I don’t remember my 18th birthday. But I am pretty certain voting was the last thing on my mind. Actress-turned-activist Yara Shahidi, on the other hand, is busy planning an earnest foray into adulthood with a voter registration party held at the Underground Museum, a buzzy cultural hub in Los Angeles. And that isn’t all that’s on this rising star’s busy social calendar. It is 10am on the eve of her 18th birthday and Shahidi is on an important phone call, pacing back and forth inside the New York’s Baccarat Hotel restaurant. “Sorry, just wrapping up with a producer,” she whispers, as she embraces me with a warm hug. “I’m doing The Late Show with Stephen Colbert tonight.” Yesterday, the icon-in-training was on stage at the Apollo Theater making history as the youngest person to be interviewed by Oprah on her daytime series SuperSoul Sunday, an honor typically reserved for world leaders and spiritual gurus, such as Joe Biden, Sheryl Sandberg and Deepak Chopra.
Perhaps this isn’t entirely surprising for a girl who got Michelle Obama to write her a college admissions letter to Harvard. Or whose performance as the eldest, perennially stylish daughter, Zoey Johnson, on ABC’s hit series Black-ish recently inspired a successful college-based spin-off show, Grown-ish. Launched to instant acclaim, the show delves unapologetically into real issues facing college-age kids today: drugs, dating, sexual orientation, racism, gender identity and cultivating friendship in a digitally dominated world.
“The thing I’m looking forward to is feeling EMPOWERED to CONTRIBUTE. My friends always said that if I got a fake ID, it would be to VOTE early”
Shahidi, though, is so much more than just a TV starlet. She is an activist, a thought leader and a necessary political voice for her generation, who has aspirations of shaping public policy. She uses her platform to empower girls in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and to promote the importance of voting via her newly formed Eighteenx18 initiative, all the while stunning on the red carpet in age-appropriate renditions of high fashion.
Today, she is completely makeup-free and wearing a gray hoodie with the words ‘You Matter’ across her chest. The actress, her publicist and her mother, Keri (affectionately known as @chocolatemommyluv on Instagram), are easy to spot in the midtown landmark hotel populated by mostly older, white, conservatively dressed patrons. Shahidi’s squad are rocking glorious halos of naturally curly hair with low-key athleisure looks, and their extra-terrestrially glowing brown skin is beaming. It’s immediately clear that the teenager is surrounded by a support system of strong women who encourage her to be exactly who she is.
Elaine Welteroth: How do you feel in your last moments of 17? You are almost an adult. Grown-ish…
Yara Shahidi: It’s kinda scary. 17 was more than good to me; it’s the perfect age because you get the full perks of being a teenager without being an adult. But the one thing that I am looking forward to is feeling more empowered to contribute. My friends have always said that if I got a fake ID, it would be to vote early.
“There is so much FEAR of actors being political, like that’s not our PLACE, even though…media has always been so INHERENTLY political”
Welteroth: The last time we sat down for a Teen Vogue cover story interview, you were 16 and we were preparing to have our first female president. So much has changed since then.
Shahidi: I think, oddly, it’s exciting because I don’t think that I would look forward to voting as much if there hadn’t been so much duress happening. It has made life less self-centric, it’s more about community now. And, I mean, it timed out really well for me in terms of going through this stage where you are trying to find your friend group, trying to find who you are, and for so many people to have this common agreement to want to help one another with everything that’s happening. It’s not usually how you start a friendship group: “You’re socially aware? Cool, great. We are friends now.” So that’s really special.
Welteroth: You have this platform where people are looking to you as a thought leader, more than as just a celebrity. It seems you really want to build on that responsibility.
Shahidi: I remember being at the White House and somebody asked me what I wanted to do. I said that I wanted to be a thought leader and she just kinda chuckled and said, “You need credentials for that.” It was really off-putting. I come from such strong support; I come from the land of ‘of course’. Like, ‘of course this is going to happen’ because we have willed it to be and we are going to put in the work to make it happen.
Welteroth: What have you learned from growing up on the Black-ish set?
Shahidi: It’s a funny place to grow up because they appreciate you being a kid, and then there are moments in which they want to know your opinion like a peer. I’ve always been asked how I felt, whether it be at the dinner table or at my place of work, but overarchingly, what Black-ish has shown is the power of aligning with projects you truly believe in. It’s set a precedence. It is a privilege to be able to say pretty much from the get-go that this is what I enjoy and for my opportunities to be so aligned.
Welteroth: Why do you think that has happened?
Shahidi: It comes from a place of intention. Even at seven, I named my corporation ‘Dharma Driven’.
Welteroth: What does that mean?
Shahidi: Dharma is a Hindi word; it means purpose, which is something that is revealed to you over time. I think that set the tone. I even remember at 14 being like, “Why am I here? I don’t get it.” I have this whole thing about legacy. A legacy only lasts 50 years, and when that generation ends, then what was my impact? I think I credit it to all the dystopian literature I was reading at the time. Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 did not help! But I just try and find the commonalities of my interests. I wanted to be a historian and then I wanted to be a thought leader, and then I wanted to be policy adjacent and help influence our political system, and amidst that, I wanted to be a professional jet-ski rider and also work for the FBI. I used to have the FBI most-wanted page pinned up, just in case I wanted to recognize people in the streets.
Welteroth: Spy kid! How do you articulate your intention for your career now?
Shahidi: I guess I start by saying, Hollywood is seemingly extremely trivial. Media is important, but the machine around the media is centered around red carpets and this idea of celebrity and personal cachet. All of these things in the long run don’t have much of an impact.
Welteroth: And they don’t matter very much to you?
Shahidi: I mean, it’s like the universe plans award shows to line up with major societal crises. I remember being at the Teen Choice Awards and Charlottesville was happening the rallies that led to an anti-racism protestor being run over and killed. So you are always being pushed up against this oxymoron of ‘the world is falling apart’, but also ‘I’m here and my fit looks great’.
Welteroth: How do you manage that duality?
Shahidi: Well, it’s like what can we do outside of Black-ish that gives meaning toward what we are doing? If we are going to be on this red carpet, what are we going to talk about? We are not going to just ignore the fact that there are riots happening and there is a KKK rally. And so, just being with a team that supports that is special. There is so much fear of actors being political, like that’s not our place, even though I feel that media has always been so inherently political. In the photos that you see of Martin Luther King Jr., even at the march on Washington, there’s Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte and James Baldwin, and all of these other creatives. I think media is both progressive and extremely orthodox and conservative at the same time. Things will happen in the movies before they happen in real life. Sidney Poitier winning an Oscar as a black man was just surreal and at the same time it symbolized forward movement in society.
“FASHION is associated with an IDEOLOGY. You could wear a beret, but when you tilt it to the side, you go from Parisian to Black PANTHER”
Welteroth: You seem so rooted in history. You obsess over James Baldwin like teen girls obsess over a boy band. How is history relevant to what is happening today?
Shahidi: I think for me it really gives context; with the present and the future being so uncertain, through history, I can always track the outcome of our mistakes – whether it is looking at the French Revolution or something as powerful as the Haitian Revolution, or even thinking about living under Jim Crow laws. But also in terms of the more positive stuff, seeing activists that I admire makes me feel less lonely. Being able to turn to the past and see what they did helps with realizing how parallel time is.
Welteroth: You were just interviewed by Oprah and I need to know everything! What was the first question she asked you?
Shahidi: It was a general one: “Do you feel pressure?”
Welteroth: Well, do you?
Shahidi: I guess I’ll tell you what I told Oprah. It’s really nice because so much of my support has been through just being Yara. Whether it is the people who got to know me through you giving me a platform to guest-edit Teen Vogue, or those kinds of opportunities in which people are getting to know me, I feel like they are getting to know my reality versus just knowing me through the show. So, they’re expecting an authentic human and that is one thing that I can provide. Usually I am just a kid in a hoodie, jeans, and a fanny pack.
Welteroth: It’s usually a Chanel fanny pack though, let’s be real! We must talk about fashion. Although, I’ll admit, fashion seems so adjacent to everything else we are talking about…
Shahidi: No, it is so important. It’s why I wear a ton of political T-shirts because I get to wear things that state my political opinions. Fashion is associated with an ideology. You could wear a beret, but when you tilt it to the side, you go from Parisian to Black Panther.
Welteroth: It seems as if you approach fashion like you approach everything else in your life, from a place of intention.
Shahidi: I think the end goal is to not take myself too seriously. I have all the time in the world to wear a deep V-neck and all that, so why not do everything else?
Grown-ish is on Freeform now
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