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. “CC.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.”
* * *
In a Q&A with HuffPost, Rae talked relationships, money, work-life balance, books, faith and more.
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?
People in your line of work need to be self-motivated, self-driven. Have you learned any lessons that help you do that more effectively?
I’ve accepted my procrastination as part of who I am. As such, I do designate days where I allow time for procrastination. Like, I’m not going to do anything, I’m not going to do shit today. This is a wasting-time day, and I allot for hours of just doing nothing, so that the next day I can really focus. I feel now like I’ve nailed my procrastination.
Have you approached friendships or relationships differently as you’ve gained notoriety?
Only recently. I always want to assume the good in people, and then I found that people who were closer to me, who’ve I’ve grown up with, they would warn me, “so-and-so is just with you because they want something out of you.”
Initially, I used to brush it off, like, what am I going to do for that person? But now I’ve been opening my eyes and I do feel like sometimes people see me as their opportunity. And that’s very disheartening.
And then, existing relationships. I’ve seen people, like, I know for a fact you weren’t checking me before, now it’s like… it’s just very odd. It’s obvious.
Some people had no interest in talking to me before, having anything to do with me. And now they’ve made a supreme effort to get to know me, to try to get in contact, go out. I’m like, what? What’s changed?
Do you worry about getting too skeptical or untrusting of people?
I stay around the same people. I keep the same friends. I still have the same core group of friends and family, and they never waste any time in humbling me if I ever try to get out of pocket in any way. That’s really important to me. I never want to be famous in any way.
No. I don’t want to be like TMZ famous, where people care. I want to be able to have the same sort of observational humor that I’ve had that people can relate to. I don’t want to be in a situation where no one can relate to what I’m writing, or what I have to say. That’s important to me.
Have you had any recent realizations about living a more fulfilling life?
The more luxurious things I’ve been exposed to, the more I realize: oh, that’s cool, but do I really need it? I know that’s for effect. Even if I had a ton of money, clothes don’t really interest me, cars don’t interest me, showing off doesn’t interest me in any way. Money would be for comfort, or to put towards the future, or to put towards creative endeavors, or collaborations. Everything would just go back into the work, and that’s what excites me.
So money and personal fulfillment are not tied together for you.
Not at all. I’ve just never been really impressed by people with money. Like, even when I was broke — yes, there was an appeal. Like, oh my gosh, they’re going to pay me $ 500, that’s great, I can pay bills. I just want to be comfortable, but I’m not allured by money if it’s not something that I want to do.
If it’s something that I have to suffer doing, or if I have to compromise a certain element of myself, or if I just don’t feel like I’m going to do a good job, there’s really no amount of money — I shouldn’t say that either. [Laughter]
Right now, I’m in a situation where I definitely need money to make a project happen. I feel like that’s different than, ‘oh, I need money to get rich.’ I need money to make projects happen, and that’s interesting to me. But if NBC says, here’s 10 million dollars to do a show that I don’t believe in, there’s no point, because I would be miserable.
I’ve definitely seen a shift in my mentality. I used to think, I want to be a millionaire by the time I’m thirty. Then I realized, well, what would be different? But I guess I’ll never know unless I’m there. Maybe I’ll be eating my words. I get a ton of money, who knows?
Is there a book that’s had a major impact on your life or your intellectual development?
Everyone says this book, so I feel — are you going to guess? Guess. Guess the book. [Laughter] Do people say The Alchemist [by Paulo Coelho]?
That one is a really powerful book. That made me feel like, okay, there’s a purpose here and there’s a path for me. Even if I get derailed, I’m going to come back to that same path. And, so, really, the stress is stupid, because, ultimately, even if you’re out walking the desert, you’ll get that water. It’s going to come. If it’s meant to be, it’s going to be.
Your parents are a big part of your memoir. Is there something positive your parents did that many parents don’t do that made a lasting impact on you?
No television at the table. I used to hate that. We always had to have family dinner, at a specific time, and always had to have conversation at the table. Like, that was it. It was like nothing else is out there.
Then we used to play games at the table. And that’s something I want to do with my kids. We used to have a game called the Don’t Laugh and Smile game, where the entire point was to get people out of the game. We used to have the Quiet game where we couldn’t speak at the table. Whoever had the urge to speak first would be out and we just.. [laughter]. I definitely want to do with my kids. Sense of humor was huge in my family.
You moved around a lot in your early life.
I was constantly trying to reinvent myself, and try to fit in to established friendships and relationships. Being the new girl kind of sucks. Either eyes are on you, or you’re ignored.
It has definitely caused me to have anxiety about meeting new people now. I’d rather stay siphoned and just not interact. If I had my way, I would just be completely introverted. But the nature of this business I can’t do that.
That hasn’t changed at all, the feeling of being the awkward new kid?
Oh my God, no. You would think that that would be the case, but no. When I have meetings, like, I have the biggest sense of relief when something gets rescheduled or cancelled. And I feel that’s only going to get worse. People expect stuff of you personality-wise, or even entertainment-wise. I feel like I’m always going to be a letdown in that sense ’cause I’m just not that.
The problem is that I need to meet people. Meeting people is great material. I’m not done making friends, I hope. [Laughter] And even just work-related, to collaborate and things like that, which I really love. I can’t be a hermit.
Was writing the memoir therapeutic in some sense?
Completely. I love to archive and I like that there’s a sense of history. I love journaling.
What’s your process for journaling?
The first thing I’ll write is thoughts and brainstorm. I have to create a topic, I have to label what it is that I’m going to be writing and then I just free flow. Everything that’s on my mind, I just gush out and it really is super therapeutic. It helps me to clear my mind, it helps to de-stress. I usually start with where I am and how I’m feeling, and then it just goes into what I feel like I need to do, what I want to accomplish. It really, really helps to clear my mind.
Do you go back and read them later?
The satisfaction is just knowing that it’s there, and that it’s documented. Part of is, like, okay, I’ve never talked about this with anyone and it’s been stuck in my head for so long, and I’ve never really even acknowledged it.
It feels good to have that out on paper. It’s like: this is my life and this happened, and this shaped this, and oh, wow, I never noticed that there was a correlation.
You grew up in the church. Do you have any thoughts about faith now?
I constantly go back and forth. I would say I’m spiritual, but not necessarily religious. I’ve seen so much that religion just seems questionable to me. And some of the institutions seem questionable and I’d really like to explore that, and I’d love to talk about that in my work more, in a way that’s hopefully not too offensive. Some people are very sensitive to that, which is understandable.
My mother is very devout. She’s a devout Christian and she would love for me to be in church with her every Sunday. My dad is a Muslim who’s sort of fronting on his practicing now. [Laughter] He’s not really the most devout Muslim. But yeah, I have a lot of faith. I do pray. But I think that that’s based on my church experience as something that’s been extremely questionable.
You’ve had some projects that didn’t work out — the ABC show with Shonda Rhimes, some of your web series — but you’ve kept pushing forward and creating. What have you learned about dealing with setbacks or failures?
You’re not really entitled to anything. I felt like I was extremely frustrated with my second web series, it just felt like we were putting in all the work, we were doing everything right, we were dedicated, it seemed like people were responding well, and it just wasn’t going anywhere. People wanted us to pick a lane, because it was a music and comedy show. I felt like I was entitled to success, and that’s just a ridiculous notion.
And so all I could do was keep creating. I was so focused on that series, trying to push it in people’s faces, that it was kind of stifling my creativity. So I would say, open your mind and try another way. Don’t give up, try another way. Just try to find another way in and explore other ideas. Your first idea isn’t going to be your best idea, necessarily. As corny as it sounds, keep trying.
What did you tell yourself at your lowest point?
I was sitting in bed, not wanting to get out, just feeling extremely depressed, deciding to try to go to grad school, and listen to my parents, and give up. But I realized that I would be even more miserable on that road then trying and failing with something that I really, really wanted to do and that I loved doing.
Transcription services by Tigerfish; now offering transcripts in two-hours guaranteed. Interview text has been edited and condensed.
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