‘Awkward Black Girl’ Creator Issa Rae Talks About Her Webseries and Television Ambitions

The second season of “The Mis-Adventures of an Awkward Black Girl,” the popular web series created, produced, written and staring 28-year-old Issa Rae, came to an end last Thursday. Since this viral, award-winning show debuted back in 2011, we’ve watched J, the endearing socially inept lead character, fumble her way through her relationship with White Jay, a dead-end job, and the mundane occurrencesthat make up her days. “Long hallways are the epitome of discomfort. I already said hi to this woman, what other interaction can we possibly have? ” J asks in her voice-over. “Am I supposed to look at her the whole time? Do I act like the blank walls are interesting enough to stare at?”

Such are the awkward trials and tribulations of J’s life and, for that matter, many of ours, regardless of race, which explains why a diverse segment of viewers were instantly drawn to this hilariously relatable show and why, after having run out of money in the midst of the first season, Rae managed to rack up $56,000 in donations to complete the season from fans through a Kickstarter campaign.

“Awkward Black Girl” has garnered much praise and attention not only for its brand of relevant situational comedy in the vein of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld but also for its refreshing lead character that debunks all the ubiquitous stereotypes associated with African-Americans on the small or big screen. J is far from the one-dimensional roles we are accustomed to watching most black actresses play. She’s neither a comforting girlfriend, nor is she the overcompensating strong, got-it-together shot-caller or the angry sassy sista. Instead, she is the almost never seen vulnerable, self-conscious black woman that the mainstream media would like you to believe doesn’t exist.

“We’ve been denied a normal reflection of ourselves for so long. Not an overly dramatic, cool, or violent one, but just a normal character,” explains Rae over the phone from L.A. where she lives and shoots the series. “With ‘Awkward Black Girl,’ I sought to create a girl who just happens to be black that goes through the same things that everybody else goes through. Being awkward and black is never seen as a good thing.”

Rae should know.

When her family moved from Potomac, Maryland to L.A., Rae first understood there was a narrow definition of blackness and being awkward wasn’t one of the conventional identifiable descriptors. In Potomac she attended a diverse school for gifted and talented kids and was accustomed to being herself with no reproach, but at her predominantly black high school in L.A., a nerdy Rae’s blackness, or lack thereof, was up for debate. “I just did not fit in all. I wore my hair nappy; I didn’t have a perm like everyone else. To them I talked white and my sense of humor was white,” recalls Rae, who kept a low profile and sought refuge in theater class where she uncovered a budding interest for acting, writing, and producing, which then developed into her passion when she attended Stanford University. While in college Rae wrote and produced plays, and in 2007 she created her first hit web series, “Dorm Diaries,” which took a look at being black at a prestigious school.

“In college, the black, white, Latina friends I made all had the same specific kind of humor I had,” Rae says. “I realized then that it was universal, even if I didn’t see any people of color on Seinfeld. I knew we could and should all be included.” But not everyone agrees. After ‘Awkward Black Girl’ won the 2012 Shorty Award for Best Web Show, Rae was bombarded by racist tweets questioning the show’s merits. Some of them came from fellow web series creators stunned that they had “lost to a niggerette,” as one so cleverly pointed out to Rae. The tweets included such shocking and tasteless gems as, “#ThingsBetterThanAwkwardBlackGirl the smell coming from Trayvon Martin,” “Congrats on winning do you get 3/5 of the award?” and, “Of course the black one wins. Fuck the Shorty Awards.”

“The bewilderment that our show not only exists, but that it could actually be good is indicative of how mainstream media thinks,” Rae pointed out in an essay on XOJane following the show’s backlash. “This mindset is exactly why creative shows of color don’t get to exist on television anymore. There’s an overbearing sense of entitlement that refuses to allow shows of color to thrive. How dare we even try.”

“Some people are really closed minded,” says Rae. “It shows how brave other people are who got passed the word black in the title and watched and related to the show. I wanted to put black in the title. Why not? Why ignore it? It’s obvious, right? I’m black.” But that’s not where her identity ends. “At its core, the show is about this awkward girl who goes through ridiculous situations that forces everyone to relate,” Rae explains. “When people dismiss it as a black show, they just don’t get it.” The show also co-stars a racially diverse group of actors.

Grammy award-winning hip-hop producer Pharrell Williams, who in his own right has broadened hip-hop’s musical and stylistic landscape with his eclectic beats and whose rock band N.E.R.D. helped redefine the meaning of cool for a generation of young black males, reached out to Rae during the first season. “He was like, ‘I’m awkward and nobody believes that people like us exist,’” she remembers of their first conversation. “Awkward Black Girl” was exactly the sort of content Williams was after for his new video network web site, IAMOTHER.com. “Pharrell told me he wanted to be part of ‘Awkward Black Girl,’” she says. IAMOTHER.com is now funding the show, with the recently wrapped second season being the start of Williams and Rae’s thriving partnership. “He is the best,” she says. “The first thing he told me is that he wouldn’t change anything about the show. That’s exactly what I wanted to hear.”

Following Williams’s call, the offers have kept coming in from TV executives eager to develop this unique show. While bringing “Awkward Black Girl” over from the internet to the small screen is a very exciting prospect for Rae, she’s wary of losing the creative control that comes with producing your own work for the web. “The raw expression gets filtered ‘cause so many people get their hands on it,” she says. “It becomes about what is going to make money, and that’s not what is really important on the web.” Rae also admits that “Awkward Black Girl” is “just too close to me to just hand it off to anybody.”

Although she would be open to having the show air on a cable network. When she got a call from Shonda Rimes, the creator behind the wildly successful Grey’s Anatomy andScandal, Rae expressed her fears that “Awkward Black Girl” couldn’t work on network television; Rimes agreed and asked Rae for some more ideas. Rae pitched her a show she briefly worked on as a minisode on the web. “I wrote ‘I Hate L.A. Dudes,’” she says. “I had no idea where I was going with it, but I just knew that it was true to my life.” The short featured an L.A. man’s lengthy grooming session in front of the mirror before heading out on a date. “I do hate L.A. men tremendously, and Shonda does too,” she laments. “They suck! They are really sipping on their own Kool-Aid, and they swear they are the best thing since sliced bread.” Rimes loved the pitch, and she sold the half-hour comedy show about a young aspiring journalist navigating the L.A. dating scene to ABC. Rae will write and co-produce (but in which she will not star).

“I’ve been enjoying branching out and doing other things,” says Rae. This includes not only making the jump to network television but also creating content for other web series. Rae is in high demand, but despite her busy schedule, “Awkward Black Girl” continues to be her priority. The second season finale ends with a very big announcement—well possibly. “Next on Awkward Black Girl: An ABG Movie?” flashes on the screen before the credits role. “We are trying to make a feature-length film happen,” says Rae. She wants to create the kind of cult classic that she loved watching in the ‘90s, when movies starring black actors were more prevalent. “Love Jones and Love & Basketball were the kind stuff I wanted to write when I was younger,” she says. “It wasn’t about the struggle. They were basic love stories.”

Rae will no doubt add a healthy dose of clumsiness to her big-screen love story. This season ends with White Jay professing his love, following a relationship hiatus, to J, who has been missing him and waiting for his call. A self-conscious J uneasily responds with, “Oh, thank you! That’s what’s up. That’s great. High-five!” Awkward!
 

Photo by Elton Anderson for Rolling Stone.

Weekend Recovery: Phosphorescent, ‘Muchacho’

Dense but weightless harmonies, burbling electronics and the sense that your soul is getting massaged—and that’s just “Sun, Arise! (An Invocation, an Introduction),” the first track of Muchacho, from Phosphorescent, aka Matthew Houck, an indie folk maestro who got his start in the deep south. Lucky for you, NPR is streaming the whole arrestingly pretty album today.

For my money, though, it’s the second track, “Song for Zula,” that perfectly synthesizes Houck’s down-home and bedroom-laptop moods for six of the best minutes he’s ever recorded. And as moving as they are, those Appalachian strings will relax if not plain melt you. Just don’t let the knowledge that they used this in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy sour you on it!

Follow Miles Klee on Twitter.

‘Bunheads’ Is the New Lady-Show With No Diversity

Last night was the season finale of Girls. Phew! Did you think we’d make it through the entire season? What is everyone going to write about on the internet now that we’ll have to wait several more months for Lena Dunham’s narcissistic characters to head back to our TV screens? Well, thankfully, there is ABC Family’s Bunheads, which is probably the only time I will ever write that phrase. The ballet-centered show is already causing controversy after Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes called it out for its lack of ethnic diversity.

Rhimes tweeted on Friday, "You couldn’t cast even ONE young dancer of color so I could feel good about my kid watching this show? NOT ONE?" It’s probably a fair thing to say! The show, co-written by Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and starring Broadway triple-threat Sutton Foster as a former ballet dancer finding herself teaching the art of dance to a group of small-town, would-be black swans, does indeed seem to be missing any African-American faces (or, honestly, any other actors with hyphenated descriptors). 

But Sherman-Palladino, who responded to the allegations in an interview with Media Mayhem, claims that Rhimes is unfairly attacking her.

"Look, I’m not going to get into a pissing match with Shonda Rhimes because she has 15,000 shows on the air, and she’s doing just fine for herself,” the former Gilmore Girls creator told Media Mayhem in an interview posted on YouTube. “[But] I’ve always felt that women, in a general sense, have never supported other women the way they should…I think it’s a shame, but to me, it is what it is.”

You can watch the full interview below:

Would Rory Gilmore pull the feminism card? Probably not! She’d be too busy dating idiots and throwing 1940s-themed parties for the Daughters of the American Revolution. (But maybe she would say, "I’m not racist! My best friend is Korean!") Perhaps Sherman-Palladino can take a lesson from Rhimes and do what she did with Grey’s Anatomy: just keep adding more and more insufferable characters to the show, both filling the ethnicity quota and complicating the plotlines! (Let us not forget that we should take anything that Rhimes says with a grain of salt, as she is pretty much single-handedly responsible for the career of Katherine Heigl.)

Here’s what I’d like to ask Sherman-Palladino: why the hell isn’t "bunheads" spelled as "bunheadz." That would have convinced me to watch this show. 

Five Questions For Early Morning Rebel

Los Angeles’ Early Morning Rebel got their big break when the haunting single “Life Boat” played on the apparently still popular television show Grey’s Anatomy. The song sparked interest in the exceedingly handsome California-based group, landing them spots playing at dozens of fashion shows in the following months and propelling sales for the Life Boat EP.

Now the band, fronted by Nathan Blumenfeld-James and Dustin Bath, friends and collaborators since they were teenagers, is about to embark on a swanky tour of Soho House clubs across the U.S., working their way up to an album debut last this year.

We talked to Blumenfeld-James in advance of their New York show with five questions about where the band came from and where they want to go.

How did you guys first start playing together?
Dustin and I have been friends since high school, and have been playing in bands ever since. Eight months ago we started EMR to start fresh.

You’ve earned a reputation for playing fashion parties. How did that come about? Do you consider yourself fashionable guys?
Yes, we’ve played several fashion shows and events both in the U.K. and the States. We deliberately put ourselves in the fashion community because we want to surround ourselves with what inspires us, and partner with great designers and brands we respect. We do consider ourselves fashionable.

You have a new single, “Burn Us Down,” coming out this month. Can you tell us about the track?
"Burn Us Down" is different than "Life Boat." It is a full band song with more energy. It has more guitars and ‘anthem-style chorus. It’s the kind of song that makes you want to fight or fuck.

You’ve said EMR is known for writing songs with a harder edge, why is that?
Most of the songs I’ve written for EMR have a darker quality. The songs are serious and have an edge. I doubt there will be a quirky EMR song coming in the near future.

What’s next for Early Morning Rebel?
We are doing a West Coast tour this summer and releasing a record in fall. We will be at NYC and London Fashion Week in September playing shows and attending events and shows. We will be touring the U.K. in fall as well. We also just confirmed a few shows in Berlin and Miami. We will be steady in the studio writing and recording and shooting and directing our videos.

Jesse Williams On ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ & Ending His ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Sex Drought

Jesse Williams arrived at the BlackBook offices wearing a t-shirt that bore the unmistakeable silhouettes of Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins. (They’re unmistakeable if you’re as big fans of the actors as we are.) It was a tantalizing piece of promotional swag for The Cabin in the Woods, and was given to Williams by the film’s co-writer and executive producer, Joss Whedon. For horror buffs and the Whedon faithful, Cabin could not come out soon enough. Initially slated for release in February of last year, it was delayed until January 2011 for 3D conversion, a decision that nearly proved fatal—for the film, and for Williams’ budding acting career.

In July of 2011, MGM financially imploded, and The Cabin in the Woods was one of several anticipated films to find itself in distribution purgatory. Williams, a former high school teacher who had little acting experience, thought the film would be his big break. He was forced to regroup and embark on a career where his high-profile calling card collected dust on a shelf. It didn’t take long for the 30 year old to catch another break. After nailing a guest stint as Dr. Jackson Avery on the immortal ABC soap Grey’s Anatomy, producers awarded Williams with a full time gig beginning last season, the show’s seventh. Somewhere along the way, Lionsgate picked up The Cabin in the Woods, which is finally hitting theatres on April 13. So when Williams sat down with us for a quick chat recently, he was all smiles.

Under what circumstances did you become a regular on Grey’s Anatomy? It was supposed to be two or three episodes and then they said, stick around for a few more weeks, because it’s a performance-based contract. I didn’t know if I had a job each week, and ended up doing like twenty episodes. But every week it was like an audition like shit, am I going to be around?

Did you really want to stick around? I did. I hadn’t done anything that big, and I admired the work being done there.

Did you watch the show before? I didn’t. I was aware of it, and I was kind of aware of the music on it, because they break a lot of artists. But I got the audition the night of my birthday. I was on my way out, but I stayed in so I could see what this show is that I was auditioning for. So I watched a bunch online, and gave a shitty audition the next day.

Your show is infamous for backstage drama. What’s it like now? We had a bad couple of years, and I landed right afterwards. I kind of regret that because I wish I got to see all the good stuff, because now it’s like one functional family. I got there and Katherine had her last episode on my first episode. So we worked together for one or two episodes.

Was there a big goodbye for her? Yeah I think there was. I didn’t work there on her last day, and I was brand new. She’s a tough cookie, but she respects being pushed back. I don’t know her, but my experience on set was she’ll stomp all over you if you let her, and she’ll respect you if you push back

What happens to your character that lets him stay for the long haul? Well, they’d laid some of the groundwork before I got the offer, and I think it was probably a bit of a try out for me. My grandfather is character that’s been talked about for seven years on the show, this legendary surgeon, and I’m his grandson who shows up, and I resent him for the burden of his legacy.

Is your character a ladie’s man? I might have the record for the most amount of episodes without banging anybody. It came to a screeching halt with an out-of-the-blue shower scene with Lexi Grey, who’s the main character’s half-sister. We’re talking and flirting outside her car, and the next thing you know it’s us having sex in the shower.

What do you like best about working on Grey’s? I’ve been in this business for only five years now, but it feels like a luxury to be on a show as a person of color where the characters are complete people. They’re just individuals, not leading with race and not self-identifying all the time with some sassy TV bullshit. We don’t have to talk in slang, we’re just people. I think Grey’s has been a leader in that field for network TV, to have people from all backgrounds just be human and not have to wear that on their sleeve all the time.

I think your most watched performance in Rihanna’s video for “Russian Roulette.” It has 60 million views and counting. That was her first song back after the Chris Brown thing. They called me up and were like, She’s a fan of the show and her manager is also a fan, so it was just one of those random things.

Did anybody mention Chris Brown on set? Absolutely not, but I felt like I was playing the Chris Brown character. I’m a guy of similar complexion with tattoos, so I read into it.

Tell me about The Cabin in the Woods. There’s a lot of anticipation surrounding it, among a certain set of film fans. It’s creepy and unnerving, but it can’t help but be really funny.

Do Bradley Cooper and Richard Jenkins play the villains? I don’t know if I can say that, but in many ways, they’re not. I think it also really questions what a villain is, and how much damage you have to do to become a villain. I worked at a law firm defending people who did some pretty bad things, but were they villains?

You worked in a law firm? Yeah, I actually wrote a comedy about working in a law firm that I’m starting to circulate. I worked in one on Park Ave. for a year and a half. I was a case manager, and I hired and fired contract attorneys who were way more qualified than me. It was stupid.

Has it been frustrating to watch Cabin in the Woods get pushed back repeatedly? It was, because these are our calling cards. I’m nothing without my work, and we’re out here selling that I’m the lead in a studio film. It was coming out in 2009, and they pushed it back to make it 3D, and then MGM folded. I worked on that movie for three and a half months, and we became very close, and were all trying to do our thing. None of us were famous. And we were all waiting on this thing, and it puts you in a very vulnerable position, because you have no control over it, but in some people’s eyes, you’re nothing without it. This is a business of followers. If you’re in a movie, I don’t need to see your work. Someone could be in Twilight with no lines, but they’ll get something, because they’re in Twilight.

It says something about the studio’s faith in the film that it’s still getting a theatrical release. It looks like Lionsgate is very serious about it, and that’s exciting. It’s a memorable film. There’s nothing indifferent about it.

Morning Links: Justin Bieber Gets Booed, Beavis & Butt-Head Return

● Justin Bieber hit the Knicks game after his Never Say Never 3D premiere, and was booed after being shown on the jumbotron. “The boos are from the guys,” the announcer reassured, pointing out a girl nearby who was convulsing. [FabLife] ● Nearing the end of their seventh season, and with no end in sight, Grey’s Anatomy producers are looking to freshen things up with a musical episode. [NYP] ● First, Leighton Meester grew tired of playing the pretty girl, and now Ed Westwick is telling British magazines that he doesn’t feel connected to Chuck Bass anymore, and that he’s “ready to do something else.” [E!]

● Something is rotten in the state of music: three out of this year’s first four weeks of music sales have posted record lows, with Amos Lee’s Mission Bell topping this week’s Billboard charts with only 40k in sales. [VV] ● Rapper Juelz Santana was arrested in New Jersey yesterday, concluding a ten month investigation into the Diplomat member’s recording studio — or as Bergen County police like to call it, his “well-established gang operation.” [NorthJersey] ● The cast of MTV’s Skins and Justin Bieber announced the return of Beavis and Butt-Head to the network. Bieber tweeted: “solid day in NYC. played hoops and just went to the MTV Upfronts…BEAVIS and BUTTHEAD are coming back!!!” [MTV]

ABC Renewing ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ Host of Other Shows Ripe for Cancellation

ABC just announced they’ll be renewing six shows next season: Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Castle, Modern Family, The Middle, and Cougar Town. To this I say:

1. Only one of these shows — Modern Family — is even remotely in its prime. 2. Some of these shows — Private Practice, Cougar Town — never even had a prime. 3. Other of these shows — Castle, The Middle — I’ve never even fucking heard of. 4. Isn’t everyone over Grey’s Anatomy at this point? Can’t we just admit that McDreamy is never going to climb out of the TV and cuddle up with us on the couch?

ABC, step up your game.

Video Saves The Radio Star

With the traditional music industry collapsing around us, like a building blown up by so many tons of C4, bands are being forced to do whatever they can to be heard. One of the techniques that has proven most successful for selling albums is getting a song on television—not music television, but commercial television, from advertisements to Grey’s Anatomy.

That a TV ad can do wonders for CD sales isn’t new—Moby’s 1999 album Play sold 10 million copies on the strength of various licensing deals; Nick Drake sold more records than he had in three decades when his song “Pink Moon” appeared in a 2000 Volkswagen commercial; little known band Hoobastank’s song “Crawling in the Dark” appeared in a 2000 Mountain Dew commercial (that also launched the career of Channing Tatum). In 2002 that song peaked at number seven on the mainstream rock charts; see, also, every song to ever appear in an iPod commercial. But in a time of plummeting CD sales, moving units, any amount of units, anyway you can, matters more than ever— and so more and more acts are getting into the TV game. (When musicians like M.I.A and Santogold are schilling for Honda Civic and Bud Light, you know all bets are off.)

Being showcased in a big television show can help a song as much as a car commercial. In 2006 Snow Patrol upped their profile stateside when “Chasing Cars” was used on Grey’s Anatomy, boosting digital sales of the single and CD. The band eventually reworked the video, to feature Grey’s clips, and re-released the album. The Fray had a similar experience after “How To Save A Life” was used to promote Grey’s third season. A week after the promotional music video aired on ABC, the single shot from number 59 to 29 on the Billboard charts, later peaking at number 3. (The woman who selects songs for the doctor dramedy, Alexandra Patsavas, des the same for The O.C. and Gossip Girl. Essentially, she programs iPods all over the country.)

With this trend showing no signs of slowing down, we decided to recap some of the more recent TV-propelled radio breakthroughs.

“1901,” Phoenix Appeared in: The CW’s Gossip Girl and Melrose Place, Cadillac SRX commercial (below). Chart rank: Entered Billboard at #90, won the Best Alternative Music Album Grammy. Sounds like: Having fun, in summer. This single from the French outfit, beloved by everyone, critics included, is so damn good it hasn’t been ruined by being playing incessantly in that bar, mall, shopping center or ubiquitous Cadillac commercial.

“Sweet Disposition,” The Temper Trap Appeared in: ABC’s The Deep End, The CW’s 90210, 500 Days of Summer, Chrysler’s 2010 Vintage commercial, Rhapsody commercial, Peugeot commercial (all below). Chart rank: US Billboard #30/ UK #6. Sounds like: Falling in love, in summer. The lead single from this Australian group’s debut album sounds a whole bunch like “1901,” but a smidge more heartsick, which is why it figured into indie rom-com 500 Days of Summer. Carmakers obviously decided that it was a song that could make you fall in love with an automobile.

“Black & Gold,” Sam Sparro o Appeared in: UK’s Skins. Chart rank: UK #2, Billboard Hot Dance Airplay #8. Sounds like: Seeing someone you want to sleep with across a crowded room, and then maybe having a dance off. The smooth crooner Sparro’s “Black & Gold” was featured on the hit, risqué, British teen-show Skins propelling it up the UK and the Billboard Dance charts.

“Fly Me Away,” Annie Little Appeared in: 2009 Kindle commercial (below). Chart rank: Little was an unsigned act before the Kindle commercial: Going from a nobody to a somebody has to count as about 100 chart spots. Sounds like: Your twee librarian can play guitar. Little was an actress, who had appeared in over 40 commercials, before she entered a video contest to create an ad for Amazon’s Kindle, and won, with this strummy, lala track. Unsigned, she won’t be for long.

“New Soul,” Yael Naim Appeared inL Macbook Air commercial (below). Chart rank: #7 on Billboard hot 100. Sounds like: Your very pretty, artist neighbor can play guitar. This song hit big in 2008 after appearing in a ubiquitous Macbook Air ad. (Apple ads do for musicians’ careers what Ed Sullivan used to.) We’ll see if the Franco-Israeli’s next album does as well without the Steve Jobs’ stamp of approval.

Heigl Hates the Emmys!

Just kidding. But she has declined to participate in the “For Your Consideration” mayhem that ensues durings awards season. Said Heigl in a press release, er, released yesterday, “I did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination… I did not want to potentially take away an opportunity from an actress who was given such materials.” But Izzie, what about when you gave Karev a dose of tough love at the end of last season? You smacked down when you said that Rebecca was a lying, barren wench with a case of the insanities! Anyway, just saying… I’d rather have you holding the gold statuette than, say, Dana “not without my daughter” Delaney’s “Desperate Housewives” ice queen. Also, you guys totally hate each other over there, don’t you?