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Insecure’s Issa Rae shares secrets with USC audience, like where she gets her best ideas

The writer/actress is drawn to projects that depict people you don’t usually see on traditional television and movies — people like herself and her friends

Issa Rae
Issa Rae speaks to a packed house at Wallis Annenberg Hall. (USC Photo/Miki Turner)

Issa Rae, creator, writer and star of HBO’s Insecure, found initial success with her YouTube series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, which later became a New York Times best-selling memoir. Rae uses humor and pop-culture references to draw audiences in to her storytelling; her work largely focuses on racial and female identity, while offering a comic sensibility.

As part of the USC Annenberg-HBO Diverse Voices Forums, Rae captivated a crowd of hundreds on Nov. 13 at Wallis Annenberg Hall. In Rae’s own words, here are three takeaways from her discussion with host Taj Frazier, associate professor of communication and director of the Institute of Diversity and Empowerment at Annenberg.

Anytime I have something due that I don’t want to be doing, I’m always thinking what script can I be working on.

During college, I had a paper due and I was in the bathroom, where a lot of my ideas come. I was on Facebook all the time and I was doing this play with my friend, so I thought how can I make these two work together?

I came up with an idea to do a mockumentary on what it was like to be black at Stanford. I was like, the camera was in the library. I checked it out because nobody was using it and basically made the first episode of my first web series.

It was called Dorm Diaries and I put my friends in it. I knew they would share it because they’re vain. And I was right. It spread to other schools. That was my first audience and people related to it. For me, that was the moment I knew I was making something that people were watching.

By the time I got the idea for Awkward Black Girl in 2010 — well I came up with the idea a long time ago but I didn’t do it until 2011 — I had two web series under my belt and it was for the internet. The prior two projects I tried to pitch to television and I was constantly told, “There’s no audience for this. Nobody wants to see black kids who are in college right now. College shows don’t do well.”

So, I said to myself, if they’re not into these other two ideas, they’re never going to buy into something called Awkward Black Girl. So, I decided to make it just for the Internet and that’s of course, the series that pretty much launched my career.

TV’s new wave of multiculturalism

With Awkward Black Girl, we had people behind the scenes that were women, Asian, Black, Latino — everybody. It was so beautiful to be on set and be able to look to people that you don’t typically see on traditional television and movies.

That was important to me, to just showcase people that I was friends with, that I knew and not necessarily caricatures or a stereotype.

Issa Rae

That was important to me, to just showcase people that I was friends with, that I knew and not necessarily caricatures or a stereotype. I do credit Shonda [Rhimes] for starting the wave recently of putting a black female on television that people can feel connected to and that is a hero. And then I also wanted to see more flawed characters and so, for me, it was about tapping into that and again, showcasing people that I knew and telling relatable stories that feature black people.

For me, Prentice and Melina, it was very important for us to make sure not only to hire writers of color, women and minorities, but to promote them.

That was important for us because you’re not going to be able to get experience if no one gives you a chance.

South Central

I have lived in View Park, South Central and now I live in Inglewood. And on television, South Central really gets a bad rap and it’s not updated.

Audience at Issa Rae talk

USC students got a chance to learn from Issa Rae. (Photo/Amy Tierney)

There’s so much beauty and richness — and it’s so cultured.

I found a show-runner who also grew up in my neighborhood, who worked in nonprofits and who loves L.A. just as much. He always said that shows like Entourage get to make Beverly Hills and Hollywood sexy and why can’t we do the same for South Central? And so, that was kind of our mission going into it.

I’ve always maintained from the beginning, I’m only telling a specific story and I don’t feel I represent all black women. I’m not telling the stories of all black people. I’m not an expert. All I can do is represent myself and my truth.

We elevated what we wanted to do with the show and how we wanted to display it.

Issa Rae has created her own production company, Issa Rae Productions, and has joined the cast of The Hate You Give, an adaptation of Angela Thomas’ award-winning novel. She is set to executive produce a-yet-unnamed HBO drama with National Book Award finalist and The Turner House author Angela Flournoy ’07.

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Insecure’s Issa Rae shares secrets with USC audience, like where she gets her best ideas

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