"Rap Sh!t" blows up the practice of artists being exploited on their way up (or out)

I remember struggling to get published, and "Rap Sh!t" gives artists a master class in recognizing their own value

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published November 16, 2023 4:04PM (EST)

KaMillion, Jonica Booth and Aida Osman in "Rap Sh!t" (Erin Simkin/Max)
KaMillion, Jonica Booth and Aida Osman in "Rap Sh!t" (Erin Simkin/Max)

HBO Max's hit series "Rap Sh!t" is back for Season 2 and off to a spectacular start. And it's not just about the funny – don't get me wrong, the show is still hilarious – but it's the decision to focus on the nightmare that comes with being an up-and-coming artist that takes the series to the next level. 

In case you missed it, "Rap Sh!t" is about an unconventional trio that fate forced into the hottest rap duo in Miami and maybe the country if they can maintain focus. There's Shawna (Aida Osman), the conscious, backpack-rapping emcee who sacrificed everything she thought she believed in for industry relevance. Shawna's partner in rhyme is Mia (KaMillion), a multitalented single mom who can rap, dance, influence and do makeup. Together, they seduce and scheme. 

Mia wouldn't be rapping without Shawna, and Shawna would never have any attention without Mia. And both of them would be lost in the industry without Chastity (Jonica Booth), an inexperienced pimp with a knack for getting into VIP parties, events and backstage functions she was not invited to. 

Season 2 picks up with the girls going on their first music tour. No, they are not headliners, no, they are not featured openers. They do not have their own set; they are not even getting paid. Shawna and Mia are being brought on to assist Reina Reign (Kat Cunning), a cheesy culture vulture white rapper who identifies as "light-skinned." 

What if you were in your early 20s and presented with an opportunity to travel the country, doing what you love?

Watching the show and hearing this tour idea pitched to the crew, knowing everything that has happened on their turbulent ride during the first season even to get them to this point, would lead you to believe that a disaster is about to happen. Still, part of the fun is imagining life through the lens of the characters. What if you were in your early 20s and presented with an opportunity to hang around with and even travel the country, doing what you love?

I was 31. 

Thirty-one years old, and writing was my second act. I was fresh out of the streets without any knowledge of publishing or the writing industry and didn't even know I had value. I also didn't have direct access to a writing community dedicated to helping new writers who were unfamiliar with how to make careers for themselves.

I cut into the world of publishing through a former professor, whom I won't name because I don't want to expose him, force him to lose a position or elevate the legend of his corniness. 

"You are so talented, Mr. Watkins," he told me after class one day. "Your prose are just gripping; I feel it!" 

"Thank you," I replied. "I'm just trying to get better." 

"I have a big-time friend in publishing coming in town next week," he said. "I'd love to introduce you." 

I'm about to make it, I thought. I spent my week all excited, thinking I would get a chance to begin my career. I thought this big-time publishing guy would read my work and like it too. I thought he would give me some advice on landing an agent, thought he'd give me some secrets he wished he would have known before entering the industry, thought maybe he would even see a piece of me in him. We could build that mentor-mentee relationship that is needed for success.

I thought wrong. 

That professor called me two days before the meeting and said, "You tapped into what's happening?" 

"What do you mean?" 

"I am just looking for something to smoke, you know, from my big-time publishing buddy." 

"You talking weed or crack? Because I don't sell that stuff anymore."

I looked the nervous professor over; his sweater was frayed, his desert boots raggedy, and the semi-homeless hipster look wasn't really out back then, or maybe this guy was ahead of his time – so I leaned in a little closer and said, "You talking weed or crack? Because I don't sell that stuff anymore." 

The professor laughed hard, exposing his back teeth, and said, "Crack, Mr. Watkins, you are one wild guy! Weed, I'm looking for some weed, and remember I am about to give you the intro of your life." 

The professor told me to bring the goods to his office the day before the event, and then I could meet his big-time publishing guy, and the three of us could discuss my career after.

"By the way, can you recommend some safe strip clubs? Because I want to show him a good time while he is in town," the professor said with a wink, "trying to stay away from the thugs and Yo's, if you know what I mean."

I knew exactly what he meant because many police officers, disconnected people and random racists have identified me as a "thug" and or a "Yo," but whatever, I'm up-and-coming so I'll just stick to the plan. 

I gave the thirsty professor a nugget of grass when he requested it. Good weed, too, Grade A, maybe a $50 sack of purple haze that was super chunky, lavender-colored and wrapped with orange hair. It stunk through the plastic, the napkin I covered it in,and my jeans. 

"So sorry, my publishing guy won't be able to meet with you this time, but we are so thankful for the party favor," the professor said. "Do I owe you anything?" 

"No, it's a favor."

As you can probably imagine, the next time had never come, and I never met his "big-time publishing guy."

I would meet more writers who would have me take professional-level pictures at their events, where they introduced me to no one, posted the the pics and never tagged me. I would write sections of books and never be acknowledged. I would go to countless events, help with marketing and promotion, and not even get an opportunity to read my work. I will use my money to put myself in position to be close to successful writers I knew, writers who would take a liking to me and then try their hand at using me as well. I will give these writers my work, listen to them tell me I'm not ready, and then see them stealing lines directly from my pages, my work, my mouth – all before I published my first essay. 

That is the game, for some of us at least. We get an opportunity to do a reading or to go to an event where the only pay is, "You will get to network with great people, "or "This will get you a whole lot of exposure," knowing damn well that nobody can eat exposure. The two young women on "Rap Sh!t" are doing what plenty of artists had to do entering show business, working their a** off for exposure that might lead to something else, but it also may not.

Some of the other writers who were doing the same things I did at the beginning of my career aren't even trying to break into this industry anymore; some are so tired that they have stopped writing altogether. Abandoning art because you lack success or resources in general is a terrible reality that no creative should ever face. But unfortunately, many of us do. 

If I could talk to somebody who was thinking about taking on free work in an effort to get to the next level, I would say do not do anything you can't handle. Meaning, if you write words for somebody without a contract or a deal, and their book becomes a popular bestseller – then you have to be OK with seeing them going on every television show, podcast and social media whatever and excitingly not mentioning you. Because that is what happened to me and so many other people. 

That is happening to the two young women on "Rap Sh!t" as they are starting their tour without their names being listed on the marquee. We'll have to keep watching to see if they make it, fold or starve after trying to eat exposure. 

"Rap Sh!t" streams new episodes Thursdays on Max.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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