Issa Rae and Awkward Black Girl Fill a (Tiny) Niche
Check out our entire YouTube issue here.
In front of the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf at the Grove, someone is scraping lightweight plastic chairs across the pavement instead of picking them up, and the sound is akin to fingernails being dragged down a chalkboard. Issa Rae, the 27-year-old writer, director and star of the web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, continues to talk as if nothing is happening.
The scene feels plucked out of ABG, as the show's fans affectionately call it. Spurred by the absence of characters in TV and film like her -- normal, slightly nerdy black girls dealing passive-aggressively with awkward situations -- Rae created a series about J., a 20-something who works at a call center for a weight-loss pill company. One of the funnier first-season episodes revolves around J.'s first date with a white dude who (cringe) takes her to a soul food restaurant and spoken-word night.
ABG began its run on YouTube in February. Broke midway through, Rae and her production partner, Tracy Oliver, launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the second half of the season. Their goal was $30,000. By their deadline, they'd received almost double that.
Episode one of season two of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, which premiered June 14 on its new home, Pharrell Williams' I Am Other YouTube channel.
A happy side effect of that campaign was a healthy boost to the show's profile. Pharrell Williams, musician and member of production duo The Neptunes, cherry-picked ABG for his I Am Other YouTube channel (devoted to "thinkers, outcasts and innovators"), and its second season premiered on June 14.
"It's refreshing when people of all races say they don't see an awkward black girl, they just relate to who she is," Rae says.
Rae, the daughter of an African-American mother and a Senegalese father, grew up in Los Angeles, Potomac, Md., and Senegal. In her last year at Stanford, she filmed a web series about her group of friends. She'd also written a script, Naima, that was a semifinalist at Sundance, but being 19 and "cocky," she balked at the notes she was given and instead took solace in the web.
Up next: Rae's vicious commenters
Online, she likes that no one tells her to change in order to appeal to a particular demographic. "[Being] successful is about finding that niche and engaging with them," she says. "There are so many loyal people on the web waiting for a voice to represent them. It's creepy for that reason, but also very enriching. It's a thirsty audience."
Episode seven of the first season of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, in which J. goes on a first date with her white love interest.
It's also a vicious audience. Emboldened by anonymity, Internet commenters have posted shocking racial epithets about her, but Rae takes the spite as a positive sign. "I got excited when YouTube featured one of our videos and a comment was just the word 'nigger' 60 times in a row," she says. "I took a screenshot, put it on my blog and said, 'We made it, y'all.' "
She attributes her success to being very patient. "People who go viral don't have lasting power," she says. "It's important to take your time, build your audience, have a relationship with them, write what you know."
Another chair is being raked across the sidewalk. We both crack up.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Los Angeles.