There’s a scene in Season 2 of Max’s Rap Sh!t in which Aida Osman’s character, the hotel front desk agent-turned-rapper Shawna, has a massive panic attack. It was the first time Osman had ever cried on command.
Minutes before shooting the scene, the 26-year-old actor was sitting in a pink bedroom belonging to another character’s daughter. It resembled the one she’d slept in as a 6-year-old in Nebraska, and Osman instantly felt painful childhood memories flooding back.
“Whether it was a bad stepfather, or a bad relationship with my mother, or my sibling who later passed away in 2017, or the friends I lost to drug overdoses during the pandemic, there was so much in my life that I could access,” says the actor, who’s also a writer for the show.
By the time director Amy Aniobi called cut after the first take, she was crying, too. Series creator Issa Rae and EP Syreeta Singleton approached Osman. “[They] were like, ‘That was amazing. I don’t know how you did that,’” she recalls. “I prioritize laughing, but it was really cool to know that I could invoke real emotions in people.”
Spoilers ahead. The scene, from Episode 6, reflects a larger tonal shift in Rap Sh!t’s second season. The City Girls-inspired comedy tracks a rap duo’s ascent in the music industry. The series had previously couched tough themes, such as misogyny, between laugh-out-loud moments from protagonists Shawna and Mia (KaMillion). But Episode 5 is heavy: Following a failed hookup attempt with Shawna, rapper Lord AK (Jacob Romero) lights himself on fire during a mental health crisis.
Osman began her career as a comedy writer who used humor to avoid confronting painful emotions, so the show’s sharp left turn seemed equally out of character for her. But her personal writing has skewed more toward dark comedy, she says, inspired by Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag and Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You.
“I can write a little darker than the average writer, and those pitches get thrown away — except for Lord AK getting set on fire!” Osman explains. “How Lord AK was going to hurt himself was a big point of contention in the writers room. I kept pushing for fire. There was no other option in my mind. I wanted to see something crazy that you wouldn’t expect.”
“There are two sides to the show. It’s City Girls meets The Wire.”
When proposed storylines go a little off the rails, Rae is on hand to rein them back in with script notes. “[She] has final say on what happens,” Osman says.
“Our show doesn’t shy away from the world that these characters live in. Chastity is a pimp, Mia is on OnlyFans, Shawna is literally doing organized crime,” she says. “There are two sides to the show. It’s City Girls meets The Wire.”
Below, the actor unpacks Season 2’s wildest moments, teases Rap Sh!t’s future, and discusses the show’s promotion.
Let’s jump back to the Lord AK scene from Episode 5. How did that shocking, pivotal moment shape Shawna’s trajectory through the back half of the season?
Everybody was panicking. It was totally out of nowhere, but a lot of things in that episode were foreshadowing that something awful was going to happen. It was a moment for Shawna to see the dark underbelly of success.
When you say everybody was panicking about that scene, what do you mean?
People on Twitter were absolutely shocked and confused and were trying to discern why he did it, what was going on, and if Shawna was the cause. We knew that he was depressed, and we knew that the entourage in his life were essentially leeches, which is not uncommon with most rappers.
For the first time, Lord AK felt connected to another person with Shawna. They bonded over their interests, they flirted with each other, and they had this steamy moment in the bedroom. But then drugs kept him from being who he wanted to be, and he just couldn’t handle it. You also don’t know if it was intentional or not.
Wait, so there’s a chance the self-immolation wasn’t intentional?
If you pay attention in the show, the fire’s already on the balcony. And he just goes out there. You don’t get clarity on it.
So, can you clear up what happened?
You don’t get clarity because that’s how it goes in real life. We don’t know what happened with Juice WRLD. We don't know what happens to rappers.
I’m sure you’ve seen that the fans on Twitter think the show’s not getting the promo or discussion it deserves. What’s your take on that?
I’m a huge believer in putting your head down and working, and the work will speak volumes. In the grand scheme of life, our work will reach the people who need to see it. I can’t control the show’s promotion, but I can control what’s in it, so in 20 years, when someone watches Rap Sh!t, it’s still high-quality writing and a good snapshot of women in 2023.
Jumping ahead to the finale, Shawna said at the beginning, “Using what happened to Lord AK for attention is sickening,” referencing Gat. But one of the last things she says in the episode is, “I think it’s what Lord AK would want me to do.” Should viewers read that as a selling-out moment?
It’s a moment where you realize that trauma and pain sell. Shawna’s like, “If y’all are gonna do it, I’m gonna do it. Guess what? I was connected to him, too. I was there, too. So I’m gonna tell my story and have this branding moment.” She’s also trying to get back at Gat and prove to him that she’s not going down without a fight.
Chastity was part of the collateral damage. Mia told Shawna, “What’s the point of winning if you’re not doing it with your people?” but they still fired Chastity in favor of Francois anyway. How do you defend that decision?
That’s a rough one. Business is business. They haven’t known each other very long. They’re not friends. Shawna wants to win and wants a manager who knows people in the industry. She doesn’t want to run the club circuit; she wants to win a Grammy. Francois is connected in ways that Chastity just isn’t, and Shawna is willing to sacrifice anybody to get going.
Shawna also seems willing to sacrifice Maurice. How might the incriminating recordings come back to haunt Shawna?
That’s the scary thing. When Shawna gets on that phone, [and only viewers] know he recorded it, she’s like, “I know I was the reason we did all these crimes!” Like, no! That is a linchpin moment in the story, and I know it’s about to come back and get her. She incriminated herself in a way that’s really dangerous.
They have similarities in the will-they-won’t-they dynamic. There’s a rule in writing where the first love interest you meet for your protagonist or one of your main characters is who the audience will root for, because as human beings, we’re dumb. We always go for the first person we see our character with.
So it’s hard not to root for Lamont. He’s the father of her baby, and he’s doing a good job raising the child. Audiences want to see families work, and they want to see love work. I want Mia and Lamont to end up together. Lawrence and Issa, by Season 4, I was like, I do not care anymore! Especially when he has the baby with, what’s her name? Gondola? Condola?
Yeah, Condola. Jay Ellis [who played Lawrence] was directing us in Rap Sh!t Season 1 while I was watching Insecure’s final season, where he has the baby. This man would come to work and try to tell me what to do, and I’d be like, “Sir! I’m not doing that! I don't care what your directions are! You are having babies with people who are not Issa!” It was really hard to separate the art from the artist.
You wear many hats. Between acting, writing, and musical performances, which is the most challenging?
Showing up on time.
But wait, isn’t Issa’s thing that she’s always on time?
Issa’s like 30 minutes early! Look, I have stopped comparing myself to this maniac, this robot. I’m going to peel back Issa’s skin one day, and it’s going to be all wires and gridwork in there. I don’t know how she does it! She’s always on time, she’s always there with eloquent, smart things to say, and she’s very perceptive.
The hardest thing for me were the dance rehearsals. I’ve been a dancer since I was a kid, but I stopped dancing in high school. I thought I was going to do stand-up comedy and barely move on the stage for the next 20 years. Then life showed me that you can’t escape. You can’t run from where you come from. I have to dance.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
If you or someone you know is considering self-harm or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, which provides free 24/7 support.