Known as much for her fear­less po­lit­i­cal sen­si­bil­ity as for her pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion per­for­mances, Yara Shahidi is one of Gen­er­a­tion Z’s most prom­i­nent stars. And there’s more to her than you might think

ELLE (UK) - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by ALEX FRANCO Styling by GIL­LIAN WILKINS

Meet Yara: ac­tress, ac­tivist and proof that young peo­ple re­ally can change the world


THERE’S A PEREN­NIAL TEN­DENCY FOR A GEN­ER­A­TION toput them­selves on pedestals, rem­i­nisc­ing about the glory days be­fore TV/the in­ter­net/so­cial me­dia, while writ­ing off the age group that comes di­rectly af­ter them. True to trend, Gen Z of­ten stand to be stereo­typed by their older co­horts as a bunch of smart­phone-ad­dicted nar­cis­sists who ex­ist solely to post dog-fil­ter self­ies. En­ter Yara Shahidi. The 18-year-old ac­tress, stu­dent and ac­tivist hap­pens to be the ul­ti­mate come­back to a tired ar­gu­ment. A gen­er­a­tional trump card and a mid­dle fin­ger to the no­tion of Gen Z’s ap­a­thy, she is proof young peo­ple do have the power to change the world.

Though Yara does takes self­ies: some with the Oba­mas and An­gela Davis, mem­bers of congress she’s met and ac­tivists she’s in­spired by. Her so­cial net­work is de­fined by like-minded, out­spo­ken women, such as ac­tress Rowan Blan­chard and jour­nal­ist Elaine Wel­teroth. Yara prob­a­bly spends a lot of time on In­sta­gram, too. But her feeds fea­ture posts about gun re­form, or the Women’s March, or the rea­sons why young peo­ple must take a stand and vote. An un­con­ven­tional su­per­star, she bal­ances her work in ac­claimed sit­com Black-ish and its spin-off Grown-ish with the role of pi­o­neer­ing ac­tivist. And in Septem­ber, she added stu­dent to that mix as she en­rolled at Har­vard. Here, she talks with the writer, cu­ra­tor and fel­low free-thinker be­hind In­sta­gram ac­count @mu­se­um­mammy, Kim­berly Drew, about the need for more joy and the mak­ing of sheroes on so­cial me­dia. YARA SHAHIDI: Hey Kim­berly, so did we first meet at the Guggen­heim?

KIM­BERLY DREW: We did, at a party!

YS: I have a photo booth pic­ture from it. I jumped the queue to get in that… KD: It was an amaz­ing first en­counter be­cause Yara, you’re def­i­nitely a per­son I had been ad­mir­ing through so many dif­fer­ent chan­nels. It was funny to meet you and be like, ‘Oh my God, she’s a real per­son!’

YS: Have you looked at your own In­sta­gram? Same.

KS: Well, this is some­thing we can talk about, the tran­si­tion from hero to peer, which I think is hap­pen­ing at a re­ally alarm­ing rate, and is an amaz­ing fac­tor of In­sta­gram.

YS: For sure. I’m re­ally grate­ful for en­ter­ing the in­dus­try at the time I did. I fol­low these peo­ple and it’s al­lowed me to form in­cred­i­ble re­la­tion­ships. We are ex­cited for one an­other, get­ting rid of this façade of com­pe­ti­tion.

KD: Ex­actly. When did you break into the in­dus­try? I know you’ve been pro­fes­sional for most of your life.

YS: I was seven when I did my first movie, but the defin­ing mo­ment from my per­spec­tive is out­side of that. Through school­work and classes, I got to fig­ure out what I loved out­side of act­ing, which means the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try isn’t the be all and end all. It’s given me a level of free­dom I’m so grate­ful for.

KD: I was with Vir­gil [Abloh] re­cently. He talks a lot about men­tor­ship, and how you can have men­tors who are older or younger, alive or dead. Who are the mo­ti­vat­ing forces in your world?

YS: First and fore­most, my par­ents. Peo­ple like [Black Lives Mat­ter co-founder] Pa­trisse Cul­lors, who I met at The Un­der­ground Mu­seum when I was there to watch An­gela Davis speak. I al­ready know of them both pre­vi­ously, but ac­tu­ally see­ing them speak made me dig deeper into Pa­trisse’s his­tory of or­gan­is­ing, which started at such a young age. Men­tor­ship is ex­tremely im­por­tant and, like you say, a lot of it stems from peers within my own gen­er­a­tion.

KD: That’s in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant. As you’re en­ter­ing the Har­vard space, I won­der if you’ve the­o­rised about how peo­ple your age are ed­u­cated?

YS: It’s so funny you brought that up, be­cause all I’ve ever wanted to do with my life is cre­ate an al­ter­nate, more in­clu­sive cur­ricu­lum. I be­lieve that ed­u­ca­tion is where we form most of our opin­ions and cre­ate this idea of who we see as fam­ily, who we see as part of our com­mu­nity and who we de­cide to alien­ate. I think our Euro­cen­tric cur­ricu­lum, which is one that I have def­i­nitely en­joyed learn­ing, is detri­men­tal to our gen­er­a­tion – my par­ents got me into Greek myths and African folk­lore. I did an au­dio his­tory course that went through the be­gin­ning of time, start­ing with Me­sopotamian civil­i­sa­tion. When I look at ed­u­ca­tion at large, there are so many things that are prob­lem­atic. If we look at peo­ple who are un­wel­com­ing to im­mi­grants, that’s be­cause their own story hasn’t even been put in the con­text of be­ing an im­mi­grant. So much is left out of text­books.

KD: Girl!

YS: That’s why we’re cre­at­ing Eighteen x 18 [Yara’s cre­ative plat­form to en­gage first-time vot­ers]. We’re still at the be­gin­ning stage in terms of the im­pact we’d like to have, but it stemmed from a dis­cus­sion of how the news had not been mar­keted to us [as young peo­ple]. News is an­other form of me­dia pro­gram­ming that has its tar­get de­mo­graphic – and there­fore our lack of un­der­stand­ing is sys­tem­atic. It keeps peo­ple out of po­lit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tions, be­cause how do you even be­gin to join in?

KD: Could you talk more about your phi­los­o­phy on so­cial me­dia? I love fol­low­ing you be­cause you are very good at dis­sem­i­nat­ing in­for­ma­tion. At the same time, some of what you share is just joy. I love your dance videos!

YS: That’s ex­actly it! I feel as though joy is such an im­por­tant part of be­ing a hu­man. So­cial me­dia is such a dou­ble-edged sword be­cause it’s the rea­son I’ve con­nected with so many amaz­ing peo­ple, such as your­self and Sage [Adams, stylist to SZA and on­line ac­tivist]. I don’t feel as though these con­nec­tions would have hap­pened as quickly with­out that level of ac­cess to peo­ple. The fact that we have Go Fund Me and we’re able to sup­port a cause with that level of im­me­di­acy [is amaz­ing]. At the same time, it’s this grand sim­pli­fier. So­cial me­dia takes ev­ery­thing and sim­pli­fies it in a way that’s re­ally help­ful, but can also be ex­tremely harm­ful be­cause you’re giv­ing in­for­ma­tion with no con­text. You’re given bits of news or in­for­ma­tion about some­body with­out think­ing of the big­ger pic­ture. I mean, it’s quite lit­er­ally look­ing at the lit­tle pic­ture!

KD: It’s a strange one. Be­ing in a de­bate in that space is very dif­fer­ent to when you’re one-to-one in­ter­fac­ing with a per­son or an idea. It’s so im­me­di­ate we don’t al­ways have time to process it. OK, I want to talk to you about fash­ion. I have only done one red car­pet in my life. When you’re do­ing some­thing like that, how do you utilise fash­ion to tell a story?

YS: I think fash­ion can be re­ally ground­ing. I know the dif­fer­ence be­tween wear­ing some­thing that feels like a re­flec­tion of my­self com­pared to be­ing put in some­thing that isn’t my style. My Screen Ac­tors Guild Awards look from this year was a [cus­tom Ralph Lau­ren] black jump­suit with a gi­ant bow, and what I loved was I couldn’t help but take up an ab­surd amount of space in that out­fit. There was some­thing about the phys­i­cal space I took up that al­lowed my emo­tional, fig­u­ra­tive and spir­i­tual space to ex­pand as well. I think that’s a recla­ma­tion of sorts. Us­ing [fash­ion] as a de­vice of self-ex­pres­sion is re­ally im­por­tant to me.

KD: We see peo­ple like you and Rowan Blan­chard and we’re like, ‘Wow, these women.’ How do you see your­self in that [ac­tivist] space?

YS: I think one of my big­gest fears is hav­ing a self-cen­tric life, in which my ex­is­tence didn’t serve the pres­ence or make it eas­ier for any other hu­man to ma­noeu­vre through this world. It means that what I’m do­ing out­side of act­ing is pos­si­bly the most ful­fill­ing part of what I do. We’re at a mo­ment in time that has hap­pened be­fore, es­pe­cially in the Six­ties and Seven­ties, in which we are not alone; in which a lot of peo­ple have taken an in­ter­est in the world at large. The fact that I have peers and men­tors and peo­ple who are older, the same age and younger than me who are sup­port­ing… It gives me ac­cess to a whole other com­mu­nity that is so ex­pan­sive. There’s a cul­tural shift, and I think it means [so many peo­ple] have a deep care for those out­side of [their] the­o­ret­i­cal bor­ders. I’m ex­cited for what will hap­pen next.

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