The sophomore comedy series from television powerhouse Issa Rae, called Rap Sh!t, couldn’t have come at a better time. The upcoming series follows two somewhat stranded best friends, Shawna (Aida Osman) and Mia (KaMillion), as they decide to start a rap group. And though the show is a comedy, it captures the real-life challenges facing women who want to break into the male-dominated hip-hop scene.
Much like Rae’s breakout series, insecure, Rap Sh!t is all about the music (Miami hip-hop stars City Girls serve as co-executive producers), but it’s also about navigating the challenges of young Black adulthood. In between hilarious scenes of Shawna and Mia conceptualizing tracks for an eventual mixtape, the show depicts the ebbs and flows of a years-long friendship.
Rae says that Rap Sh!t developed out of her original script for insecure. At first, she wanted a stronger focus on her character Issa Dee’s secret desire to be a superstar rapper, but then she realized the story of an on-the-come-up female rapper balancing life, love, and the industry was a concept that could stand on its own.
“I think this is just such a unique time in hip-hop, especially when it comes to female rappers, because there’s such an abundance, and it doesn’t feel like they’re all in competition with each other. I’m a child of the ’90s, and there used to always be a tendency to put two women against one another,” Rae, who wrote the show’s pilot episode, tells BAZAAR.COM exclusively. “It feels like we’re in an era where there’s such a supportive environment now because of that abundance. All of that, combined with just my own story of coming up, became the next story that I wanted to tell.”
Ensuring that this new cast reflected the culture and vibrancy of Miami was a high priority for Rae, who describes the process of finding her two show leads as long and daunting.
“Because the show is based in Miami, we were looking for authenticity first and foremost. When KaMillion came onscreen, the first thing she said in her video audition was, ‘I am MIA and MIA is me,’ in her little Florida accent. Then, of course, seeing her perform, we knew we found [Mia]. She embodied everything that we’re looking for in this character, “Rae says.” She’s actually a rapper in real life, which scared me a little bit at first, because I wanted Mia to be her own person. I don’t want people to necessarily look at her and have it all feel familiar.”
Shawna, played by Aida Osman, came to Rae via a less traditional route: through the show’s writers’ room. “Casting Shawna was a way longer process. There was just so many elements that she had to have. Some actors would be great, but they couldn’t rap or you didn’t believe them. Some of them would be great rappers, but they just couldn’t get the nuances of Shawna or weren’t really funny,” Rae says. “[But Aida] was a funny rapper and self-deprecating but confident at the same time. Through Aida, we found who Shawna is. We actually hired Aida as a writer before we cast her in the show, but we just couldn’t get her out of our mind, and after the chemistry test between her and KaMillion, it was a no-brainer.”
Balancing time behind the scenes and on the screen wasn’t difficult for Osman, who previously served as a story editor for HBO’s Betty and a writer for Netflix’s Big Mouth. It actually turned out to be an enjoyable challenge.
“I love [doing both]. TV writing is ultimately my favorite thing in the world, and being able to distill these stories into something fun and bright is amazing. It’s comedy, it’s storytelling, it’s music, it’s fine bitches!” Osman tells BAZAAR. “It’s interesting with Shawna—I’m giving her a lot of my personal storylines. In the writers’ room, we access our own personal stories and give them to the characters just by nature of having conversations about our life and about what’s going on in culture around us. We can have real conversations about Black femininity and control as a young creative, and that’s beautiful to me as a young creative and a Black woman. I get to do a lot of self-exploration through the show, and heal and investigate my own life. It’s like constant therapy.”
For KaMillion, seeing herself in the character of Mia helped strengthen her performance. She’s no stranger to the music world, after all, having previously worked with Rihanna, Missy Elliott, and Diddy, and has even taken home a Grammy for her work by Ella on HER’s self-titled album.
“I found healing in myself just by getting an opportunity to navigate Mia’s life,” she says. “Just trying to find your niche in life and doing whatever you gotta do to make these ends meet—without being ashamed of it! Every time I tried to separate [me and Mia], by the next episode, there was always something that related to my real fucking life. We would do a scene and I’d be like, ‘Damn, I’ve been through this shit before!’ So it actually was a big help, because when you feel something that you’ve experienced before, you can take those things that you’ve learned and just really make that shit come to life and make it believable.”
in a way, Rap Sh!t serves as a snapshot of women in hip-hop at this moment, when sexuality, social media, and street smarts are all intertwined. Social media is crucial in the series; it not only permeates the characters’ personal lives, but offers them a pathway to success. Text messages, DMs, Instagram Live sessions, and even Twitch segments all are incorporated into the show’s plotlines.
“When I think about Cardi B, I discovered her because of friends sending me her social media videos before she was a rapper, before Love&Hip-Hop. And then, being able to watch her journey and watch people fall in love with her and root for her, and then root for her downfall like that—that is so interesting to me,” Rae says. “Megan Thee Stallion too. I didn’t become a fan of hers until I saw the twerking gas station video she did. When I think about so many of the female rappers that we see today, and even just the music industry as a whole, social media is such a huge part of that come-up. To be famous during this time relies so much on what you’re putting out. The question of how authentic we really are, knowing that people are watching, really fascinates me. I don’t think that this era of female rap exists without social media.”
Ultimately, Osman and KaMillion both see the series as a story about the exhilaration of following your dreams, and the sacrifices that come with chasing success. “Finding ways to make money and be successful, and turning yourself into a brand, that is what many young Black women are dealing with right now. All women, really! Learning how to be a business, especially if you’re a young creative , is something that comes with the job now,” Osman says. “It’s not just about the art anymore. It’s about the commercial aspect of it too. How can you sell yourself? How can you actually get people to listen to your music? How do you get people to enjoy your art? And what does that mean to you? It’s about struggle, but it’s about success through that struggle, and being able to redefine happiness once you get it.”
Rap Sh!t doesn’t debut until this summer, but Rae and her two stars are already anticipating the reception. “This is kind of like my sophomore album—I consider Awkward Black Girl as my mixtape and insecure my first album So with this one, there is pressure, but I’m really excited about it. I hope that people have an open mind—it’s such a fun show,” Rae says. “The fact that it’s gonna drop in the summer feels right for these characters and for this story. I hope it makes people laugh, and I hope anybody who is a creator, an entrepreneur, or just a music fan can relate.”
As for Osman and KaMillion, they admit that although they’re excited for audiences to come along on the raucous adventures of Shawna and Mia, they only really care about the opinion of one person. Speaking for them both, KaMillion quips, “I just want to make Issa proud.”