Updated On: November 14, 2023 by   Maha Yassin   Maha Yassin  

Issa Rae

The Rise of Issa Rae: From Awkward to Influential

Have you ever found yourself chuckling away at a brilliantly observant comedy show that beautifully encapsulates the minutiae of everyday life and thought? Have you wondered who could be behind such a brilliant show?’ This question tickled our curiosity when we first stumbled upon the rather brilliant web series Awkward Black Girl. The secret power […]

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Have you ever found yourself chuckling away at a brilliantly observant comedy show that beautifully encapsulates the minutiae of everyday life and thought? Have you wondered who could be behind such a brilliant show?’ This question tickled our curiosity when we first stumbled upon the rather brilliant web series Awkward Black Girl. The secret power ingredient behind this unique narrative is none other than Issa Rae, an American actress, writer, producer and overall juggernaut of talent.

Issa Rae is a mountain of talent who has been taking Hollywood by storm since she first appeared on our screens. She can do everything from writing to directing to acting, like many Hollywood women! Being a successful dark-skinned black girl in Hollywood, Issa knows the power she has does not come easy, and she sure is not wasting it!

In this article, we’re going to follow Issa Rae’s journey to Hollywood, her professional career, her past, present and future projects, and how she is paving the way for more black women in the entertainment industry.

Issa Rae’s Life From Los Angeles to Senegal

Issa Rae

Issa Rae, whose real name is Jo-Issa Rae Diop, was born on 12 January 1985 in Los Angeles, California. She was raised in Potomac, Maryland, for a portion of her childhood. She spent some time in Dakar, Senegal, reflecting her diverse cultural background, with a Senegalese father and an African-American mother.

Her early life was marked by a juxtaposition of affluent and working-class experiences. She attended private school, where she began acting, and was shielded from the more challenging aspects of life experienced by many African Americans. Rae has spoken about this duality and how it shaped her identity and her creative work.

She grew up with a love for the arts and storytelling, which was nurtured by her parents and eventually led her to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. Rae’s experiences of navigating her identity and the world of her Senegalese and American heritage deeply influenced her perspective and became a central theme in her later work.

Bringing the Modern Black Experience to the Screen

Issa Rae’s style as a writer and director is characterized by her sharp wit, authenticity, and insightful commentary on the Black experience, particularly that of Black women. She often infuses her storytelling with a unique blend of humour and drama that captures the complexity of everyday life.

In her writing, Rae has a distinctive voice that resonates with a generation navigating the intersectionality of race, gender, and societal expectations. She often draws upon her own experiences, which allows her to portray her characters with depth and authenticity. Her dialogue tends to be quick, smart, and layered, often with an undercurrent of irony or satire.

As a director, Rae’s approach is often intimate, choosing close-ups and a documentary style of filming that creates a sense of immediacy and connection with the characters. She is known for her ability to tell stories that are both particular to the Black experience and universally relatable, a skill that turns personal anecdotes into broader social commentaries.

Rae’s breakout web series, Awkward Black Girl, and her critically acclaimed HBO series, Insecure, exemplify her style. Both showcase her keen observational skills and her ability to convey nuanced stories about the struggles of modern African-American women. Her work often includes sociocultural themes, exploring identity, relationships, and the pursuit of happiness within the African-American community. Issa Rae’s innovative and influential style makes her a significant voice in contemporary American media.

Issa Rae on the Small Screen

Issa Rae started her career creating shows that reflect the experience of Black women in America. Even though this topic can be very specific and hard to relate to other people worldwide, Issa reflected her personal, authentic experience in the show while still making sure a wider audience can find themselves within her world. From her start with Awkward Black Girl to Insecure, Rae always knew how to touch on important topics while keeping it light and fun for all.

Awkward Black Girl (2011-2013)

Awkward Black Girl was a groundbreaking web series at the time of its release for its online format. It focused on a character type that hadn’t been the centre of a show: a black woman navigating everyday awkward situations. The show cleverly combined humour with poignant moments as the protagonist, J, dealt with the complexities of office politics, love, and social scenarios.

Its success on YouTube highlighted the audience’s hunger for content that strayed from typical portrayals of Black women, and Rae’s performance was both relatable and charmingly humorous. Awkward Black Girl won a Shorty Award for Best Web Show and is often credited with helping to pave the way for the success of Issa’s next project, Insecure.

Insecure (2016-2021)

Insecure is a critically acclaimed series that dives deep into the black female experience through the lens of its central character, Issa Dee, played by Issa Rae and her best friend, Molly, portrayed by Yvonne Orji. The show, which premiered on HBO in October 2016, was born out of Rae’s highly successful web series Awkward Black Girl. It offers a fresh, incisive take on the lives of young Black women navigating a myriad of personal and professional challenges.

The show is known for its authentic dialogue, complex characters, and ability to tackle social and cultural issues with humour and gravity. It’s set in Los Angeles, serving as a backdrop and a character in its own right, showcasing the city’s vibrant culture and diversity.

Insecure has been praised for its multi-dimensional portrayal of Black women, a demographic often relegated to monolithic representations in mainstream media. The characters in Insecure are allowed to be flawed, make mistakes, and grow, giving the show a relatable and human feel. Additionally, the series has been commended for its soundtrack, featuring a range of contemporary and classic music that complements the narrative and highlights emerging Black artists.

Insecure has received numerous accolades throughout its run, including Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe nomination for Issa Rae for Best Actress in a Comedy Series. The show has also been a platform for Rae and others in the cast and crew to become influential voices in the entertainment industry, pushing the conversation around diversity and representation forward.

A Black Lady Sketch Show (2019-2023)

As an executive producer, Rae helped bring to life A Black Lady Sketch Show, an innovative sketch comedy that offers a platform for Black women in comedy —an area where they have historically been underrepresented.

With various sketches ranging from the fantastical to the mundane, the show breaks new ground with its all-black women writer’s room and directing team. The series has been recognized for its originality, winning awards and critical acclaim. It showcases the breadth of talent among Black women comedians and provides a space for their comedic voices to shine in a genre that often lacks diversity.

Issa Rae on the Big Screen

Issa Rae found great success as a writer, director, and producer on the small screen. From web series to HBO TV shows, the talented showrunner was a force to be reckoned with. She could have stopped there, but no, Issa also wanted to prove her talent on the big screen! She took part in various highly successful films. Let’s take a look at her film career!

The Hate U Give (2018)

Although Rae wasn’t the lead in this film, she played a significant role as April Ofrah, an activist who encourages the protagonist to speak out. Based on the YA novel by Angie Thomas, the film deals with police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. Rae’s character plays a pivotal role in the story’s message about advocacy and justice.

Little (2019)

Rae co-starred in this fantasy comedy film alongside Regina Hall and Marsai Martin. The film is about a woman who, under the stress of adulthood, gets the chance to relive the life of her younger self. Rae plays April, the overworked assistant who helps the younger version of her boss navigate life as a child again.

The Photograph (2020)

Rae took on a more dramatic role in this romantic drama, where she played Mae Morton, a museum curator who embarks on a journey of self-discovery after her estranged mother, a famous photographer, passes away. The film explores themes of love, forgiveness, and the complex relationship between mothers and daughters.

The Lovebirds (2020)

In this romantic comedy, Rae stars alongside Kumail Nanjiani as a couple who experiences a defining moment in their relationship when they are unintentionally embroiled in a murder mystery. As their journey to clear their names takes them from one extreme—and hilarious—circumstance to the next, they must figure out how they and their relationship can survive the night.

Coastal Elites (2020)

In this socially distanced comedic satire filmed during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rae plays Callie Josephson, a philanthropist who runs a meditation company. The film comprises five monologues that capture the complex and challenging nature of the pandemic and the political climate of 2020.

Issa Rae’s Awards and Achievements

Issa Rae’s trailblazing work in the entertainment industry has been met with critical acclaim and numerous accolades. She has been celebrated with multiple NAACP Image Awards for her acting and writing in Insecure, and the show itself has garnered a Peabody Award for its nuanced storytelling and cultural impact.

Rae’s individual talent has been recognized with two Golden Globe nominations and multiple Emmy nods for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. Her early digital success with Awkward Black Girl earned her a coveted spot on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list and won a Shorty Award for Best Web Series.

These recognitions are a testament to Rae’s role as a significant voice in the industry and her dedication to highlighting diverse narratives and characters, cementing her status as a leading figure in shaping the landscape of contemporary American entertainment.

Time’s 100 Most Influential People

In 2018, Issa Rae was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People, a prestigious recognition that underscored her impact on the global cultural landscape. This honour highlighted Rae’s visibility and success as a creator and actress and her influence as a trailblazer in the entertainment industry.

Rae’s inclusion in this list was a nod to her work in diversifying the narratives presented in mainstream media and for using her platform to advocate for the representation of Black women in television and film. Her ability to resonate with audiences and affect social discourse through her authentic storytelling solidified her status as a transformative and influential figure in contemporary culture.

In conclusion, Issa Rae’s ascent from a relatable internet persona to a formidable force in the entertainment industry is a narrative of talent meeting opportunity and perseverance. Her journey, marked by the creation of authentic and resonant content, has made her not just a household name but also a beacon for representation and diversity in an industry often criticized for its lack of both. Her shows are on YouTube, Max Streaming service, and Netflix. DO yourself a favour and go binge all of them!

Who is Issa Rae?

Issa Rae is an award-winning African-American actress, television producer, and writer known for her comedy-drama series, including HBO’s Insecure.

What did Issa Rae do before she became famous?

Before her breakthrough comedy series Awkward Black Girl took the world by storm, Issa was a stand-up comedian who went on comedy tours.

What’s special about Issa Rae’s work?

Issa Rae’s work centralises Black women and their stories and experiences in a way that is greatly missed in Hollywood. Her work is authentic, real, and personal.

Is Issa Rae only an actress?

Absolutely not! Issa Rae is a writer, producer, showrunner, and actress. Whether behind the camera or in front of it, Rae is a powerful entertainer.

Filmography

Awkward Black Girl

as J

2011-2013

Insecure

as Issa Dee

2016-2021

A Black Lady Sketch Show

as

2019-2023

The Hate U Give

as April Ofra

2018

Little

as April

2019

The Photograph

as Mae Morton

2020

The Lovebirds

as Leilani

2020

Coastal Elites

as Callie Joephson

2020

Personal Details

Birth Name

Jo-Issa Rae Diop

Height

1.75

Spouse

Louis Diame (3)

Parents

Abdoulaye Diop

Delyna Diop

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