the traditional sense of a sitcom, but the comedy is very much present and derives from the funny, genuine characters written with a lot of heart, as they try to navigate their complicated lives and passions. I shall not spoil it for you, go give it a watch and realize that the four hours isn’t nearly enough. I’m guessing you’ll be just as grateful as me that Rap Sh!t Season 2 has been confirmed by HBO and the showrunners!