HBO star Issa Rae talks black women, feminism and finding confidence

Rae: “[There were] many different types of awkward black girls, but no black leads.”

Issa Rae, the first black woman to have her own show on HBO, spoke to an audience of about 200 students on Saturday night in Jesse Auditorium.

When looking back at her climb to fame, Rae said she came from a very funny family. Her brother introduced her to the British version of “The Office,” which she liked but also wondered, “Where are the black people at?”

Her HBO series “Insecure” is a show “about black women, by black women,” Rae said. She has been featured on both Glamour’s “35 under 35” and Forbes’s “30 under 30” lists.

Rae walked on stage to speak with assistant journalism professor Cristina Mislán. Rae thanked the audience, saying that it was already a good night because Drake had just come out with a new album.

She started a YouTube channel in college at Stanford University. Her videos soon started getting views, and she eventually grew an audience at Stanford and other colleges such as Duke University.

“I didn’t want to have to depend on other people, and that’s what networking typically is,” Rae said. “I wanted to grow my audience myself.”

Rae said using YouTube as a platform provided her with freedom that wasn’t offered in traditional platforms such as TV writing contests, which she entered but never won. Rae said she didn’t feel like her work was translating to television and film, so she started a series on her YouTube channel called “Dorm Diaries” about being black at Stanford, in an effort to convey nonstereotypical black humor.

The YouTube series “Awkward Black Girl” came next.

Fresh Prince, Living Single, Family Matters [feature] different worlds with different archetypes of black people,” Rae said. “[There were] many different types of awkward black girls but no black leads.”

“Insecure,” featuring an almost entirely female team of writers, has been referred to as “our post-election savior” by Rolling Stone, which wrote that Rae is “giving us comedy that we can use right now, as the country lurches into yet another four-year nightmare that will demand all of the hard-ass stoic gumption we've got.”

Rae worked with ABC before going to HBO. At ABC, she mentioned feeling like she was “losing her voice” because she was a new director and writer and allowed people to influence her work so much that “once it was finished, it was just mush.” ABC rejected Rae’s final pitch, so she went to HBO.

When Rae pitched “Insecure” to HBO in 2013, and they liked it, she knew she needed to work with other black women.

“It’s a show centered around two black female friends,” Rae said. “Black women are essential to my life, and any time I have a chance to work with them, support them, I’m there.”

Rae ended her talk with words of motivation. She told the audience that she was still working on becoming confident.

“You compare yourself to other people. You compare your success to other people. Everything happens at the right time,” Rae said. “I’m still awkward, but now I don’t apologize for leaving the party at 9 p.m.”

Sam Brown and Lauren Giwa-Amu, the Department of Student Activities Speaker Committee co-chairs, presented the talk. Brown said she thought “the show went fantastic.”

“Students at Mizzou really appreciated her voice and message,” Brown said.

Rae’s talk was sponsored by the Missouri Students Association, Graduate Professional Council and the Mizzou Speaker Series.

“Insecure” will air its second season opener on July 23.

Edited by Kyle LaHucik |

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