Issa Rae: Awkward is the New Cool

With the internet making fame so easy these days, it makes the standout of true talent that much harder to identify Some talented souls refuse to stand in the shadows though. Being a smart, funny, and skilled individual can put you into the spotlight. Internet sensation-turned-cable star, Issa Rae has used all of the above with a dash of personality to reach the top, and right now she’s on fire.

At only  32, Jo-Issa Rae Diop aka Issa Rae has spent more than a decade creating entertainment. She has written, produced, directed, and filmed dozens of small web series since her high school days, the most popular being the hit YouTube web series, Awkward Black Girl. With all her hard work and dedication, she’s placed herself on the map, and is now propelling across it with her critically acclaimed new cable series, Insecure, and she even has a best-selling book. Her web series and social media platform has generated followers numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and her videos have received more than 20 million views combined. The multi-talented Issa Rae has been featured in many publications, such as Glamour and Entertainment Weekly, and she has received several honors, including a spot on the Forbes’ “30 under 30” list, a “tally of the brightest stars in 15 different fields under the age of 30” (Forbes).

Issa Rae’s inspiration and material comes from her upbringing. Her four siblings and she were raised by her Senegalese father, and her Louisianan mother. When she was young, Rae’s family left gang-influenced L.A. for Senegal in Africa, where her father practiced pediatric medicine. After his practice failed, the family relocated back to the States in a predominantly white area in Maryland, where she resided until 6th grade. Her upbringing meant that she had very little exposure to urban black American communities, which she was ridiculed for once her family moved back to Los Angeles. “When I moved to L.A., I realized, ‘Oh, I don’t talk like everybody else,’” Rae said in a The Breakfast Club radio interview. “They [black students] called me out for that, and my hair was natural while everybody else’s was pressed, so those traits made me ‘white’. That was something that always stood out to me and it’s the material I use in my work today.”

Being an outcast struck hard with Rae as a teen, just as it does to any other. At first, she began to bend to the peer pressure, dumbing down her vernacular and mannerisms to fit in. But, soon she realized that what others thought of her didn’t matter, and she kept to herself. She began to look up to atypical black female characters like, “Lora” from the TV show Family Matters, and “Freddie” from  the TV show “A Different World”, and “Vanessa” in The Cosby Show. Issa Rae learned to embrace her awkward and unique personality, which is the source of the self-deprecating humor that drives her material.

Rae’s web series, Awkward Black Girl (2011), recounts moments of her actual life (through a fictional character) that is told in a comedic way. The series hits hard with audiences by providing relatable storylines, palatable acting, and enjoyable characters. I want to emphasize the fact that the series is relatable (this, coming from an awkward black guy). The series premiers with Issa Rae’s character stuck awkwardly at a string of stop signs next to a co-worker who won’t stop talking to her through her car window. It’s the humorous life moments like these, along with the common African-American dilemma of ‘not being black enough’ that Rae uses to grasp her audience.

Due to the popularity of the web series, Issa Rae has ventured up the ladder into cable television. For 2016, she landed a two-season contract with HBO for her new series, Insecure, which is loosely based off Awkward Black Girl. I haven’t personally seen this new cable series yet, but I can say that it has been massively successful with a major following and rave reviews. It even scored an 8 out 10 average rating with film critic site, Everywhere you look on the web for Insecure, there are people screaming, “I love this show!” The main character, like the web series, is based on Issa Rae’s. “I’m always socially uncomfortable, I’m an introvert, I’m shy…I’m all of these those things,” Rae told The Breakfast Club. “I say that my character is 80-90% me. I’m a bit more empathetic, but for the most part, it’s me.”

Issa Rae has also published her memoir book titled like the web series, The Misadventures of An Awkward Black Girl. The book received a 4.5/5 Barnes & Noble’s rating and became a New York Times bestseller in 2015. Unlike the web series, or the cable show, the book is based on a true story.

Although Issa Rae has been at it for a minute, she’s still considered a rookie by industry standards, but if she’s doing impressive work this early on, who knows where she’ll be in 5 or 10 years. Most people credit the age of internet and technology as the key to fame, but that’s not what sticks out to me. The thing that amazes me the most is that Rae’s most popular web series, her critically acclaimed cable show, and her best-selling freshman book are all modeled after herself. She’s living proof that sometimes the best version of you is your awkward self.

-Chris Simmons