into it

Issa Rae is Not Not Moving Like a Hollywood Beyoncé

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by FilmMagic for HBO/Getty Images

Issa Rae is in a new phase of her career, and, unsurprisingly, there’s a pun for it. Hoorae is the name of her do-everything, Parkwood-esque production company that permits her an enviable kind of institutional control over TV shows like Rap Sh!t and all the other stuff she puts out into the world. “I produce what I want to see on television. I produce what interests me. I produce for creators who I feel are talented,” she says. Hoorae enables her to do that by developing projects internally through an in-house film-and-television division, audio arm, management group, and more. (A five-year, $40 million film-and-TV deal signed last year with HBO’s parent company, WarnerMedia, helps these projects see a screen.)

After participating in Vox Media’s Code conference earlier this month, when she appeared on a panel alongside Kara Swisher and Sam Sanders, Rae recorded a bonus episode of Into It, in which she discusses exactly what she’s doing now to stay alive in an increasingly opaque and treacherous media industry. Read an excerpt of their conversation below, and check out the full episode of Into It wherever you get podcasts.

Into It

Sam Sanders: Describe this new phase of your career. Your company, Hoorae, is an umbrella organization doing a lot of different things for you, right? 
Issa Rae: Yes! It consists of Hoorae, which is the film-and-TV division, and Raedio — I love my name puns, excuse them — which is a record label, a music-supervision company, podcasting, and the like. Then there’s ColorCreative, which is a management company. The best illustration of what we’re able to do as a company, in addition to outsourcing these different facets, is the show that we just came out with, Rap Sh!t. We were able to develop this show internally via Hoorae Film and TV. The music-supervision side handled the music of the show, which was very, very prevalent in the show. Then ColorCreative clients show-ran it, directed it, wrote it, created some music for it, and so on. The ecosystem exists there; that is the best model for what we aim to do.

SS: It’s giving me Parkwood Entertainment vibes. When did you know you wanted to do it like that?
IR: I didn’t! I’ll take a Beyoncé comparison any day of my life. But for me, it was about particularity. When you get a group of people that you work with and you understand and appreciate their taste, it gets to be about making that work and finding the longevity in that from project to project. I tend to have interest in a lot of different things, and I can’t do anything, but I trust and am a fan of so many people to collaborate with — and that’s how I make my move.

Kara Swisher: A lot of it seems to be about the lack of control that a lot of artists have. You’ve talked in a number of interviews about wanting to do things a certain way and not being able to — getting notes that you didn’t like. Can you talk about starting off in digital media with Dorm Diaries and Awkward Black Girl?
IR: Yeah! In college, I was trying to break into the industry. I had a writing partner, and we submitted scripts to Sundance. We became semifinalists. We met with all these executives in L.A. to try to sell a film. And during that time, we were told that there wasn’t an audience for the work we were trying to put onscreen.

SS: How did you feel when they told you that?
IR: I was like, Yes, the fuck there is! I know the audience! I know people, and this is what I wanted to see. It felt like a slap in the face to hear that when I knew it wasn’t true, when we were starving at the time. So I paused school to go to New York Film Academy and hone my skills. At the same time, social media was booming. I would play around online, and I was one of those people who added everyone on Facebook. I was like, Ooh, let me add everybody with my last name! or Ooh, let me add everybody who’s Senegalese!

I was building an online community, so when I would post certain things, I noticed that there would be an audience and there would be engagement. I was directing plays and stuff in college, but the idea to create a web series specifically for Facebook and YouTube struck me as an opportunity to amass an audience in a small way. When I saw it spread outside of my school, I was like, I can show people that there’s an audience for the work that I want to create, and now it just comes down to the resources to make it.

KS: Talk about the YouTube experience, because that’s really when Hollywood noticed you.
IR: The YouTube experience was my first web series. It was 2007. (Awkward Black Girl was my third web series — in 2011.) With my first two web series, Dorm Diaries and Fly Guys Present the “F” Word, there was an intention to try to get on TV, to get noticed.

KS: So you were using it as a vehicle.
IR: I was. I was like, Okay, let’s show that people are interested in this show, and even then, I still got the same thing trying to sell those TV shows. With Dorm Diaries, it was, “College shows don’t really work.” With Fly Guys Present the “F” Word, it was a music-heavy show — there were rappers who did comedy — they were like, “They gotta pick a lane!” And I was like, “But Flight of the Conchords exists! Y’all are not into them?”

And with Awkward Black Girl, I was like, “These other two shows were commercial.” You had an urban version of Flight of the Conchords, and they don’t want that. They’re definitely not going to want a show called Awkward Black Girl. So I realized that I was making this show specifically for the internet, for YouTube, and that I was going to be consistent — I wasn’t consistent — and focus my efforts on making a show that is strictly for the internet. And that’s when I got calls.

KS: Which you had control of.
IR: Which I was in control of. But it was really intimidating. When you’re getting what you want, and people are watching, and people are waiting for the next thing in a different way, it felt bigger. I was like, Oh God, it’s up to me. People are actually anticipating this. It wasn’t until the second season, when Pharrell picked us up and we had substantial funding to do it, that I was like, Okay, we’re really onto something here.

SS: You have a deal with HBO: You’re there, Robin Thede’s A Black Lady Sketch Show is there, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You was there, Misha Green was there with Lovecraft Country. There is a critical mass of Black women who are given the space to make what they want. What do you think it is about HBO that makes it a space where you and those other women can thrive? Because not every space in the industry is like that.
IR: I have to credit the team. HBO has always had a reputation for being creator-friendly, and specifically, there’s a space to create without the pressure of ratings. They’ve always said, “We’re excited to make something good, and we want to be friendly to your voice” — whatever that is. You felt safe to create.

SS: Has your opinion of HBO changed at all in the last few months? With the Discovery merger, some HBO Max shows were being pulled almost under cover of night. How do you feel about that as someone who works with HBO?
IR: When I think about the different phases of television, the ’90s is what I mostly know. It was fueled by ratings, but at least creators had a measurement of how well their show was doing. Now, I think data across the board is not yours. It’s hoarded. Do ratings matter or do they not? Do ratings matter right now? Can I get access to it? Am I writing to it? And there’s a lot of confusion about how well creators are doing across the board, so that’s why you get creators surprised that their shows got canceled or their shows are getting pulled off the air, because they don’t have the information.

SS: For every success story like yours in streaming, there are hundreds of other shows that people won’t watch because there’s just too many. Last year, the official count of scripted TV across all platforms, streaming and broadcast, was well over 500 — not counting reality shows or docuseries. It feels like there’s too much and the industry itself has to reset. 
IR: I ask, “At the expense of what?” Because in some ways, I understand that completely. My rebuttal to, “There’s too many shows,” used to be, “Nobody says, ‘There’s too many books! What are we gonna do? We can’t read them all!’” But I understand, obviously. Book money is different from TV money. Specifically, when I think about this, I do miss cultural moments, water-cooler moments, and that’s what the number of shows out there takes away from. I get pissed when my group chat isn’t on the same show as I am, then they want to bring it up three weeks later. I’m like, “I don’t feel like talking about it now! I’m on to the next one!” That’s why I wanted to ask HBO Max to release our show in a specific time slot to see if we can create those moments, because I miss those. I do think that consolidation of the streaming platforms is inevitable, but ultimately, that could lead to the pop-cultural water-cooler moments.

KS: I remember doing a thing in the early 2000s with Chad Hurley (who founded YouTube), Netflix’s Reed Hastings, and Jason Kilar (who founded Hulu). We kept saying, “You can watch anything you want and make smaller and smaller audiences to find your audience.” Of course, Hollywood was more into the spray-and-pray method. Who do you make content for right now?
IR: I always start at the base of friends and family, Black people, then go from there. I start with the story of what I want to tell, but I’m thinking, Are my friends going to fuck with this? Are Black people going to fuck with this? I’ve had the luxury of coming from the internet, where I could make whatever I want and create a community with whoever I want. I don’t necessarily want that to change, but now it’s about, “Will there be buyers for that?” or “What kind of justifications will they have to not pick up this particular show?” At the end of the day, I’m a businesswoman, and just because I create a certain thing doesn’t mean I produce everything. I produce what I want to see on television. I produce what interests me. I produce for creators who I feel are talented.

KS: Which is what you’re trying to create with this company.
IR: Absolutely.

KS: One of the things that always struck me is how little entrepreneurship most talented people had and how that’s changing. I was talking to Chuck Lorre, and he was asking why the Instagram guy got so much money. I said, “Because he owned it. He owned and controlled it, then he sold it.” Could you talk about ownership of IP and control, because what you’re doing seems to be about controlling your fate. 
IR: Ultimately, that is the goal. I have great partners right now, and the control can come down to making the content ourselves and licensing it, or it can come down to having distribution channels. Right now, I want to make good stuff, but I have my eye on the prize at the end of the day, and that’s a conversation that I constantly have with myself and my colleagues — about what our future looks like.

SS: What I found really fascinating about Rap Sh!t when the show was announced was, “Issa’s going to be in this show. Issa raps.” This is you, but you’re not starring in it; you’re producing it. How do you know when to say, “I’m behind this thing” or “I’m in front of the camera”? 
IR: I always start behind the scenes, because I want the best possible version of the work, and that exists by me existing outside of it. Insecure fell in my lap with HBO. HBO loved Awkward Black Girl and said, “We want to do a show with you,” and I said, “Let’s do that.” I loved doing it, but with the next show, I was like, “I’m itching to do something else, and this is inhibiting me from doing so.” Rap Sh!t allowed me to create something and have someone else who I was a fan of show-run it and cast it and have it be its own thing. I understood that there would be the pressure of “This is her next project! What does it mean?” And for me, it was very clear that I wanted it to be a fun show.

SS: I have a theory that that shit comes in waves. I remember the ’90s! You couldn’t turn on your TV and not see Black people. Family Matters, Moesha, Living Single, UPNthey were so Black before they were white — then it stopped. I feel like, in the industry, there are these waves when the executives will say, “We love Black people now!” And then they don’t. I wonder why you think, in 2022, it still feels like that is the situation — the waves.
IR: The waves are attributed to the new iteration of these platforms. With the broadcast companies, adding Fox (Fox used to be hella Black), that’s what these streaming platforms are like: “We need to get audience numbers!” “Let’s bet on Black until we don’t!” “Okay, we’re good now.” “Thank you for your services!” I think we’re at “Thank you for your services!” right now. The next five years will be very telling. What’s different now is that there is more autonomy for Black creators. They own their own production companies and are hiring their own people. They’re execs and have a bit more say. But it always comes down to the distribution.

KS: Where do you worry about the control? Do you think the tech companies coming in will be any better, or are they the same version of the same thing?
IR: That’s your lane.

KS: It’s gotta be your lane.
IR: I guess it does. But when I think about Amazon making this service … TV started because they wanted to sell soap. Amazon, Apple TV+, etc. — they want to sell phones at the end of the day, and they want to be in these conversations so that they can sell more. And understanding that could help you be a better creator and businessperson, but I’m not versed enough in that world.

KS: When you go out to sell things, how do you think about it right now?
IR: I think about the voids. I think about what’s missing, the best way to market and sell it, and the best people to collaborate with. I do pick up on, Okay, this particular story might have more cultural resonance here, or we can make it have an impact in this area. But you’re selling all day.

SS: In every profile I’ve read of you, especially in this new phase of your career, people around you always say something like, “Issa will give us a chance when the industry will not.” You’ve gotten this reputation for finding talent that is nontraditional by industry standards. What are you looking for specifically?
IR: There’s definitely a thing where it’s like, “That’s it,” but you’ve still got to get people onboard with it. I start with passion. I see work ethic, and I see it clearly. So many people who may be brilliant honestly don’t work hard enough, or they’re not necessarily collaborative, and I think you have to be. There are shitty opportunities where you’ll get stepped over and your vision might get stomped on, and that’s an essential skill of understanding, I have a specific voice, and I know what I’m talking about here, but I could use a collaboration.

I’m always looking for that, and it doesn’t always work, but it works 90 percent of the time. I will find that if you work and you co-sign somebody, then you’ll get the call going, “Hey, you worked with this person. I’ve never heard of them. Where did you get them? Are they good?” And they’re willing to take a chance on them, and I’m very cognizant of that. If you give someone their first TV show, they pop up on the radar for everybody else, and they can have that other opportunity to shine elsewhere.

SS: To be able to do that, you have to be more than just “the talent.” You have to start owning and producing and making, so you can then make those paths for people.
IR: Absolutely. But I just got into a conversation with someone who was like, “Oh, you’re in a position of power, so it’s easier for you to take chances.” And I was like, “No, I was taking chances on people from the jump, because I want to win and come up with people, and there’s something validating about that, of knowing that people are as hungry as you are.” I found that there has been a laziness in the industry.

Post–George Floyd, I got so many emails from people who were well-intentioned but were like, “Hey, I want to do better. Can you tell me some of the people you’ve worked with who you recommend?” And I was like, “Bitch, go find them like I did! I found them! Do the work! Watch their shorts!”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Parkwood Entertainment is Beyoncé’s do-everything production company. Pharrell aired the second season of Awkward Black Girl on his YouTube channel. FX’s research arm reported that there were 559 scripted shows last year. UPN merged with the WB to become the CW in 2006.
Issa Rae is Not Not Moving Like a Hollywood Beyoncé