Issa Rae on Debuting HBO Max Series ‘Rap Sh!t’ at ABFF: ‘It’s a Full-Circle Moment’

Issa Rae might be best known as the queen of South L.A. — she was given the key to the city of Inglewood earlier this year — but Miami also holds a special place in her heart.

After wrapping the final season of “Insecure” last year, Rae shot the new HBO Max comedy series “Rap Sh!t” on location in the 305. She describes returning to city for its premiere as part of the 2022 American Black Film Festival (ABFF) lineup as a “full-circle moment.”

“Coming to ABFF, and these memories that I have here, are what honestly inspired me to set the show in Miami. It really is a full-circle moment that this is debuting here.” Rae told Variety on the red carpet at Wednesday night’s opening ceremony at the New World Center performance hall in Miami Beach.

Long before Rae was an Emmy-nominated and Peabody-winning creator, she was an ABFF attendee. “To have Jeff and Nicole [Friday, the founder and president of ABFF, respectively] champion the show, and me to be an ambassador here, feels really official,” she added.

“Rap Sh!t” is inspired by Miami rap duo City Girls (comprised of Yung Miami and JT, who serve as co-executive producers on the series) and follows two estranged high school friends, Shawna (Aida Osman) and Mia (KaMillion), who reunite to form a rap group. Before Rae, the cast and crew take over South Beach on Saturday for a special screening of the show, Rae had to first perform her duties as festival ambassador, navigating the surreal experience of serving in an official capacity as part of an event that was formative for her as a budding creative.

“There’s no other festival highlighting us in this way, highlighting our film, highlighting our television shows, and it’s in an elegant way,” Rae said of the ABFF’s importance to the entertainment industry. “That’s what I admire so much about this particular festival — it’s so intentional. Even thinking about the awards that they do later, ABFF as a brand is so solid, and I feel proud of having my work showcased here.”

With “Rap Sh!t” set to premiere July 21 on HBO Max, Rae’s creative focus has widened to other projects. In addition to starring in B.J. Novak’s directorial debut, “Vengeance,” and joining the all-star cast of Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie’s “Barbie,” the creator is working on a few new shows. Rae is tight-lipped about the details, but shared that she’s having a lot of fun with one project, in particular, that pulls from her creative past and allows her to collaborate with a crew of funny people she admires.

“I’m just tapping into my comedic roots and having a lot of conversations with people around me in the same way that I would in the past,” she teased. “There’s no better feeling than starting something from scratch. And that always comes into conversations with friends.”

Following the carpet, Rae joined Nicole Friday onstage to deliver welcome remarks ahead of the opening night screening of “Civil,” the Netflix documentary that chronicles the work of civil rights attorney Ben Crump. Before the packed house of filmmakers, creators and film fans, Rae detailed her first experience at the festival in 2013.

“At the time, I just completed my web series ‘Awkward Black Girl’ and I was entering the next chapter of my life, uncertain what that would be,” she said. “But being at ABFF, being in Miami for only the second time in my life, I had a good ass time.”

Rae made the crowd laugh as she confessed to consuming a healthy number of CoronaRitas on their first night in town, which was thankfully documented by her and her colleagues on Instagram, as they met up with other ABFF attendees. “The community that first night really set the tone for the rest of the festival for me,” Rae recalled.

Over the course of that weekend, she watched Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut, “Fruitvale Station,” and was introduced to Regina King, who was being honored with a special tribute — both instances that inspired her to continue along in her journey.

“Ten years later, my colleagues and I still talk about that first ABFF trip, to this day, and that legendary time that we had here in Miami,” Rae said. “Since that time, I’ve screened my series ‘Insecure’ here, that Regina came and directed an episode. And I haven’t collaborated with Ryan yet, but he’s been so supportive of me and my work. And watching ‘Creed’ and ‘Black Panther,’ I always flash back to how inspired I was listening to him in that panel right here.”

Rae concluded her speech by thanking the ABFF team for “creating a space for creatives like me to meet my potential collaborators, my inspirations, and a supportive space for me to showcase my work.”

The 26th annual American Black Film Festival continues its in-person program with events held through June 19, with its virtual component running June 20-30 with screenings and conversations available on ABFF Play.

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