In episode one of Issa Rae’s new show, Rap Sh!t—out today on HBO Max—the main character, Shawna (Aida Osman), voices her frustrations with the music industry. For years, she’s been trying to make it as a solo artist after a promising early break. “Y’all say, ‘Oh, I want a different type of female rapper.’ No, you fucking don’t! You don’t support me, you don’t support any of us!” she shouts.
Yet she soon sets herself up for a wild ride with her childhood friend Mia (KaMillion) after they accidentally go viral for a tipsy freestyle they broadcast on Instagram Live. In the glow of the clip’s attention, they decide to form a rap group, but they’re at odds about the messaging: While Shawna longs to create something meaningful, Mia wants to rap about money, fast cars, and sex. “Mia, I knew exactly who she was—I’m friends with her,” Rae says with a laugh over a Zoom call from New York. “Shawna eluded me for a while.”
We won’t say anything more about the plot—no spoilers here—but the show is great, not only for its quick comedy but also the seriousness (and topicality) of its lensing and layering. (Six of eight episodes were made available to the press.) Rap Sh!t is about gender dynamics, relationships, cash, bodies, fame, and power; there are double standards, false starts, family conflicts, romance roadblocks, friendship squabbles, and questions of what to put on social media—in this show, the characters record nearly everything. All of that is rendered against the hazy humidity yet clear and present hardships of predominantly Black neighborhoods throughout central and north Miami. Rae began writing Rap Sh!t in 2020, dreaming of that city while locked down in Los Angeles.
In Shawna and Mia, Rae created amalgams of some of today’s biggest female rap stars and their come-ups. “I wanted to mimic the way that we discover musical talent right now,” she says. “[In some ways], our relationships to these people become less about the music and more about their personalities and social media presences. Even Megan Thee Stallion—I talk about how before I even knew about her music, I saw her video where she was at the gas station twerking.” Riffing on that, scenes in Rap Sh!t are often framed by mock Instagram lenses, Snap filters, and even Twitch windows.
The most visible celebrity reference, however, is to the City Girls, the Miami-born rap duo of Yung Miami (Caresha Brownlee) and JT (Jatavia Johnson). “You can’t help but think of them,” says Rae. “The City Girls have put Miami back on the music map in a way that hasn’t been done since the Trina and Trick Daddy years. If I’m telling a story about two women in this time, in this city, I had to get their blessing.” (Both Yung Miami and JT are executive producers on the show.)
And indeed what Los Angeles was to Rae’s prior HBO series, Insecure, Miami is to Rap Sh!t: There are shots—beautiful, long, softly lit shots—of Overtown, Little Haiti, even the MacArthur Causeway, which shuttles vacationers to and from Miami Beach. Pivotal scenes were filmed on local streets and famous locations alike, including the popular E11even nightclub, and creators and crew members from the area were hired, including the comedian and writer Kid Fury. There was also “extensive research” and a “constant dialogue” on the community they were portraying, according to Rae. “We wanted to make sure that people who were from there, and Black people who were from there especially, felt represented and that we were depicting it correctly,” she says. “It was also important to me to show a side of this place that’s not typically seen on television. There’s just such a richness to the city.”
Rae had another core motivation in developing Rap Sh!t too. “Even before putting this out, some of the male responses I got were like, ‘Why are we focusing on these stories? Why are we telling these stories?’ I feel like there’s a dismissal,” she says. In that way, Rap Sh!t ultimately feels like a declaration: that there is space for Black female artists to create, so don’t just accept them. Celebrate them.