‘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.

Pharrell Williams and N.E.R.D, from Playboys to Politicos

Pharrell Williams is seated in a large photo studio in Manhattan’s West Village surrounded by a gaggle of young women. In between bites of chicken, the notorious ladies’ man and leader of experimental avant-funk trio N.E.R.D says to his coterie, “Our new album is called Nothing, because what would we be without women? It doesn’t matter if we’re white, black, gay, straight, hickory, pinstripe, alien—women are essential to our existence.” Ponytails bob in emphatic agreement.

But N.E.R.D’s fourth album, the culmination of Williams’ work with bandmates Chad Hugo and Sheldon “Shay” Haley over the past two years, is about more than charming the fairer sex. At times, Nothing sounds like the Beatles after their LSD awakening, and at others like the Doors, all hypnotic vocals and fuzzy guitars. The song “It’s in the Air” is a meditation on hate that opens with a tirade courtesy of U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy wherein the congressman attacks media outlets for ignoring the war in Afghanistan. “In the past, we just wanted to be an interesting band,” says Williams, 37. “Now, we want to penetrate culture on a level that changes the way people think.” His choice of words seems telling.

Williams’ deliberate shift from playboy to politico is felt all over Nothing, which he approached with a new-found sensitivity to global affairs. “We looked at the war, we looked at commerce, we looked at finance, we looked at the environment,” he says. It’s heavy stuff for a band whose inaugural single was called “Lapdance.” But, he adds, smiling, “We also looked at other interesting things, like the new Ferrari. I like a flower as much as I like a Ferrari. If it’s under the sun, why do I have to choose just one?”

For Nothing, 27 initial tracks were whittled down to the dozen or so that appear on the mastered album. The ones that got cut weren’t “magical,” Hugo says. “They were all great songs,” adds Williams, “but we needed something that will make people go, ‘What the fuck was that?’ When you hear this music, you’re gonna bug out.” Given the underwhelming critical reception of N.E.R.D’s last couple offerings, the band had better hope to blow a few minds.

Their last album, Seeing Sounds, received a 4.6 rating out of 10 from influential music website Pitchfork. It was a slight improvement from their previous effort, 2004’s Fly or Die, which earned a mere 3.1. Anyone with a fixed-gear bike and a fade knows these aren’t good scores. In fact, they’re awful. “What’s Pitchfork?” asks Williams, with seeming sincerity. After Haley enlightens him, Williams says, “At the end of the day, criticism is distraction. Somebody else will read those reviews and be like, ‘Fuck them. They don’t know.’ We’re just lucky to be on their radar.”

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To imagine Williams off anyone’s radar is difficult, especially for those of us raised on MTV. For 12 years, he helped reinvent the sound of R&B and hip-hop as part of the Neptunes, combining stripped-down, sexed-up funk with contagious pop hooks. Williams became notorious for appearing in the videos for the hits he helped create—there have been more than 120 of them since 2000—singing choruses in his trademark falsetto alongside Jay-Z, Madonna, and Justin Timberlake. (The tag “feat. Pharrell” became a staple of chart-topping songs throughout the aughts.)

Although Williams now lives in Miami, all three members of N.E.R.D still identify as poor childhood friends from Virginia Beach who unexpectedly made it big, or, as Haley puts it, “three lucky-ass dudes.” Williams says, “I never thought N.E.R.D was going to become this big thing. I didn’t think 10 years later we would be doing interviews and shit. If you’ve seen the type of poverty that I’ve seen, you never get used to this stuff.”

Humility from the guy who once rapped, “Her ass is a spaceship I want to ride”? Thankfully, this grown-up version of N.E.R.D hasn’t meant completely abandoning the pomp and swagger it takes to write a club banger. To wit, a video posted on the blog for Billionaire Boys Club, the name of Williams’ clothing label, shows Williams surveying a packed, sweaty crowd inside an afterparty for the Monaco Grand Prix. At least 30 bottles of Cristal are carried over to his table—a gift from a very wealthy friend—when the DJ announces the debut of Nothing’s first single, “Hot-n-Fun,” a bass-heavy come-on featuring Nelly Furtado, and one of the album’s few remnants of old-school N.E.R.D.

Back at the shoot, Williams stands shirtless in the middle of an empty room with tall, white walls. When someone pokes fun at his slight belly—his usually toned stomach lacks noticeable definition—he says, “One day, I’m too skinny. The next, I’m too fat. I can’t win.” He puts on a fur headpiece, and, as if to refute the notion that an older, less vain, more political Pharrell might have lost his edge, he yells, “I’m a soul brother now. All the white bitches, get naked! I repeat: all the W-H-I-T-E bitches, get naked!” For a minute, we think they might.

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Photography by Billy Kidd. Styling by Christopher Campbell.

Preview: Going Feral with Pharrell

Yesterday, we photographed Pharrell Williams and the guys from N.E.R.D for our September issue. Working with Pharrell is never disappointing. He brings so much energy and passion to everything he is involved in—on set, he kept everyone entertained and engaged with his humor and dynamic sense of style.

N.E.R.D.’s on a psychedelic trip for their new album and their style has gone a bit tribal. So we thought, what better than to look to Mongolian tribesman and Native American witch doctors for inspiration? I was feeling inspired by these Mondino portraits…

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Needless to say, we pulled tons of fur pieces, which made for lots of fun in the fashion closet while we were prepping the shoot the night before. Check out my new summer intern, Lily, in this layered fur extravaganza.

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Obviously, Pharrell’s look wasn’t quite so heavy. And all the guys added their own eclectic sense of style to the shots, which allowed us to capture something really unique. I can’t wait to share them with you in September.

Diesel XXX New Global Partying Initiative

Diesel XXX — not be confused with that unfortunate chrome-domed actor and his unfortunate secret agent movie — is segueing from industrial clothing brand to international party starter, with a 24-hour global shindig on October 11. The intercontinental soiree will begin in Tokyo and successively stumble to Beijing, Dubai, Athens, Amsterdam, Milan, Zurich, Munich, Paris, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Oslo, Helsinki, London, and Sao Paulo. No New York unfortunately, except for the 5,000-person grand finale we’ve been granted along Brooklyn’s scenic waterfront, hosted by that Mistress of Seduction, Joey Arias, and featuring performances from M.I.A., N.E.R.D, and Hot Chip.

The Diesel folks are shooting for a circus vibe, with trapeze artists, fire eaters, roller-derby squads, and sword swallowers (will our beloved Heather Holiday be binging on blades?) vying for your internet-demolished attention. The whole thing will be broadcast online for those 24-hour party people who can’t quite make it.