Issa Rae stands strong, arms akimbo, on the jacket of her new memoir, “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.”
By most measures in entertainment, she is a wonder woman. Nearly 25 million views of her YouTube videos. New York Times best-seller status for her debut book. A greenlit pilot for HBO. She is collaborating with Shonda Rhimes and Instagram’ing with Oprah.
Such feats are not achieved by awkwardness alone. Like the projects she produces, Issa Rae is endearing and quirky and earnestly self-aware.
She is now focused on her most ambitious goal yet: to diversify television from the inside out. She explained her philosophy during an interview with HuffPost Live’s Marc Lamont Hill:
Until you have people in positions of power that have varied experiences, nothing will change. Honestly, we’re not on [television executives’] radar. They don’t know. They’re not really thinking about us. If you have people in positions of power that don’t have very many black friends, that don’t really understand the black experience, they’re not thinking about it and there are not enough people concerned with it… Social media changed the game in that you’re seeing all of these tweets, you’re seeing all these trending topics from…black people who are expressing what they want to see. Now people take notice.
Rae wants television that is authentic and culturally rich. “I think that’s entirely possible. We had an era of it for a while [including Living Single and Fresh Prince], and then we didn’t.” Moreover, she wants to redefine “what’s been painted of mainstream media’s blackness. I don’t fit within that. I’m in this awkward definition of blackness. Black is supposed to be cool, black is sassy, black is trendsetting. I just don’t feel that way. It’s almost limited in a way and I feel like black is so much more than that.”
Her approach to this challenge has changed. She put an end to coaching people who asked her out to lunch wanting to pick her brain. “I’ve stopped taking those meetings, and I’m so happy that I have. It really is draining to just have people extract what they want, and [meanwhile] you’re losing time working on something. And then having someone try to figure out what their path is, and either how you can help them or what they can extract from you to continue on their own path — that’s draining, and it’s kind of unfair.”
The people Rae wanted to help weren’t the ones asking for meetings; they were the ones getting shit done. She recounted her own experiences trying to make it in the industry. “I would rather work and show someone,” Rae told The Huffington Post. “Even asking, let’s go out to coffee, all of that — that’s never been me. I wanted to be sure that I could offer that person something before even asking anything in return.”
Instead, Rae has launched ColorCreative.TV. “ highlights women and minority writers, and produces their pilots, and gets them an audience, and then packages their content, and showcases them to networks,” she said. “Studio and network executives are taking an interest in content of color. On the surface that’s great, but behind the scenes, they’re still not hiring very many.”
I was surprised to hear you say that you felt stagnant last year, like you were “stuck on a treadmill.”
I do get down on myself a lot. There’s just a constant feeling of not having enough time to complete what I want to do, feeling like I’m trying to complete too many things at once, and not well. And just feeling like I won’t be able to do that and feeling miserable. Not feeling fulfilled at the end of the day.
That’s really kind of scary to me, it keeps me up. I’m competitive with myself. I feel like I’m always trying to one-up myself.
Have you ever tried to get off the career “treadmill” for a little while?
I don’t even know what that means though. ‘Cause I feel like no matter what I’m doing, even when I am not being productive, I’m still thinking about work, I’m still thinking about the next steps. Even if I’m binge-watching something, I draw inspiration from that. I’m thinking, wow, it would be really cool if I did this.
Everything is work, is fun, at the same time. But there’s still this burden of: What am I doing next? How am I doing it? Am I going to be able to do it? And am I going to be able to do it well?
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