Issa Rae Rode ‘Awkward Black Girl’ to Near Stardom, But With New HBO Special Will She Dig Deeper Into Her Culture for Laughs?

issa-raeWhen the world was first introduced to Issa Rae as the Awkward Black Girl named J in her wildly popular web series, she stood out as a comedic champion that every awkward girl could relate to.

She had every symptom of awkwardness that taunts many girls as they try to break free of their socially inept behaviors: stumbling over words when an attractive guy is in the room, having a general lack of rhythm and coordination when she needed it the most or not being able to think quickly on her feet in the midst of witty banter with her peers.

She was the awkward girl who just happened to be Black.

She was, as she set out to be, the “Black Liz Lemon” (Tina Fey’s character from 30 Rock).

In her latest ventures, however, it seems Issa Rae is preparing to break free of that “white shadow” and build on her unique experiences as a Senegalese-American hurdling obstacles in the comedy space.

At the very beginning of her new memoir, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, she shared more details about her cultural background and explains why she rarely goes by her full name of Jo-Issa Rae Diop.

“The Sengalese-American web series creator, writer and actress was born Jo-Issa Rae Diop,” New Republic writer Stacia L. Brown wrote of the memoir. “Lest we assume her last name is pronounced “Dee-op” or “Dye-op,” she takes great pains to recount the various attempts she’s made to correct people over the years.”

After years of trying to explain to people that her last name was actually pronounced “Jope, rhymes with hope,” she realized “Issa Rae” would be the easiest moniker for people to remember and pronounce.

It’s one of the first accounts of her “awkward girl” moments that had a direct connection to her cultural background. It’s also a trend that many are hoping will continue on her HBO pilot Insecure.

As for her web series, “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” Rae was quite literally living up to her title as the “Black Liz Lemon.”

In a 2011 interview with Vulture, Rae explained that she got the idea for the show after reading an article in Crush magazine that was titled “Where’s the Black Liz Lemon?”

“When 30 Rock started, I really appreciated it because Liz Lemon is awkward, and I identified with her,” Rae said. “But it was frustrating that there were no characters like her that looked like me.”

So her web series venture filled the void and created a platform for a “Black version” of 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon.

It was a role that was important for Rae’s career and an extremely successful series, but one that always left some viewers craving a little more—craving what Rae is finally delivering in her memoir.

“What we’ve needed from Issa Rae is the type of nuanced storytelling she employs in her memoir,” Brown added before explaining that continuing to frame Rae as the Black version of Tina Fey’s awkward character is selling the creative, talented content creator short.

“What’s also obvious is that Issa Rae didn’t need to market herself as ‘the black Liz Lemon,’ “ she added. “It’s a bit of extraneous pop cultural shorthand that undersells the far more interesting influences her cultural identities have had on her worldview.”

Her memoir clearly provides a more personalized take on her comedic awkwardness and many remain hopeful that Insecure will offer that same unique brand of comedy.

While the world will continue to know the Internet sensation turned established auteur as Issa Rae, it seems that fans have a good chance of becoming even more acquainted with Jo-Issa Rae Diop in the near future.


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