Respect Is Just a Minimum: On HBO Max’s “Rap Sh!t”

Alyx Vesey bemoans the cancellation of HBO Max’s series about a female hip-hop duo, “Rap Sh!t.”

By Alyx VeseyApril 25, 2024

Respect Is Just a Minimum: On HBO Max’s “Rap Sh!t”

ON FEBRUARY 24, 1999, Lauryn Hill became the third—and, to date, last—Black woman to win an Album of the Year Grammy. From the Shrine Auditorium stage, Hill recognized the historical significance of her win by musing, as she held up her trophy: “This is crazy because this is hip-hop music!” Although the Recording Academy had introduced Best Rap Performance as a new category in 1989, a decade after the release of Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” they did not initially air the award during the CBS telecast, prompting many rappers and elder Black artists to boycott the ceremony. Since then, Black artists’ wins have often been relegated to “genre” categories, particularly jazz, R & B, and hip-hop, even as their white counterparts dominate the four “main” awards. Hill’s eight total Grammy wins (in 19 nominations) thus made her the exception that proves the rule: the Recording Academy has a track record of marginalizing Black artists, and Black women, specifically.

Shawna & Mia, the duo at the center of the Max series Rap Sh!t (2022–23), never won a Grammy. Neither have City Girls, the Miami group from which Rap Sh!t creator Issa Rae drew inspiration. This is just one of the ways the show alludes to actual industry conditions. The characters, for instance, channel real-world counterparts: Hill’s melodic flow and conscious lyrics inform Shawna’s (Aida Osman) pen game, while Shawna’s partner Mia is played by KaMillion, who co-won a Best R & B Album Grammy in 2019 for her songwriting work on H.E.R.’s eponymous debut compilation. Though Rap Sh!t may be narrative fiction, the series offers a singularly authentic portrayal of Black women’s creative aspirations and interpersonal obstacles that is still unfortunately all too rare on American television.

Rap Sh!t dramatizes the pair’s struggle to get their feet in the door. The first season focuses on the group’s formation and the recording and promotion of their viral hit “Seduce and Scheme.” During the show’s second season, the duo capitalize on their success by leveraging a feature with Reina Reign (Kat Cunning), a vapid blonde rapper with an Iggy Azalea–esque Blaccent, into an opening slot on a rap tour and a debut EP. It ends with them signing a new management deal. But then the show, which was set to start production on its third season after the 2023 WGA and SAG–AFTRA strikes, was unceremoniously canceled as part of Max’s ongoing efforts to slough off HBO’s “niche” scripted programming to make room for lifestyle reality content with cheaper production costs and “broader” audience appeal.

Rap Sh!t may not have provided streaming executives with the same opportunities for synergistic branding as Fixer Upper’s Chip and Joanna Gaines. But it offers something that has only been so thoroughly examined on reality programs like VH1’s Love & Hip Hop (2011–20): insight into Black women’s often divergent approaches to the rap game. Across its two seasons, the show’s three principals repeatedly struggle to reach consensus on their personal and professional motivations. When the series starts, Shawna is a weathered veteran of the scene hustling to build a following for her high-minded rhymes without selling out, while moonlighting as a concierge. She reconnects with Mia, a high school friend and single mother who picks up work as a makeup artist and cam girl to support her family. On a lark after an evening out, the pair freestyle “Seduce and Scheme” on Instagram Live and blow up overnight. Mia sees a chance to go “legit” as a single mother who has leaned on sex work for financial support. Shortly afterwards, Chastity (Jonica Booth), a pimp and former associate of Mia’s, tries to expand her business by pitching herself as Shawna & Mia’s manager.

“Tries” is the operative word because, as becomes clear, the trio lacks access to support systems and mentorship that would scaffold their ascension. Instead, like many women in the music business, they get caught up with men who have the power to change their circumstances but often stand in their way. Shawna gets involved in a credit card fraud case with Maurice (Daniel Augustin), a co-worker with whom she is also ensnared in a situationship. Chastity applies the “hard sell” transactional logic of tricks and johns to all of her music business dealings. Throughout the second season, her wide-eyed shamelessness makes her a frequent subject of ridicule from Francois (Jaboukie Young-White), Reign’s cunning manager, who has the connections and experience to take Shawna & Mia higher than Chastity can. Francois is an industry insider who is cynical enough to bet on white mediocrity over Black exceptionalism. This mindset vexes Shawna, a gifted rapper who doesn’t want to sell her ass to sling bars. Finally, Mia is tangled up with Lamont (RJ Cyler), a producer and the father of her child, who builds the beat for “Seduce and Scheme.”

But Rap Sh!t did more than just dramatize its characters’ difficulties. Across both of its seasons, the show offered two major correctives to televisual depictions of the contemporary music business. First, it advanced a sustained Black feminist critique of hip-hop’s entrenched culture of misogynoir. In an era largely defined by brand-savvy solo acts, Shawna & Mia turned their bars into a dialogue by offering complementary perspectives on Black female sexuality as they passed the mic. Shawna is an idealist who resents women’s objectification; Mia is a pragmatist who has no problem exploiting her femininity. Shawna is Queen Latifah asking the rap game, “Who you callin’ a bitch?”; Mia is Lil’ Kim crowning herself “Queen Bitch.” They establish this dynamic in “Something for the Girls,” the show’s second episode. Over drinks after work, Shawna proclaims that her “art is not for the male gaze.” From her perspective, mainstream success for female rappers still depends on their willingness to alter and commodify their appearance, have men ghostwrite their rhymes, and be a side chick or a token girl rapper in an all-male crew. But Mia believes rap is “in the middle of a bad bitch renaissance” spearheaded by sexually liberated rappers like Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, and Megan Thee Stallion. For Mia, Shawna’s principles come at the expense of pleasure: “So, you telling me there is no possible way that women could be having a good time and winning?”

Their wardrobes, too, reflect this ongoing debate. Mia stays snatched. Shawna prefers sweatpants and sneakers, and wriggles uncomfortably in the hot pants and bodycon dresses they adopt as stage wear during the second season. At times, her commitment to authenticity gets in her way. At the end of the first season, Shawna derails an industry showcase performance by breathlessly launching into a freestyle about the disrespect she has endured as a rap veteran, which leaves Mia in the lurch. But when they get invited to bigger events in season two, she directs her principled anger toward powerful figures who either practice or benefit from misogynoir.

At one point, Shawna calls out Reign for “lean[ing] on lame-ass stereotypes so [she] can simulate Blackness and sell it back to white people.” And in one particularly uncomfortable backstage sequence, she defies Gat (Patrick Cage), a big-name rapper who, she learns, uses a trivia game to humiliate groupies across the color line. He pours champagne into the mouths of light-skinned women who answer insultingly simple questions like “how many letters [are] in the alphabet” but kicks out dark-skinned women who can’t do complex mental math or don’t know African geography. When Shawna confronts him, he asks her to name all of the members of the Wu-Tang Clan and “rewards” her encyclopedic knowledge by spraying her with champagne. This rude gesture recalls an infamous scene in the video for Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” where the rapper’s entourage douses an “uppity” partygoer with malt liquor. No doubt Shawna clocks the reference. These moments illustrate hip-hop’s colorism and contempt for Black women who demand a seat at the table.


In addition to interrogating hip-hop’s misogynoir, Rap Sh!t also examines the contemporary music industry’s labor practices with a level of specificity that is still quite rare in scripted storytelling. It reproduces the experience of digital-age microcelebrity by filling the frame with screens. Black women’s online engagement was a hallmark of Rae’s Insecure (2016–21), which often featured besties Issa (Rae) and Molly (Yvonne Orji) navigating dating apps, sleuthing on Instagram, and commiserating via FaceTime. Shawna & Mia are likewise always on their phones, sharing content, interfacing with fans, clapping back against haters, or doing damage control against bad publicity.

These sequences, which consist of one or both girls directly addressing their in-show fan base and their Max viewership simultaneously, are purposely overwhelming. At the beginning of their tour with Lord AK (Jacob Romero Gibson), Shawna hops on Instagram Live to talk to her fans while getting ready for their first set. She begins with performative enthusiasm, but her breezy facade starts to crack as she keeps up with the scroll of commentary unfurling in the lower left-hand corner. While some comments are positive, other folks post things like “Girl, I thought you died” or “You going on tour with a colonizer.” Multiple followers question her image. Shawna is wearing an apron—a visual reference to the video Shawna & Mia made with Reign for “Tongue,” a pro-cunnilingus anthem, which was set in a crack-house kitchen. While Shawna claims to “make music that makes people feel good” and says, “I’m really proud of how far I’ve come,” she is already playing defense before she goes onstage. This scene highlights the anxiety undergirding musicians’ “relational labor,” Nancy K. Baym’s term for the “ongoing, interactive, affective, material, and cognitive work of communicating with people over time to create structures that can support continued work” in the digital age.

These moments illustrate the porous boundaries between creative epiphany and self-promotion for digital-age musicians. Shawna & Mia use social media to create the illusion of an exuberant glow-up despite their squalid living conditions on the road and a royalty system that won’t generate enough revenue for them to pay their rent. Everyone’s a hustler. This professional reality is reinforced by the show’s thematic connections between the rap game and sex work as similarly transactional exchanges. For example, Chastity often works two jobs at industry functions: even as she’s making deals for Shawna & Mia as their manager, she is frequently employing her prostitutes to entertain the other guests.

But even as Rap Sh!t reveals the toll of digital and relational labor, it also reveals the artistic labor that goes into making music. Rap Sh!t is one of the few shows in recent memory to actually show musicians developing their talent on-screen. The creative process is hard to dramatize—representations often get bogged down in studio minutiae or reduced to cheesy “aha” moments. Some shows consciously withhold these transformative moments by having them play out off-screen. The third season of Atlanta (2016–22) presented glimpses of Paper Boi’s (Brian Tyree Henry) European tour but cut away to other stories about race relations in the United States instead of showing his performance onstage. The Idol’s misbegotten lone season last summer fixated on troubled pop star Jocelyn’s (Lily-Rose Depp) sexual obsession with cult leader Tedros Tedros (Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye). It also spent most of its time luxuriating in the Weeknd’s mansion after allegedly scrapping another version of the show that explored its protagonist’s child-star past and fraught family history with more complexity. Characters tell us that Paper Boi and Jocelyn are at the top of their game, but we don’t see the work.

Of course, letting audiences peak behind the curtain opens a show up to criticism if viewers don’t buy a character’s artistic evolution. For example, some viewers grew impatient with Daisy Jones & the Six’s (2023) “bad” songs. But I enjoyed hearing Billy Dunne’s (Sam Claflin) generic 1970s rock anthems deepen and darken under the influence of a discerning songwriting partner. Similarly, Rap Sh!t’s first season devotes much of its storyline to the refinement of “Seduce and Scheme” from freestyle to viral moment to recording session to hit single. As the show progresses, the pair improve as rappers. Shawna loosens up and Mia sharpens. They also struggle to find creative inspiration during the second season as the road depletes their emotional bandwidth. And they hedge their bets. In the show’s final stretch, Chastity heeds her clients’ call to step up by developing a partnership with Red Bull that would give Shawna & Mia creative control and ownership of their masters, while also establishing an all-female creative team for them. It’s a bold but unproven strategy that Shawna & Mia jettison by signing with Francois instead. Chastity retaliates in the show’s final sequence by taking a meeting with Gat, who is a member of Lord AK’s entourage. This is a beguiling cliff-hanger that teases a new adversarial force for Shawna & Mia and raises questions about Chastity’s internalized misogyny as a butch Black woman—questions the show, sadly, will never get to answer.

Rap Sh!t’s cancellation ultimately confirms Black women’s precarious position in the music industry, effectively proving the show’s thesis. But it reflects their uncertain place in the television industry too. The show was part of Rae’s overall deal with HBO and served as a follow-up to Insecure, her critically acclaimed series that ran for five seasons and promised a cultural renaissance for the cable channel during the past decade. Insecure was part of a cohort of author-driven projects about twentysomethings’ existential crises that included programs like Girls (2012–17), Looking (2014–16), Love Life (2020–21), I May Destroy You (2020), and Starstruck (2021– ). Rap Sh!t deepened Rae’s interests in hip-hop, Black female friendships, and Black women’s sexual desires as a storyteller. It also gave her an opportunity to explore her antipathy toward the music industry’s profound corruption, not to mention the struggles Insecure had with licensing. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times after the series finale, Rae memorably said of the music business:

It’s probably the worst industry that I have ever come across. I thought Hollywood was crazy. The music industry, it needs to start over. Conflicts of interest abound. Archaic mentalities. Crooks and criminals! It’s an abusive industry, and I really feel for the artists that have to come up in it.

With Rap Sh!t, Rae and her team struggled to shine a light on these “conflicts of interest,” “archaic mentalities,” and “crooks and criminals” by showing three Black women from Miami trying to seduce and scheme and post their way out of them. I wish Rap Sh!t had three more seasons to plot out Shawna & Mia’s and Chastity’s trajectories. I wish it was part of a robust cohort of programs about young people navigating the vagaries of the music business. Some intrepid storytellers could certainly make compelling drama out of the erosion of music journalism, especially in light of the recent rounds of layoffs at publications like Vice, Pitchfork, and the Los Angeles Times. In the meantime, I hope Max doesn’t delete the show from its library. It’s disheartening to see an era of African American commercial storytelling come to an end, the way scholars like Kristen Warner predicted that it might, as it did in the 1970s and the 1990s. I hope we get another bad bitch renaissance. But for 16 episodes, I had the pleasure of watching and listening to Shawna & Mia and Chastity struggle to receive the wisdom that Lauryn Hill imparted 26 years ago: “[R]espect is just a minimum.”

LARB Contributor

Alyx Vesey is an assistant professor of journalism and creative media at the University of Alabama. She is the author of Extending Play: The Feminization of Collaborative Music Merchandise in the Early Twenty-First Century (Oxford, 2023).


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