Even before they landed the lead roles on Issa Rae’s new HBO Max series, Aida Osman and KaMillion have been living and breathing this rap sh*t. The new show, appropriately titled Rap Sh!t, tells the story of two estranged high school friends – the poetic, lyric-focused Shawna Clark (Osman) and the confident, sexually liberated Mia Knight (KaMillion) – reuniting to form a rap duo. While this is both actors’ first times starring in a lead role, their TV counterparts are entities the two have been manifesting for years.
Before Rap Sh!t, KaMillion had been putting out independent mixtapes and singles for eight years. Osman had worked as a writer and producer on shows like Big Mouth and Betty, and was initially hired to be a writer for Rap Sh!t. With Rap Sh!t, the two are at the forefront of their own sharp pen game after years of putting in work behind the scenes.
“It’s so complicated and scary and weird to actualize,” Osman says of being a lead on television. “Every time I see the photo of me and Milly in the car that they’re using for the Rap Sh!t art, I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s somebody else. That’s not me and her’ But like, that is me and her. That’s me and my friend. When I drive by the billboard now, it’s so weird to see that that’s us. It’s surreal.”
Osman’s affinity for hip-hop began as a secret love affair. Having grown up in a Muslim household in Lincoln, Nebraska, she was not allowed to watch TV or listen to hip-hop, which the TV writer and actress on a hip-hop-centered show admits is “crazy… because look at me now.” As a teenager, she would often take her computer and sit in her room, watching Nicki Minaj videos in secret. She played drums and performed in her school’s choir throughout high school, and by college, she was quietly writing her own rhymes and exploring beatmaking.
Today, Osman’s mother is more than supportive of her work, even if she doesn’t quite get it.
“[My mom] hates Big Mouth so much,” Osman says. “She’s always like, ‘What is this? They’re ugly.’ She thinks it’s all ugly, and she thinks the concept is so stupid. But she always pauses at the credits like, ‘That’s my baby.’ And I’m like, ‘Which is it? Which is it?’ I don’t even know if my mom understands the concept of Rap Sh!t, but we’ll see.”
KaMillion, on the other hand, has always been immersed in the world of hip-hop, having grown up in Jacksonville, Florida, and hearing music constantly playing outside. “I started writing poetry at first,” says KaMillion, “just looking at the community that I was raised in, and everything I was going through. Everything started out as poetry, and then I just put a beat to it. When I felt like I could do it, I started rapping and getting with different producers. Hip-hop has just always been in me just because of how I was raised in the neighborhoods where I came from.”
When we first meet Osman’s Shawna on the show, she is working the front desk at a Miami hotel. She is recognized for one of her viral freestyles, however, it is revealed that she now wears a mask when she records her rap videos, that way people can focus on her lyrics instead of her appearance. She is critical of the hypersexual nature of women rappers and is fed up with being slept on and wants very badly for industry professionals to take her seriously.
KaMillion’s Mia, on the other hand, strives to be a woman’s fantasy in regards to sexual liberation – a la Lil Kim in the ’90s. As an aspiring rapper single mother, a make-up artist, and an OnlyFans model, Mia wears many hats throughout the series.
Sex work is a big component of the Rap Sh!t universe. In the first episode, we see Mia live streaming on OnlyFans, taking requests and tips from men. In real life, KaMillion briefly dipped her toes in the OnlyFans waters during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, though not for what she considers sex work, but rather to share intimate pictures that wouldn’t make it past the Instagram censors. “We’ve all done odd jobs to come up,” KaMillion says. “I danced briefly to make ends meet, so I understood that aspect when it came to my character, because I’ve experienced it.”
While she became well-versed on the platform of her own accord, bringing the OnlyFans action to the screen was an entirely new challenge for KaMillion.
“When you’re recording kinky little videos on your phone, no one’s in there watching you,” KaMillion says, “but now, you’ve got to perform in front of the camera guy and the director. Like, they’re up in your coochie, and I’m like ‘Did I shave good enough?’ ‘How’s every angle looking?’”
Although Shawna hasn’t done any sex work in the series, Osman, similarly to KaMillion, said one of her most challenging scenes to shoot was a virtual sex scene in the first episode, in which she is having FaceTime sex with her long-distance boyfriend, Cliff (Devon Terrell).
“There will be a closed set for things like this, so it’s just you, the cameraman, the producer, the main writer, and the showrunner,” Osman says. “But every time that we film a scene, we do a practice round before, where the necessary crew comes in and maps out what the scene is going to look like. So, to lay in a bed while Issa Rae is just watching me masturbate is the goofiest thing. I felt funny and stupid, and I couldn’t take that scene seriously. I kept cackling mid-orgasm.”
Throughout the series, the promising rappers navigate the treacherous music industry as their single, “Seduce And Scheme,” continues to go viral. They face challenges like handling personal relationships as artists, remaining couth at industry functions, and the pressures of viral fame. All the while, the two channel the spirit of women in rap to help them get through the titular rap sh*t, both on-and-off screen.
Viewers with a keen ear will catch the characters referencing iconic quotes by female rappers in casual conversation. In the second episode, when Mia and Shawna are brainstorming ideas for songs, Mia says she wants to make “something fun, something for the summertime, something for the girls to get ready and party to,” referring to Saweetie’s 2019 interview for Amazon Music’s Rap Rotation. In a later episode, where the ladies head to New York City, Mia recreates Nicki Minaj’s 2017 viral “you b*tches can’t even spell Prague” video, recording a clip in front of a black Cadillac Escalade, saying, “Attention, this is how a bad b*tch leaves Miami and arrives in Queens. You b*tches can’t even spell Queens.”
Like the hidden Drake lyrics in the dialogue of the first season of Rae’s breakout series, Insecure, and the Frank Ocean lyrics in the second, this was something the writers did on purpose.
“It’s definitely about paying homage, and we love that,” Osman says. “It always feels amazing to catch a little easter egg like that. So with our show, it only made sense for the writers to be like, ‘Let’s put in our favorite moments from Black women in rap.’”
As Mia and Shawna become stars on Rap Sh!t, both Osman and KaMillion are becoming stars in real life, alongside their breakout characters. According to Osman, Rae first commissioned her to write “a month’s worth of television” when she was hired onto the show’s staff. She was comfortable working as a writer “for the rest of [her] life,” and even assumed that someone else had landed the role of Shawna before she was asked to do a chemistry read with KaMillion.
KaMillion had been working toward her breakthrough moment in music for nearly a decade, and now, with Rap Sh!t, she feels like the stars are all aligning.
“I think it’s a blessing for me to be able to make a living in hip-hop,” KaMillion says. “And, ultimately, to be on a show like this – that I feel is about to be culture.”