RAP SH!T

In the Mix

Her new HBO Max series tracks a pair of Miami women acting up on their way to rap stardom, through the lens of social media.


Photograph by Alicia Vera/HBO Max

BYTARISAI NGANGURA

Do not act up in front of mixed company — a warning and reminder made by Black parents (always mothers) to their children (often girls) that frames how we think about liberation and perception. The meaning behind the phrase is fluid because there are no clear boundaries that delineate acting up from simply living boldly, or more importantly, conducting your relationships with care. On HBO Max’s new series Rap Sh!t, created and produced by media juggernaut Issa Rae, lead actresses Aida Osman and KaMillion map a plan for ascension and success driven by acting up on-screen for the thousands of eyes who will click, share, and critique their movements.

To borrow from the sermons delivered by JT and Yung Miami of the City Girls, a hit-making rap duo and executive producers of the series: “Those who act up can get snatched up.” But acting up means something quite different when you’ve spent years tapping out so you don’t rattle the status quo. In this clickable age, it means courting attention that’s finessed into bills, which will finance independence. You can change your life if you act up.

Set in Miami, Rap Sh!t follows Shawna (Osman) and Mia (KaMillion) on their daily exploits after necessity and desperation lead to the high school friends reuniting, having spent years circling each other’s online orbits. Shawna is an aspiring rapper turned receptionist who’s sinking into apathy at a local hotel where the hours slowly chip away via interactions with guests who are both clueless and demanding. When she’s not side-eyeing her way through customer service, Shawna’s judging the enterprising master of ceremonies (Jonica “Blu” Booth) who has turned the lobby into a revolving workstation. The days are monotonous and lackluster, made easier by her friend and co-worker Maurice (played by Daniel Augustin), whose flirtations bring excitement and spark to her temporary gig. A scammy side hustle also makes this hellscape somewhat worthwhile. Mia is a hair stylist, single mother, and social media maven with a dedicated following who devour her every move, and have even assigned a dollar value to her popularity by signing onto her OnlyFans. Visibility is currency, and Mia has found a way to monetize the most mundane deeds. The goal she’s moving toward is uncertain, but she knows that it is infinitely better than the place she currently occupies.

For Shawna, acting up means wearing a mask and dropping lyrical bars that are slightly couched in respectability politics, meant to separate her from the crop of women rappers twerking their way to the top. “I want people to focus on what I’m saying, not on my looks,” she says of her attire, which makes her look like she’s cosplaying Captain Save the Girls. Her talent is indisputable, but the motivations are murky, making viewers wonder if the artistry is her own or one she’s cultivated so the online masses can perceive her as someone who is offering more than the peers she finds lacking. Mia is navigating the same hostile streets but she’s proudly scheming and seducing, enticed by the reality that underscores refusing credence to the opinions of anyone besides her inner voice, which incidentally happens to be her actual voice.

When the two meet up, their divergent opinions regarding the merits of embracing candor and inhibitions within the public sphere collide: Shawna’s worldview is called into question for the first time, while Mia’s aspirations are cemented as possibilities. When Black girls act up — and if we are lucky enough to do it alongside each other — eyes can’t help but follow the steps we take as we challenge the systems that require us to meekly fall in line. According to City Girls, getting snatched up is the outcome of loud living, and while that can mean confrontation, it could also be a saving grace. Snatched up from complacency, ennui, and irrelevance. Shawna and Mia do this for each other, and even as their differing reactions to social media and infamy gnaw at their connection, it also offers the type of alignment that emerges when you meet your chosen opposite. You propel each other forward while evenly using the momentum to stay balanced. Act up, stack bills, and keep it moving.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ALICIA VERA/HBO MAX

The series is zeitgeisty in such a complete, on-the-nose way, and at times it’s disorienting watching the camera pan from one IG story to the other, as we watch the characters while they watch others. But this creative choice is a smart distillation of relationships glimpsed on social media — we watch our friends/fans/colleagues/enemies in 10 to 15-second increments, tapping from one video to another, forming narratives based on the crumbs peppered across our curated, public pages. When they act up right, we share it, and if enough fingers lead the charge, one video leads to an endorsement from a popular if widely debunked health-adjacent company. Or in Shawna and Mia’s case, acting up in the car while buzzed on watered-down liquor and renewed friendship means a new business venture and interest from Spotify.

Even our most intimate relationships are at the whims of social perception and intention, and during the series, we see the two girls tiptoe around those they love while trying to not be submerged under the subliminal meanings hidden in social media etiquette: Do several cameos in a single story mean infidelity? Does posting instead of texting mean avoidance? Am I acting up so someone can act right? The questions are dizzying.

There’s a line in the under-played summer clapback anthem “Actin’ Up,” from Florida legend Trina featuring 3DNa’Tee and Lola Monroe; the latter raps, “How you acting up in the Acura? My vernacular speaks in stamps only/I pass ports with them lands on me/This ass gotten in France, homie.” From this pulpit, there are levels ascribed to running wild and proud in public, and if you’re going to make noise, at least back it up with something worthwhile. On Rap Sh!t, the girls’ most lucrative weapon is a knife-edged wit that’s both lethal and inventive. It’s the thing that lifts them as they drive around in old cars. It’s what’s going to arm them as they reach for respect and find contempt. Act up and get paid, that’s the digital way.

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