When it comes to the HBO series “Insecure,” the music inside Issa Rae’s head is as crucial as the comedy. Rae is the creator, star, writer and producer of the show, which enters its third season this Sunday (August 12). Since its debut in 2016, she’s also served as musical curator (with music supervisor Kier Lehman), as it were, and the resulting soundtrack has allowed the series to operate as a tastemaker for open-ended nu-R&B and supple hip-hop. “Our music mission has always been female heavy, L.A.-centric and independent,” Rae tells Variety. “This season feels like a transitional season, and so I wanted everything to feel fresh and new and current.”
When she was preparing to film, the multi-hyphenate Rae had an idea for a contest that revolved around finding new, independent and unheard artists. The concept resonated with Carolyn Williams, SVP of Marketing at RCA, the record label that has released the soundtracks to “Insecure” since 2016. In no time, Williams involved Jocelyn Cooper, the woman behind New York’s venerable Afropunk festival and brand marketing group to take part in the contest. Not only did Cooper lend an ear to the selections: it was her site where artists and bands entered the #InsecureTracksContest by uploading their music submissions throughout May 2018. The goal was the selection of one song and artist for an upcoming episode of “Insecure” and inclusion on its season three soundtrack, but, as Rae is not yet finished editing the tail end of the series, let alone picking that contest’s winner (“we’re down to 26,” she notes), anything is possible.
“I love that Afropunk is all about giving new artists and voices a platform,” says Rae. “It is very much in tune with a very specific segment of blackness, and I feel like our music for the show is the same.”
As someone whose soundtrack favorites range, diversely, from the sensual, grooving “Love & Basketball,” to hard hip-hop collections such as “Menace II Society,” and “Boyz ‘n the Hood,” Rae already has a taste for something radically different within the black music continuum. “A lot of ’90s movies, and their respective soundtracks, really inspired me,” she says. “The soundtrack to ‘Love & Basketball’ was perfect. I watched that movie around the time that Napster was popping, and I remember downloading every single piece of music, score included, that was in that movie. It kills me that movie soundtracks are pretty much dead, but television soundtracks are crucial.”
Crucial and diverse are two themes to the “Insecure” contest as well. “That’s a huge deal for any up-and-coming artist,” says Williams, adding that “the entire ‘Insecure’ brand was a cultural phenomenon,” and the way that “HBO and Issa incorporated music into each episode was very appealing to us.”
Indeed, music is a key component of the series, which has showcased such tracks as SZA’s “Love Galore” featuring Travis Scott, GoldLink’s “Crew” featuring Brent Faiyaz & Shy G, Jazmine Sullivan’s “Let It Burn,” and songs from RCA artists Bryson Tiller, TT The Artist, Miguel (pictured above with Rae), Kari Faux and more. “I love that every Monday, after a Sunday ‘Insecure’ airing, that you’re confronted with these great watercooler moments,” says Afropunk’s Cooper.
Adds Williams: “We talked with Issa about whether or not to give instructions as to what kind of music we wanted to receive, but she was open to all sounds.”
Cooper laughs in revealing they had to cut submissions off at 6,000, before narrowing that unwieldy total to 200 artists, and now, finally, the remaining 26 that Rae and Kier are currently sifting through. The team was surprised to hear a cross-section of genres in the submissions, but also plenty who were trying to emulate the sounds of “Insecure” seasons’ past.
The criteria beyond ‘be unique” involved rules about contributed music that should not reference the show directly by using character names, actor names or the show title in the lyrics. Rae laughed before saying that, “I’m glad we put that in the criteria. People still didn’t listen though. It got them disqualified. I feel like our show has a very specific sound, and so we just wanted people to be themselves and submit music that felt mindful to that.”
“Across the board, the quality of the music has knocked me out, and it’s thrilling to see how many young black people are thinking outside the box,” says Cooper. “I don’t know how Issa is going to choose.”
Williams notes that Cooper’s Afropunk organization – as much a musical and cultural warehouse, as it is a hub of talent – has played a major role in marketing the music of “Insecure,” just as the festival has been instrumental in launching D’Angelo and the Vanguard’s “Black Messiah” album, and promoting new SZA music as well as providing marketing opportunities for Miguel and Nigerian singer Wizkid. “When we held the launch for our upcoming Brooklyn festival, we did so to the music of Buddy, a new RCA act,” says Cooper. The 2018 edition is scheduled for August 25 and 26 in Brooklyn.
Rae and Afropunk go back even further and deeper, however, when you consider that the Afropunk website was among the first to support the then-burgeoning web comedian’s YouTube series, “The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl” in 2011.
“We have been spreading the word on Issa for years,” says Cooper, proudly. “She is brilliant in her marrying of plotline and music and culture.”
“I love the celebration of our culture, the weird included,” adds Rae. “Afropunk has been extremely supportive of my web series in the past and just my creativity in general. As an up and coming creative, it meant the world to me for them to share my stuff with their platform, so it feels like a full circle moment for me that we get to do the same for other artists, together.”
With Rae ostensibly in the A&R chair, RCA is taking notes even on those who don’t make the cut. “There is music we are hearing, and considering, and waiting to see what Issa wants, and doesn’t,” says Williams, giving due credit to EVP of soundtracks and licensing, Karen Lamberton, who first secured the deal between RCA and HBO. “There are definitely songs we are hearing that can go further, whether through our relationship with ‘Insecure’ or beyond the show.”