Issa Rae: Venture Arts Capitalist

Issa-Rae

The ironic thing about Issa Rae, the writer, director, producer and star of the Web-based comedy series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” is that she isn’t awkward at all. In fact she’s a self-possessed veteran of indie video now on her third comedy project for the Web. (The others were “Dorm Diaries,” based on her college years at Stanford, and “Fly Guys Present the F Word,” a largely improvised mockumentary about a young L.A. rap group trying to make it in the music industry, now in its sixth season.) And after a low-budget launch early this year, “Awkward Black Girl”—about a socially challenged young woman struggling to navigate around the pitfalls of friendship, dating, racial stereotyping and office politics—is now fielding inquiries from Google and YouTube that could make the second season considerably more lucrative and, potentially, a coveted spot on a major cable network.

“My main goal is to be a producer who creates projects of a type that isn’t represented in mainstream media,” Rae says. “A lot of people have asked, ‘What does the contemporary black woman want on television?’ I think ‘Awkward Black Girl’ is the answer to that question.”

From the beginning, Rae distributed “Awkward Black Girl” on YouTube and has promoted it primarily through social media, in particular Facebook and Twitter. Along the way she’s developed a strong sense of her audience—which is about 80 percent female, predominantly African-American and largely twentysomething—which she engages almost constantly, responding to a flood of comments on her own website, awkwardblackgirl.com, and on her Facebook fan site. (By halfway through the season, each episode was drawing about 60,000 viewers, and the numbers have continued to creep upward.) Funding for the series, after initially coming out of Rae’s own pocket, is now provided largely by its fan base, which contributed $60,000 (via Kickstarter, a funding platform for startup artists) to pay for the second half of the season.

Issa Rae self-published on multiple, non-traditional platforms and found her own audience. She also found her own funding. Rae is both an artist and a venture capitalist.

Rae is aware of, and mostly comfortable with, the fact that the show’s frequent and largely uncritical use of sexually explicit and often wildly un-PC language—including the N-word, “bitch” and “ho”—would make it impossible for network TV and a tough sell, in its current form, even for basic cable networks like Comedy Central. “What I appreciate about the series being online is that there’s no censorship on the Web,” she says. “There’s no gatekeeper, no one telling me I can’t say or do something, so yes, I do feel free to say and write whatever I please. This show allows me to do that, and the audience does, too.”

Still, her ongoing dialogue with the audience has its own pitfalls—responding to negative comments is particularly challenging—and can at times be, well, awkward. The most recently released episode, which featured a Halloween theme, was packed with horror-movie references from the 1980s and 90s that, it turned out, many viewers failed to recognize. Even riskier for a show with a core audience of college-age black women, the episode featured a scathing satire of African-American sorority rituals; many viewers were not amused. The show’s “dislike” ratings on YouTube skyrocketed, leaving Rae with a dilemma: Should she give her audience what it wants, or should she follow her own instincts, even if it means alienating substantial sectors of the audience?

“I do feel pressure to meet the audience’s expectations,” she admits. “Ultimately, I want to do what I want to do, because I have a vision for the series. But if I’m going to lose all my viewers that way . . . I don’t know. If it stops being fun for me, and I feel like I’m doing what I’m doing just to please the audience, then it’s over. So I’ll continue doing what I’m doing, as long as the audience is with me.”