For Black musicians, ‘Insecure’ created a new world of possibilities

issa rae insecure hbo series promo photo
Issa Rae in ‘Insecure.’ Photograph by Glen Wilson/HBO

NPR Music story by Sidney Madden, Bobby Carter, and Aisha Harris

After five seasons of love, loss, friendship and party Lyfts, HBO’s hit comedy drama Insecure is coming to an end. The creation of writer and actor Issa Rae, Insecure has become a cultural touchstone for a new kind of representation in media, one that has opened the door to complicated, authentic arcs for its characters and visibility for awkward, amazing, multifaceted Black fans who finally feel seen by the television they watch. Insecure will go down in pop culture history for many reasons, but one ripple effect of the show that Rae and her team have turned into a tidal wave of influence is the specific way it has shaped the sound and scope of Black music in its wake.

Between Raphael Saadiq composing, Kier Lehman serving as music supervisor and Rae having such a clear vision for the sound of the show, the musical soul of Insecure has remained consistently impeccable over five seasons. No matter how much our opinions of characters and plot lines wavered, the music always held us down.

Related: How Black women reclaimed country and Americana music in 2021

With each passing season, the show’s main characters – Issa and her best friend, Molly – have sloughed off stereotypes that have long flattened depictions of Black people. This consistent musical track record has even extended into the show’s storylines (Daniel’s producer dreams getting dashed, the Season 3 pilgrimage to Beychella and Issa’s star-studded block party) and blossomed beyond the show itself with Rae starting her own record label imprint, Raedio. Whether the show’s characters were flourishing, floundering or lighting a joint in order to forget, emerging artists were the ones they had on shuffle.

“There was a shift in music, a new wave in R&B,” Lehman tells All Songs Considered. “The millennial point of view that the show has also was being reflected in the music that was coming out: SZA, Tyler[, the Creator], Odd Future, Frank [Ocean]. That was a movement that was happening and it was really at the same time that the show was coming … We took that into consideration. ‘What is the music of these [characters]? What would they be listening to?'”

But the team not only identified that shift, they helped distinguish it.

Insecure‘s mode of storytelling created a sounding board for viscerally blunt, honest and left-of-center Black artists. In the last five years, albums like SZA’s Ctrl; Sampha’s Process; Ari Lennox’s Shea Butter Baby; Nao’s Saturn; Tyler, The Creator’s Flower Boy; Summer Walker’s Over It and, most recently, Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales have come to define a specific sub-genre of music, one that caters to Black millennials with a new sense of depth and realness: imperfect, awkward, sexually ambidextrous but also intimately anxious, actualizing dreams in ways that nobody told them was possible and purposely rejecting any two-dimensional archetypes placed on them.

Insecure‘s showing us things about ourselves on screen that we didn’t really always see,” says TeaMarrr, a Raedio signee whose song “Pipe Dreams” appears on the final season soundtrack. TeaMarrr credits Rae with opening a new lane in terms of honesty in songwriting for herself and others by leading by example.


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