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Pioneering Actress & Writer Issa Rae in Conversation with Amy Goodman

Web ExclusiveJanuary 15, 2018
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Amy Goodman interviewed actress and writer Issa Rae at the University of Michigan’s 31st annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium in 2017. Rae is the creator of the HBO series “Insecure,” which grew out of her web series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.” Rae is the first African-American woman to create and star in a premium cable series.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

ALYSSA BRANDON: I will introduce Issa Rae. Issa Rae is a critically acclaimed and world-renowned actress, writer and producer. With her own unique flair and infectious sense of humor, Issa Rae’s content has garnered over 20 million views and 200,000 YouTube subscribers and counting. She won the Shorty Award for best web show for her hit series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, and has written a New York Times best-seller under the same title. She has since expanded her YouTube platform to feature various content created by people of color.

Issa Rae’s distinctive style and glowing black girl magic has captured the hearts of millions and has caused her to receive national attention from major media outlets, including The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Essence, Vibe and others. In addition to making Glamour magazine’s 35 Under 35 list, as well as _Forbes_’ 30 Under 30 list, she has earned a Golden Globe nomination for best actress in a TV comedy or musical for her performance in HBO’s Insecure, which will air for a second season. Issa also appeared on the cover of Essence magazine’s May 2015 “Game Changers” issue alongside Shonda Rhimes, Ava DuVernay, Debbie Allen and Mara Brock-Akil. In her work, Issa Rae has continually expressed a desire for more people of color to work in production behind the scenes, in order to make a lasting impact in the television industry.

At a glance, our two keynote speakers appear to come from very distinct walks of life. But a closer look reveals the work they each dedicate their lives to exemplifies the power of narrative and a commitment to drawing attention to stories often ignored by those in positions of power. Their work shows us that, in part, the sound of change comes by giving a voice to the voiceless and providing a platform for those who don’t always have a seat at the table, so they may have a chance to be seen, heard and understood.

Everyone, please join me in giving a warm round of applause for the dynamic and innovative Issa Rae and welcoming Amy Goodman back to the stage.

ISSA RAE: All right! Thank you. Thank you. Wow! Warm.

AMY GOODMAN: Amazing, huh?

ISSA RAE: Oh, my! Your talk was amazing. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: So, and I get the honor of asking Issa Rae questions, but also with help from you, because questions have been submitted. Well, you just heard, among other things, that Issa was on the cover of Essence as a game changer. And I don’t know about you, but I want to know how she became this remarkable woman that she is. Issa, start off—just give us a little bit of your biography, before we get to Awkward Black Girl. Tell us about your family, where you grew up, how you ended up doing these webisodes that broke through the world and touched so many people.

ISSA RAE: Well, first of all, it’s an honor to just even talk to you. You know, I’ve been a fan, and I used to listen to you on my commute to my passionless job, you know, back starting in 2008, 2009. So, to be here talking to you is just a really full-circle experience.

And I grew up in L.A. I was born in and primarily raised in L.A. Anybody from L.A.?

AUDIENCE: [cheering]

ISSA RAE: OK. I wanted to come out to YG’s “F— Donald Trump,” but I felt like that wasn’t very Kingly. But I grew up there. I was—my dad felt like my family didn’t have enough discipline—my brother, specifically—and was like, “We’re moving to Senegal,” where he’s from. So—

AUDIENCE MEMBER: [screams]

ISSA RAE: What? Is there a Senegalese person here? OK, girl. Na nga def. And so, spent some time there, just living with family in West Africa, in Senegal. And then my dad tried to start a hospital there, and the government, you know, messed him up. They had some mini Trumps over there, and so lost all his money.

And then he decided to start over in L.A. And my mom—he moved us, our family, to Maryland, so I grew up there for five years and lived. I went to predominantly white schools and kind of felt out of place, but I always felt like, oh, I’m not—I’m the only black kid or girl here, I’m one of two black kids here. And by the time I moved back to Los Angeles in middle school—I went to a predominantly black high school and just didn’t necessarily—didn’t really fit in. And a lot of those experiences, I’ve mined for my work now. And a lot of my work now focuses on just those feelings of being out of place and feeling uncomfortable and feeling, you know, awkward and insecure, which happen to be two shows that I’ve done.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re talking to a largely college audience, so can you just touch on your college years, how you got through them?

ISSA RAE: I did go to college. I almost forgot about—I went to college. Yeah, I went to Stanford University. And—

AUDIENCE: [cheering]

AMY GOODMAN: Are you all Stanford graduates?

AUDIENCE: [cheering]

ISSA RAE: Word? Yes! OK, girl! Go Card!

So, yeah, that experience was just absolutely instrumental, in terms of, I would say, jump-starting my career. You know, a lot of students at Stanford were primarily focused on like human biology, you know, engineering, political science. And that was supposed to be my field, but I just was drawn to writing and directing. And so, my freshman year, I was cast by—I want to say she was a senior or she was a junior, but she threw her own hip-hopera. And, you know, I was looking at some of the plays that our school threw or put on, but they were predominantly white, and, you know, a lot of the leads weren’t played by people of color. And so, here she was, taking this—you know, taking a story into her own hands, and she created this production from scratch and wrote, produced, directed it, acted in it and cast me, in addition to some of my other friends in it. And it was just phenomenal.

AMY GOODMAN: Sort of like an early Hamilton?

ISSA RAE: Like a—basically. I mean, yeah. She was—shout out to her, doing it before Lin did it. And so, I was—I was very much influenced by her. And, you know, the next year, she didn’t put on a play, and so I was like, “Oh, I have an opportunity.” So I adapted Spike Lee’s School Daze, which really resonated with me at the time, just in terms of the themes that he presented and being at, oddly enough, a predominantly white institution. And School Daze was set at a historically black college, but a lot of the themes overlap. And so I threw that—I put that on. I produced, directed and adapted it for the stage, and continued to do that throughout my college run.

And because there weren’t a lot of students majoring in art or pursuing the arts at Stanford, there was a camera in the library that was always available. So, I would check that library out, and on the side I would do like these short, stupid projects. You know, I created my first web series in 2007 just because I was trying to procrastinate, not writing a paper, or writing a paper and—

AMY GOODMAN: It was called?

ISSA RAE: It was called Dorm Diaries, and it was about what it was like to be black at Stanford. And I uploaded it to YouTube. And, you know, it caught around our own campus, and then it started to spread to other college campuses, like Duke and Harvard, and people—and Georgetown—and people were like, “This is my college experience, too.” And for me, that was like a moment—I call it my light bulb moment, where I was like, “Wow!” I’m writing on the side, and I’m trying to break in, traditionally, as I was. You know, I was entering contests. I entered a Sundance competition with a friend, and we ended up being rejected. And so, to have this direct access to an audience that was looking at my work, you know, when I was—what?—like 21, was insane to me. And that always stuck with me.

AMY GOODMAN: How did the university respond to your version—to you talking about your life there?

ISSA RAE: They didn’t. The administration didn’t really respond. It was—you know, it’s like, what could they really say, you know, about—this is kind of our college experience. It was mined from some sort of truth, but there wasn’t any controversy or anything.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about what just exploded on the global stage, Awkward Black Girl.

ISSA RAE: Yes, so, Awkward Black Girl ended up coming about—you know, I came up with the idea when I was struggling and hungry in New York, super broke. And I was like, “How can I—how can I make money fast?” And I was like, “Well, I should sell T-shirts.” I don’t know. And so I came up—I was just sitting in my room, journaling, and I came up with the phrase “I’m awkward, period. And black.” And I was like, “Oh, that defines me,” one of those things I knew, the whole time, but one of those things, you know, just I—I just realized. And it feels like—it seems like an identity that hasn’t really been explored in a lot of the television shows that I watched, a lot of the films that I’ve seen. And so, yeah, my first inclination was like, “I’m going to put these on a T-shirt and sell these and make little animated web shorts to try to sell these.” And then I was like, “Animation? I don’t have money.” And then I just gave up on the idea. There was a Catch-22 situation going on.

And so, then, in 2011, as I produced—well, in 2009, I produced another web series. It was a show my brother—about my brother and his rap group. It was a mockumentary of them trying to make it in the music industry in L.A. And as I was building that audience, I started to take web series way more seriously, in terms of releasing them every Monday at 10 a.m. I would, you know, turn down plans, to edit. You know, my friends would be like, you know, “Do you want to hang out on Taco Tuesday?” And I’d be like, “Yo, I have to do my job. I’ve got to edit.” They’d be like, “You don’t—but you don’t have a job.” But, I mean, that, for me, was—you know, I was treating my passion like a job. And so—

AMY GOODMAN: But how did you do it? How did you get the actors? I mean, how did you do the whole thing?

ISSA RAE: Well, that was easy. They were like, you know, my brother and his friends. And so, they just—they kind of had to, to show up. And it was good for them, too, because it got them exposure. And then I would put out ads on Craigslist for actors. I didn’t really know about like Actors Access or have the money to be able to, you know, pay people at the time. But also being in L.A. really helps, because there are a lot of people who are constantly trying, like, “Here’s my headshot. Here’s my résumé.” So that, that helped.

And during that time of just creating content constantly and consistently, I decided to revisit doing this idea, Awkward Black Girl, that I had. And I wanted to cast a friend from D.C. who I had worked with in Dorm Diaries. And when I came up with the idea in New York, it was convenient. She was like, “Yeah, I’ll come. I’ll commute to D.C.” But when I hit her up when I was in L.A., you know, a couple years later, I was like, “Hey, I have this role for you. Are you still interested in playing it?” She was like, “Girl, I’m a lawyer. I can’t. I can’t do that. But good luck.” And it was the best thing that ever happened to me, because I felt like I was running out of time and was just like, “You know what? I feel like I can play this part,” and just put myself in it and asked my best friend, who’s actually here with me today, to record it, and another friend from Stanford, who was a dancer trying to transition into acting, to play my love interest, or non-love interest, and uploaded it—edited it and uploaded it, and the rest is history, why I’m here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how long did you do that for?

ISSA RAE: How long did I do it for? I did it for two years, yeah, to two-and-a-half years.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did Insecure happen?

ISSA RAE: Insecure came about because I—because of that series, you know, I had an opportunity to, in our second season, work with Pharrell Williams. He funded our second season via his i am OTHER venture. And because of that, it got a lot of—a lot more attention. And Rolling Stone and New York Times reviewed like our first episode.

And so, from there, Shonda Rhimes and Shondaland reached out to say, “Hey, do you have any ideas for us?” And I pitched them as a television show called I Hate L.A. Dudes. And that was entirely factual. And they were like, “Oh, my gosh! We hate L.A. men, too.” And we talked for two hours about it. And in that process, I learned just about like honing my voice and about speaking up, you know, just because I was so grateful for the opportunity, but a little too eager, and, you know, wasn’t able to properly navigate notes, like Shondaland was great about hand holding, holding my hand throughout the process, just because I had never written for television before, and they were just—it couldn’t be any better in terms of leading me along the way. But in terms of navigating network notes and studio notes, I was very much a yes woman, like, “Yeah, yeah! I’ll make it work. OK, that doesn’t really make sense, but I’ll make it work, because this is my only opportunity.” And so, when it came time to turn in a draft, it just felt voiceless. It didn’t feel like my own. And, you know, they passed on that project, and I was devastated. And I felt like I had blown my one shot.

And then, a month later, HBO called and said, “Hey, we heard that you’re free. Do you have any ideas for us?” And I called my friends and had a celebration that day. We didn’t even have a job. But it was like, “Yo, HBO called. It’s on!” And after pitching the show to them, they bought it in the room, and then I needed—again, I had never written a show or run a writers’ room before. And so, my management company and, you know, HBO, they said, “You should meet with other people to see if anybody would be able to run your room with you and produce the show with you.” And they introduced me to Larry Wilmore. And they were like, “If you like him, great.” He’s outstanding. “And if you don’t, we’ll just move on.” And so, we met, and we just clicked immediately. And I credit him with really helping to solidify my voice, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I mean, your path to success, paved with both successes and failures. And it’s so important, this part about the failure and how it—you parlay that into success, and you become the first African-American woman to helm an HBO series. And now it’s going into its second season.

AUDIENCE: [cheering]

ISSA RAE: Yes. Yeah. Thanks. Can I—can I bring y’all like home with me? This is—

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about directing, writing and playing you. I mean, when you were back here, you were saying, “Oh, it’s the writing that I love.”

ISSA RAE: I do. I love the writing the most. And I do not—I have not taken on the directing, at least for Insecure, directing. The directing is primarily done by the amazing Melina Matsoukas. But she’s outstanding. And she knows Beyoncé, guys. Come on. But it can be overwhelming at times, just because, you know, I am responsible for—like if the show isn’t successful, if people don’t like it, you know, it’s only on me. And that’s where it gets overwhelming, like I can sink my own ship. And so, there is definitely a lot of pressure to maintain the vision, moving forward, but at the same I understand that I’m extremely blessed and so excited to be able to just have this opportunity to create and to create with people I love and respect and admire.

And for me, it’s just been—it’s been opening so many doors for people around me and people who I’ve met along the way, people I’ve worked with since Awkward Black Girl, since, you know, I did my other show, Fly Guys. And I just see it as a ticket to continue to produce with other creators of color, which is what we’re doing currently. And I have an opportunity with HBO, currently with a first-look deal where we’re producing—they’ve basically given me access to produce content in the same way that I do on my YouTube channel, but for them. And so, we’re currently developing a half-hour with another creative writer of color that I’m really, really excited about.

AMY GOODMAN: So there are a lot of questions that people submitted. Among them: How do you use your work, or plan to use it, to push back one-sizeism in the entertainment industry, especially toward actresses?

ISSA RAE: One-sizeism? I mean, I tend to cast real people. I think, in watching a lot of my productions, you’ll see that. You know, I really do. I literally tap into people that I know, because, one, in the past, I didn’t have a choice. You know, I was just like, “Hey, girl, I know you’ve got a public health job, but can’t you be in the—can you play this disgusting role of Germy Patty?” Or, you know, like—and so, I don’t—I don’t think that there’s an industry—I acknowledge that there’s an industry standard of beauty, but it’s not reflected in my own work. Like, I tend to try to push up against what’s considered classically beautiful and what’s considered attractive by, you know, Hollywood standards.

AMY GOODMAN: Another question is: What has your natural hair journey been like? Someone asked.

ISSA RAE: It’s very rocky. It’s been—it’s been full of experiments.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: It looks good, girl!

ISSA RAE: Thank you, girl. Thank you. You see all this kitchen in the back. I’m excited. All in the back. It’s been—it’s been a journey. You know, I’ve had to grow to love my natural hair, for sure. I think, you know, I, when I was in high school, tried to hide it constantly and—because, you know, perms and presses were in, and my mom was always like, “I would get you a perma-press, but your hair is too thin to do that.” And I’d be like, “Mom, what do you know?” And I remember taking a stand and being like, “Mom, I’m going to get this perm. I’m 12, and you can’t tell me anything.” And she was like, “You do not need to do it, because your hair is going to fall out.” And I did it anyway, and my hair fell out. And my mom was like, “That’s what your bald-headed ass gets.”

But after that journey, you know, I cut off all my hair post-college, and that really, I feel like, changed my life—for the better, just in terms of embracing who I was. And I felt like the weight that we put on our hair is just so—it’s kind of ridiculous. And, for me, it allowed me and afforded me a freedom and a newfound confidence. And, you know, now I love my hair. It’s been a—and I work with a great natural hair stylist. Shout out to Felicia Leatherwood, who does amazing styles with all lengths of hair, whether your hair is this long or, you know, longer.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what it meant to be nominated for a Golden Globe?

ISSA RAE: Yeah. It was absolutely surreal. I remember getting the call. It was like 5 in the morning, obviously, because the East Coast announces it first. And I remember getting a call at like 5:30 and just ignoring it, because I was like, “It can wait.” And then, you know, my phone was blowing up. And, you know, I looked at the news and saw that I was nominated.

And it was a bittersweet moment for me, because I was like, “Oh, it’s just me,” and, you know, just to know how many people work on the show and how many people put so much, you know, blood, sweat and tears—no blood, let’s be real, but just sweat and tears into the project. But, you know, it’s just—I was talking to Melina about it, just like, you know, “I wish it were all of us,” and she was just like, “Girl, it is all of us. You know, this is—you’re the show.” And that, in a sense, made me feel better about it. But it was just such an honor to just even be included among the company that I respect and admire so much.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was the experience like?

ISSA RAE: The experience, I felt very out of place. I was just looking in awe of everyone. I saw Denzel walk by, but I didn’t talk to him. I know, right? I just—I just did like one of those. But it was too late. But it was just a—it was a surreal experience, in that, you know, everyone was extremely inclusive and very supportive. You know, I had so many people come up and tell me that they watch the show and they love the show and to continue to keep doing what we’re doing. And so, it just made me want to do more.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I was looking at ETonline, that was talking about folks behind the stage, and you were there, along with Tracee Ellis Ross, who won for Blackish.

ISSA RAE: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And like her, you talked about Planned Parenthood. This was a very political Golden Globe, right? You had Meryl Streep calling out the president-elect. I’m wondering your reaction, in the audience, when you were watching that, and then going backstage, and they quoted you as saying, “They’ve done”—talking about Planned Parenthood—”They’ve done so much for our community, for women, for everybody. When I had questions in my adolescence, in my teenage years, when I had scares and issues, Planned Parenthood was the safest place to go,” you said.

ISSA RAE: I mean, 100 percent stand by that. I think, yeah, they’ve done so much work in preventative care. And just the attack on Planned Parenthood is so bewildering, especially—you know, you and I were discussing that—especially when, you know, the Affordable Care Act is at stake, when Obamacare is at stake. And, you know, when I was insurance-less, that’s where I went, you know? And when I couldn’t—when I felt like I couldn’t talk to my mother about certain things, that’s where I went. And the idea that it could be dismantled is just absurd to me.

And so, listening to Meryl speak, I just felt like she’s such a responsible artist, and she’s someone that, you know, I admire and I strive to be like, just in terms of speaking out. You know, entertainers in the past have been just relegated to the role of entertainment. And I feel like now there’s just not—there’s too much at stake to kind of be silent on those things. And MLK, he said the day that we—the day that we begin—our lives begin to end the day that we become silent about things that matter. And I feel like, by that very definition, our president-elect is like killing us, in a sense, because nothing he says matters. Go to his Twitter account; nothing he says matters in any way, shape or form. And what he does talk about only concerns him and his best interest. And I feel like if we’re only—we’re only going to provoke a sort of change by speaking up. And there’s just not any room to be coy because you want to capture a mass audience. I just have no interest in being silent about something that might offend others, because, you know, I don’t want—I don’t want their support. I don’t want bigots to watch my work. I don’t want—I don’t need them to. And for that, I admire a lot of what she said, because she called so much out and called on us to kind of put our money where our mouth is—mouths are.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the day after the inauguration, all over the country, women are marching.

ISSA RAE: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: In Washington, a massive march. You’re in L.A. Are you going to be going to the march there?

ISSA RAE: Yeah, I’ll be going in L.A., joining a couple of writers in L.A. to do the same.

AMY GOODMAN: What about art as resistance, how you see that, and especially today—we’re sitting at a university on Martin Luther King Day—where you see politics in your work? Or do you even separate it from your daily life, in what you write and what you’re conveying?

ISSA RAE: I love to spark conversations. I remember, in college, being inspired by studying the Black Arts Movement and how that was a movement for social change in a very real and productive way. You know, I think, now more than ever, I think people are looking—one, we’re looking for leaders, which is not—I wouldn’t say lacking at all. I think there’s such a strong community of leaders, especially online, and even offline, but I think now people are looking to their favorite entertainers to say something and to to guide them to an action point. And I think, for me, I’m looking for the same, and I’m looking for a community. And, you know, I’ve been meeting with other community leaders just on the side to just figure out what it is that we can do and how we can influence change.

And especially with these midterm elections, we’re seeing now that that is the closest—that is the closest time to actually effect any real change, in terms of electing the officials that we want to elect and to encourage people to go out and vote when it actually matters, because this man has control of the House and the Senate. And you’re seeing things pass at an alarming rate and in record time, and that’s not going to change if you’re not going to get out and go vote again.

So, I mean, I think I don’t ever want to be didactic in my own work. But we’re always going to promote conversations. And especially now, we just feel like a lot of our storylines will address how we talk with our friends, amongst our friends. I think even with—I have a group chat with friends where we talk about, you know, everything, from pop culture to things that affect us from day to day.

And one of the things that, on a particular day, affected me was the death of Alton Sterling. And we were all just talking about how there was another black death and how—they were saying how they had to go to work and face their white co-workers and face the fact that they just didn’t have the same—they weren’t carrying the same burden. They weren’t carrying the same—the weight of just frustration. And they could live in this bubble of oblivion, of willful oblivion. And so, we were just talking about our feelings and wishing that we could do something, and, you know, ended up starting a fund for his family. And that, for me, was just a tiny thing that we could do, that we could use our platform to do and to show like, hey, this is a small, small token. We can raise funding, money for his kids. And so many people reached out, so many people helped, that we ended up raising like over $700,000 for his kids.

And I think people are just looking for actionable steps. I think people are ready and willing to help. They just want to know how, and they want to know the answers. And a lot of that work is just being done through social media.

AMY GOODMAN: As you go to bigger stages, do you feel more constrained about what you can do, like from when you were doing Awkward Black Girl to doing Insecure, for example, are things you can’t do that you could do first?

ISSA RAE: That I—because of this specific platform?

AMY GOODMAN: Expressing things.

ISSA RAE: Well, I used to talk a lot of shit. And that’s the only thing that I feel like I’ve held back. And I kind of don’t want to anymore. I’m way more careful with my words. But that’s not—that just comes from, you know, getting older and, well, hopefully, wiser and just being careful about what I choose to speak up about. But other than that, now I feel like I have—I feel like I have more opportunities to say things. I just want to say the right things. That’s it.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you feel, in—you have a larger stage to speak out, but in your art, in the Insecure, have you gotten into situations where they say, “We don’t want you to go there”?

ISSA RAE: Absolutely not, no. I think, if anything, they encourage it. And that’s what I love about that particular—as I’ve always wanted to be on a network like HBO, and HBO itself, just because they are very raw, and they’re very authentic—they support authenticity in a way that kind of mirrors the internet. You know, I think nothing will ever top being able to just, you know, create something from scratch, put it out and have instant feedback. Nothing will top that. And if anything, that’s the only—that’s the biggest thing separating, you know, creating for—creating work online and creating work for a network, is just the time. But other than that, I feel like I have full creative freedom to broach any subject.

AMY GOODMAN: Who have you been most inspired by?

ISSA RAE: Ava DuVernay, Shonda Rhimes, Mara Brock Akil, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Debbie Allen. I just have—so many black women inspire me. Like, I really do, just daily, find new women to be awestruck by and inspired by. And they just mean so much to me. I like to model myself and my career based off of, you know, obviously, women who I look up to and who constantly challenge obstacles and who do the unthinkable and who do the unexpected. And, you know, I consider myself an impulsive person, and so inspiration for me comes, you know, in doses everywhere.

AMY GOODMAN: Ava DuVernay just did this amazing documentary, 13th.

ISSA RAE: Yes, she did.

AMY GOODMAN: Which is up for an Oscar. And, of course, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was coined when she wasn’t nominated as director of Selma, even though the film was, for the film Selma. What it means to have those women and the openings, and what you’re trying to do now? I mean, you’re talking here. It’s not quite to the next generation. You’re just beyond 30. But what you say to people here, who are experimenting, who are trying to find their way and express themselves?

ISSA RAE: To look within—look next to you, and look for people who you feel like are as passionate as you are, who think the way that you do, who don’t think the way that you do, who are better at things where you find yourself weak. And work with those people, collaborate with those people.

AMY GOODMAN: It fits with this question that someone asked: How can young black women learn more about creating positive media content as opposed to just consuming what’s projected?

ISSA RAE: Look to—there’s just—there’s too many positive examples. I mean, I think that’s what spurred me into action, is just watching—you know, being in college, I think—I want to say Flavor of Love was super popular—either Flavor of Love or I Love New York. And I remember seeing those women and those images on screen and just being so irritated by the representation and knowing that this was being seen potentially worldwide, and not having alternative images of black women on television. So I was like, “This is the only image that people are seeing of black women, and it is”—you know, I was watching an episode about one contestant who—I’m talking about this other time—who defecated on the floor, because she was—you know, she had to use the restroom, and these producers, you know, these men, the reality show producers, in some cases, were just like, “No, just hold it. Just hold it. We’re about to do the”—whatever his equivalent of the rose-giving ceremony was. I think it was—I think he gives them clocks. And they were like, “Just hold it.” And so she held it for as long as she could, and then she ended up pooing on the floor, on this television show, and they aired it. And then she still stayed. You know, he didn’t eliminate her. And it was just like the—it was the most disgusting image, and I just felt—I felt bad for her, because it was like this is the only means that she feels like she can, you know, promote herself, and it’s humiliating. But what else is out there?

And so, for me, I felt like I had to create what I wanted to see at the end of the day. And another thing is that I didn’t know any women in my circle who were constantly fighting like we see in these shows. Like, so many of the women in my social circles were supportive and are supportive and are amazing and are ambitious and do so much. And that’s what I wanted to see reflected. And so, my advice is to just look into your circle and project what’s real to you, and that’s the most authentic and truthful type of work you can put out there.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your process of writing? How do you most focus?

ISSA RAE: I need to leave the house. If I stay home, I’ll start, you know, organizing my iTunes library, folding scarves. Like, so, I need to leave. And I try not to force it, you know? I use—I will go out and people-watch. If I have a writer’s block, I will go and try to have an adventure, you know. I will—I like to put myself in uncomfortable situations, because I feel like that’s where a lot of my ideas come from. I feel like that’s where I thrive. And then I will let an idea sort of marinate, and then just sit down and isolate myself to write it.

AMY GOODMAN: Your next project?

ISSA RAE: My next project—I have a lot of different projects that I’m working on. You know, I’m writing a film. I’m writing, oh, I guess, more things that I can’t talk about. But I’m collaborating, as mentioned, with other writer-producers. But I just want to explore every medium that I can. And that’s what I’m doing. I have the luxury of being able to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, since we have to wrap up, on this Martin Luther King Day, your message to people here and to people who are watching on the live stream, to young women, to young men, to older folks, about expressing yourself, finding your place in the world, and what you want to accomplish now?

ISSA RAE: For me, I just want to—I want to continue being authentic. I want to come from a place of truth always. I want to make a difference in a way that’s, you know, long-lasting and that is impactful. When I think about who has influenced me, in my youth, and who I’ve been able to look to as examples, you know, I want to be able to do the same thing just via art. And my appreciation for artists who have, you know, extended beyond their specific medium to help the masses and to really enforce a greater change, just that’s what appeals to me the most, and I’m trying to find my way of doing that. And it’s a journey, but I just really feel, now more than ever, dedicated to doing that.

AMY GOODMAN: What effect did the first African-American family in the White House have on you for the past eight years? And then, where you see us headed now?

ISSA RAE: I mean, obviously, I remember exactly where I was. I was still struggling in New York when I saw this beautiful family take the stage and accept the first family presidency, however you say that. What is the noun, proper noun, for this first family? Anyway, I—to see this man, you know, exceed all expectations was incredibly inspiring.

And I think—I was just talking about this with a musician who was saying that he feels like his—his work, because he doesn’t necessarily do the same type of music that’s currently popular. Like trap music currently is like pop music, to a degree. And he likes to have sort of a message in his work and talk about things that matter to him. And he was like, “That kind of stuff isn’t really popular anymore.” And I, you know, had a theory that because we’ve—I feel like this presidency has encouraged black people to flourish, like we can do so much. And it’s encouraged art. It’s encouraged politics. It’s encouraged just so many facets of life. And I do feel like there’s a—there’s been a celebration period, to a degree.

But at the same time, there have just been so many other issues that have kind of been swept under the rug that we’ve ignored. There have been—you know, there’s been a rise of hate as a result of this presidency, that we’ve seen bubble up and is the current cause, I would say, of this incoming presidency. And that is just heartbreaking, to know that—you know, I saw someone say that the man who—the man who was in—you know, the first black president is being replaced by a man who’s been endorsed by the KKK, basically. And so, to know that we’re entering a time of almost normalized hate is so scary to me.

And I can only hope, which is a message of this outgoing president, that we can band together and we can block and figure this out in the best way possible. And again, I want to make that happen through my own work, but I know that it’s going to take more than that.

AMY GOODMAN: Issa Rae, thank you so much.

ISSA RAE: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. And thank you, Amy.

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