Issa Rae is the writer/producer/director behind the hit web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, a biting and comedic show about a girl named “J” who is just trying to get along while being exactly what the title suggests. She also appeared this past weekend at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, as part of the event’s daily empowerment programming, on a panel discussion about the “2012 Black Women’s Agenda.” Speaking for younger women, she appeared along with female luminaries from the worlds of business, education, politics and health. Rae sat down with TIME after the panel to discuss the history of Awkward Black Girl, the importance of role models and the future of the web series as a format.
TIME: On the panel you mentioned the importance of role models. Did you always set out to have the Awkward Black Girl be a role model?
Issa Rae: By no means. It was more for me, for representation of me, because it sort of filled a void that I just didn’t see in media. It was a selfish endeavor for the most part and it became something bigger. I’ve noticed, just from the outreach that I’ve gotten, she is a role model for many people. She’s a source of comfort and I wouldn’t have imagined that.
Does knowing that other people see her as a role model change anything about the things that happen to J?
For women, no, it doesn’t change anything. This is me; I’m an adult woman. But for little girls who say that they watch the show or whose mothers feel like they can show children the show, I do kind of struggle with that. I don’t necessarily believe that this is supposed to be the role model for young girls. I’m working on trying to create a different role model for younger children.
And how much of J is you?
It fluctuates day to day. Sometimes she’s 30% me, sometimes she’s 60% me.
So in the first episode of the series you say that being awkward and black are the two worst things. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
I actually posted on Facebook that I was awkward and black, that it was a revelation to me, and the comments were pretty hilarious. One of the girls who’s on the show now commented, “Haha, awkward and black, those are literally the two worst things anybody can be.” It stuck with me. Especially now, being a black woman, we’re competitive, we fight, we have all these issues. And then awkward. No one in media expects black people to be awkward. So it’s like you’re not only this negative connotation, but now you’re awkward on top of it. Who are you? Where are you going to fit in?
Can you elaborate on what exactly “awkward” means to you?
To me, it’s social discomfort. Everyone is awkward in a way. Everyone has these moments where you don’t feel comfortable in your own skin, you don’t feel comfortable in your surroundings, certain people make you feel uncomfortable. But I think it’s just this idea of being a social misfit.
How did you first decide to do the show as a web series?
I tried to pitch one of my other web series to TV, and I was met with certain ideas and certain forms of criticism that I didn’t necessarily agree with. What executives were telling me that networks wanted—I didn’t want to produce that. By the time I came up with the idea for this series, it was just a no-brainer that it would go straight to web. I didn’t feel like it belonged on TV. I knew that network executives would be like, “no one’s gonna watch this.” On the web there are no gatekeepers. I can just put it out there.
So do you think that the web is what’s next for comedy, or will the web and TV just coexist?
I think that they’re fusing right now. For example, I have a Google TV and I watch my web series on a TV screen and I don’t have cable. At the same time, a lot of TV shows have supplemental content on the web. We live in a time where people rapidly consume things and the web offers an answer to that, because there’s constant content. I think that it’s the the future. TV is going to shift to accommodate the web.
What kind of things does the Internet allow people to do that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do, especially in the realm of comedy?
It allows you to experiment way more. It allows you to express yourself more creatively and more freely. That’s what’s so appealing about it. You can literally put anything out there, and you’re going to find an audience.
Do you think that the Awkward Black Girl would have been anything without the Internet?
No. Not now. Not at all. No way. I just know for a fact that it would not.
So what do you think is the future of the web series?
I think that we’re going to see more full-blown shows. This is going to be the opportunity for people of color, not just African-Americans but others. There’s a strong Asian community on the web, there’s a strong African community, there are so many strong communities on the web; I think that this is the space for niche communities to find content and for niche creators to find their audiences.
Is the hope that those people eventually parlay that into Hollywood?
I think the hope is that they’ll be able to monetize their content. Every content creator wants their content to be seen and they want to make a living off of it. With the digital upfronts that are happening now, I think that the ad space is very interested on the web, so there are way more opportunities to make money. Before when YouTube first came out it was “I’m just putting a video out there.” There are way more opportunities. It’s a frontier in a sense.
So Hollywood won’t be necessary?
I think those people will have to adjust. Just like in the music industry, where people are struggling to reclaim and rebrand it, I think the same thing is going to happen with this content. But there’s still a mystique of the big screen—and whether a web series makes the big screen, only time will tell.