Issa Rae used “Insecure” to push the music industry to improve

For five years, Unsafe paired its varied portrayals of the experience of black millennial women with musical choices that surely turned HBO viewers into fans of artists they had never heard of before. But over time, the show has become the meritocratic model that show creator and star Issa Rae wants to see in the music industry.

In a recent interview with The LA Times, Rae was adamantly critical of the music industry, giving it the ignominious title of “probably the worst industry I’ve ever encountered”. This distinction is quite heartbreaking given that Rae has spent most of her career in a television and film industry that she says won’t get more diverse until old racist executives start dying. But based on her limited time as a music executive since starting her own “everywhere audio company” Raedio, she believes the music industry’s abusive treatment of artists is so rampant that the whole of the world industry needs to start over.

“I thought Hollywood was crazy. The music industry, it has to start over. Conflicts of interest abound. Archaic mindsets. Scammers and criminals! It’s an abusive industry, and I really feel for the artists who have to make it happen,” Rae said.

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One of Issa Rae’s first exposures to the predatory music industry came through Unsafe and its distinctive soundtrack, which she worked on with composer Raphael Saadiq and music supervisor Kier Lehman. Compilations of the best music featured in Unsafe episodes have been released for every season since 2016. The process of releasing soundtracks was anything but easy, and Rae describes striking deals with artists and labels as shockingly “convoluted.” She launched Raedio in October 2019 and partnered with Atlantic Records for the company’s label.

One cannot underestimate how much the music presented in Unsafe was to the music industry as a whole. Most of the artists featured on the early seasons soundtrack had yet to release a full project on a major label. Artists like Goldlink, Sampha, and The Internet would achieve moderate mainstream success after being featured on the first season soundtrack. “We spotlighted female singers and female rappers in a distinct way while others weren’t – I’m thinking of TT the Artist and Kari Faux in Season 1,” Issa Rae said.

You wouldn’t know who Grammy favorites or the hottest artist burning the Billboard charts were when you watched Unsafe. HER is the only black woman to win song of the year at the Grammy Awards between 2016 and 2021, while the musical DNA of Unsafe were mainly the voices of black female singers. The first single for the last Unsafe the soundtrack it will ever release was a song called “Fun” by Nnena, an artist who never sniffed the Billboard charts, but was chosen to be the first taste of original music for the final season of one of the most impactful black TV shows of the past 20 years. For Rae, if music industry institutions like the Grammy Awards weren’t going to properly celebrate black musical contributions, Unsafe always would.

“A song like [Wizkid’s] “Essence” — absolutely a powerhouse, and yet couldn’t be properly recognized by the institution that’s supposed to celebrate the best in music — it trips me up.

Artists exploited by music industry executives are as old as A Tribe Called Quest’s industry rule #4080 from the early 90s. Sadly, 2021 has seen the insidious cycle continue. Meek Mill has sold millions of records, including a 5x platinum “Going Bad” collaboration with Drake, and has always blamed his label for never compensating him for his music sales. Bobby Shmurda’s highly anticipated release from prison came in February, but the in-demand rapper didn’t release a single song until more than six months later due to rumors of a falling out with his label Epic Records. After releasing four songs in the last four months of the year, Shmurda gave credence to the rumors by revealing he hadn’t vetted his music in over a decade and didn’t know when his music would drop. Even executives known to be pro-artists have been criticized: Big Sean said on Drink champions that an audit revealed that GOOD Music boss Kanye West owes him millions of dollars, and rolling stone reported that label/management company LVRN had signed Summer Walker to a “rough” record deal (LVRN co-founder Tunde Balogun denied the charges). Rae’s assessment of the music industry is depressing.

Apart from Unsafe, Rae has helped young black artists break into a music industry that routinely blocks young talent through gatekeeping. Baby Tate signed with Raedio in April 2020 and went from best-kept secret to viral sensation in her first year with the label, with her affirmation anthem “I Am” becoming her first big hit. Going forward, Rae plans to give black female rappers more exposure with her upcoming HBO Max series. rap shit centered around a pair of struggling female rappers in Miami. If the unprecedented opportunities Rae provided black musicians on a hit HBO series for five years is any indication of his post-Unsafethen the music industry could be radically different when it’s done with it.

Alice P. Darby