The next hit comedy introduces two rising stars who are both brand new to TV and instantly familiar. Rap Sh!t, created by Issa Rae as her first scripted show for HBO Max, follows Miami girls Shawna and Mia, estranged childhood friends who reunite and make an internet-famous freestyle rap after a night of partying. The duo are electric from their first impromptu collab, and they quickly decide to form a rap group, with the show’s first eight-episode season presenting their highs and lows as they start their career, and document the whole journey on social media along the way.
The series required two actors with natural talent and instant chemistry to bring Shawna and Mia to life, and the creative team found them in Aida Osman and KaMillion. Both had less traditional paths to their roles. Osman—who is nonbinary and uses she/they pronouns—was hired as a writer on the show during their audition process, and began informing the character of Shawna both in the writers’ room and during her auditions. Meanwhile, KaMillion is a rapper from Florida who encourages her fans to live their best lives on social media.
Syreeta Singleton, an Insecure alum who’s now Rap Sh!t’s showrunner, tells ELLE.com that the pairing was a “no-brainer” from the actors’ first chemistry read. “Not only is their energy and chemistry incredible to watch, it makes you wish you had a friendship like theirs in real life!” she says. “They’re just beautiful and magnetic, you feel the energy when they are together, it’s so palpable. We knew this was Shawna and Mia.”
Osman and KaMillion may be the faces of the show, but Shawna and Mia’s friendship is its beating heart. The hilarious pair come together in the hope that they can change their lives towards an elusive better, and they make each other happy in the process. They also make each other think about their relationships and views on hip-hop, as it takes time for the duo to solidify what they want their music to be. “Luckily this is season one,” Osman says. “Shawna has a lot of room to grow, as does Mia, and they both get to learn about their femininity and like re-seizing their own power in music, whatever that means for them.”
Ahead, Osman and KaMillion speak to ELLE.com about clicking during the audition process, filming a show depicted through Instagram lives, and making music that helps people have a good time.
KaMillion: Yes, I would say. We’re definitely Zodiac twins, so you know how that goes.
Osman: Yeah, we immediately connected. I saw her at the callback and we read lines together. We were in a room with 15 other girls that were all auditioning for the same part of Shawna and Mia. But for some reason I just saw KaMillion and I was like, oh yeah. Let’s bring minds together. Let’s figure this out.
Osman: Damn. Shawna is so much like me. It’s hard to think of where she’s different.
KaMillion: And Mia is so much like me. I would say that I don't have a child, but the struggles that Mia endured and overcame and went through just to find her place in the world and her purpose, I can definitely relate to that. And kind of doing a little bit of everything into something finally clicks.
Osman: I guess I can’t relate to Shawna’s...Shawna’s really desperate, and she flies off the handle very quickly. She’s not strategic. I like to think there’s a little more tact in how I move and try to find success, but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m as crazy as her. You’ll see later in the season. She loves to go off the rails and she sometimes only thinks about herself.
She’s super hard to crack, ‘cause she’s right about all the stuff about the male gaze and having to sexualize herself to get attention. She’s right about that, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t need to do it to pop off. It puts her in this complicated place, and that was complicated for us. It was a lot of fighting in the writer’s room. The conversation that you mentioned between Mia and Shawna where they’re debating the nature of rap is the product of us screaming at each other in a well lit room at Issa’s office, or in a Zoom room. That was really difficult finding out what the truth is. Luckily this is season one. Shawna has a lot of room to grow, as does Mia, and they both get to learn about their femininity and like re-seizing their own power in music, whatever that means for them.
I actually grew up about five hours away in a city called Jacksonville, Florida, but I have a lot of family in Miami. I’ve lived in Miami. It was really cool for me to give the insight and the vibe of Florida living as a young lady from the area, and even words or slangs that we incorporated into the things that Mia and Shawna would say or wouldn’t say. That was pretty cool.
KaMillion: It was actually smooth because we use our phones every day, you know? So it’s kind of like a natural thing. We get on social media; you’re posting all the time. Me as a rapper, that’s what I’m always doing anyway. I’m always posting and preparing content. What was a little different is the closeness of the camera on these devices. It’s like, damn, you’re right up in my nostrils. It was getting comfortable with sometimes assisting the camera guy to place our faces when we are doing a certain scene and getting those real close up shots. It was kind of uncomfortable, but we made the best of it. It was really cool just to shoot a TV show from a whole different perspective. This is really a whole different way of shooting. I think a lot of new shows are probably gonna incorporate what we’ve already started. So, let ‘em know where they saw it first, you know.
Osman: It was hard. We do these screenings, and in so much of the show, the angle is not cute. When you open your iPhone and the cameras accidentally up, you’re like, “whoa, yikes, put that down,” but that’s how we shot so much of the show. Shout out to Sadé Clacken Joseph, who was our director for the first episode. She designed this rig that we wear on our bodies so that we can get the shots of us texting on our phone. We had to be camera women and actresses at the same time. When you’re helping the cameraman [position] the front of the camera, you’re also directing. You’re choosing where the screen goes, where the lens is going, and what they're seeing. So you’re doing a lot more than just trying to say lines and be cute. It’s a lot.
KaMillion: We got to choose. We tried on a lot of different outfits for the scenes, and they took pictures of the ones that we felt most comfortable in. Then, of course, Issa is Boss Lady. She gets the last say, but we definitely were included in the choices of what we’ve felt comfortable doing.
Osman: It’s cool too with Shaun’s wardrobe, ‘cause there is a story being told, with her getting more comfortable with her body and what she’s willing to show. She doesn’t really know how to dress at the beginning, and she doesn’t really know how to dress at the end either, but at least she’s showing some shoulder. It changes a little bit, so it was fun. We were very involved. Keia Bounds, who did our styling for the show, was amazing and really kind and allowed us to pick from a wide array of different things.
KaMillion: Being a rapper today, I really don’t give a damn what people think about certain things. I’m very strong-headed with the things that I choose to speak on when I make my music. Sometimes, some songs may not mean anything, but just shake your ass, get on the floor, and have a good time. Everything doesn’t always have to have a meaning behind it, but the intent is to make people have a good time. I do think it’s important for female rappers to have some type of message in their direction. Like, City Girls, for me, their music is for the girls that are trying to figure out life and are in the hustle and bustle, trying to make it out. Their music is geared towards encouraging girls to get it how you live. As long as you have a message behind the madness, that’s important. For me, like, I really don’t care. I do what feels good. I say what I wanna say, and if you like it, great. If you don’t, there are a hundred other female rappers that you can go listen to.
Osman: Exactly that. It was beautiful getting to watch KaMillion maintain a flourishing rap career while she’s becoming an amazing actress. It’s just really cool to watch her. I even used to have hang ups about all this stuff, and over intellectualizing what it means to be a rapper. Then I realized I was in my head. I needed to get in my body, and my body just wants to shake my ass. Why do I have to think about men and the politics of it all when that’s not my business right now? My business is just to pop pussy, and we’ll deal with the academic part in a little bit, but as long as you feel good, you feel good.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.