Endorsed by Michelle Obama, praised by Oprah Winfrey and heading to Harvard, 18-year-old Yara Shahidi is an actor on a mission to change the world.
When it comes to interviewing young Hollywood, there’s a fairly routine narrative that plays out: an invitation to a sterile hotel lobby or vegan-friendly hotspot, sent by a stern PR who sits in the corner and keeps strict time; an attendant actor who plays engaged for the course of a conversation, then swiftly disappears. But when it comes to Yara Shahidi, things are different. Instead of eating a leafy salad at one of Los Angeles’s celeb hangouts, Shahidi asks me to meet her at Sweet Chick, a low-key fried-chicken restaurant in the city’s Fairfax district, owned by her cousin, Nasir Jones. Her mother and 10-year-old brother join us — less, it seems, to keep an eye on things, and more because they fancied lunch, too.
Yara is take-your-breath-away beautiful. Fresh-faced in a Grace Jones T-shirt and Tory Burch knit skirt, she fixes her gaze on me while talking with an arrestingly earnest enthusiasm, between mouthfuls of bean burger. “We come here a lot,” she grins, as her family tuck into crayfish hush puppies. “I’m Iranian-American… I really hit the cultural jackpot in terms of food.”
It turns out Shahidi could hardly have chosen a location more befitting her character: she isn’t the stereotypical starlet, nor does she have any desire to be. Now 18, she’s been acting since birth (her mother is an actor; her father a director), and hit the big time four years ago playing the eldest daughter in Kenya Barris’s prime-time comedy Black-ish – a show that the Obama family regularly refer to as their favorite and that Donald Trump predictably dismissed. (“Can you imagine the furor of a show, ‘Whiteish’! Racism at highest level?” he tweeted.) A brilliantly nuanced exploration of identity politics, Black-ish confronts issues from police brutality to middle-class black guilt within a warm and witty framework, and it is that same self-aware but inviting persona that Yara embraces.
While, of late, she has become something of a fashion darling — she’s been appointed a Chanel ambassador, attended the Met Ball dressed in couture, and graced several magazine covers — those endeavors appear to be in aid of establishing a platform from which she can discuss the issues dear to her. As a consequence of the commercial and acting work she was doing, she was required to set up a corporation aged seven: “I called it Dharma Driven,” she smiles, “because, even then, I felt like this industry can feel trivial if there’s no deeper purpose to it. My dharma, my purpose, is not to live in a self-centered world; to feel like one day I can look back and feel like what I did mattered.”
Since January this year, Shahidi has also been starring in her own Black-ish spin-off show, Grown-ish, which documents her character, Zoey, going to college. (Perfectly timed: Yara herself starts at Harvard this month, after eight offers from the world’s most prestigious universities and a recommendation letter from Michelle Obama.) As if this weren’t enough, she has also launched a political initiative — Eighteen x ’18 — to encourage her peers to vote in the American mid-term elections in November, and appeared on Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations, an honor ordinarily reserved for “the most recognized spiritual thinkers of our time”. (“Baby, your future is so bright it burns my eyes,” Oprah told her.)
She’s appeared on stages across the world advocating youth engagement and intersectionality; earlier this year, she talked alongside the likes of Margaret Atwood and Tina Tchen at Tory Burch’s inaugural Embrace Ambition Summit in New York, where she paraphrased James Baldwin to explain, “The paradox of education is precisely this: as one proceeds to be educated, they begin to examine the world — the society — that is educating them.” Her drive to confront structural racism, sexism, and classism would be remarkable no matter what her age — but when delivered by an 18-year-old it is, frankly, astonishing. “Yara’s character, integrity and intellect are matched by a deep sense of purpose, which is extraordinary to see in someone so young,” said Burch. “She is positioned to become a voice of her generation.”
She is right. A self-confessed “history nerd”, for years Shahidi carried a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte in her bag, “because I love revolutions”. Now she is being established as the face of one. In an unstable political climate, young people are fighting for their voice with raging resolve, social media fostering networks of like-minded activists who no longer depend on mainstream methods to share their opinions. Yara was seven when the iPhone came out; 12 when the Florida teenager Trayvon Martin was shot; and watched Philando Castile’s death from gunshot wounds streamed over Facebook Live. “I’m the beneficiary of growing up in a generation which is so involved, and I’m surrounded by activists using social media to make history,” she says. “It’s an oxymoronic time; so much is happening socially and politically, in a way that is terrifying but at the same time is producing this incredible level of unity.”
Much of her time is spent fostering communities, and encouraging her peers to fight for a better future. “People’s lives, their livelihoods are at stake,” she says. “Part of being an engaged citizen is looking around you and asking, ‘Why is this happening, how is this happening? Why were the cops called on a young girl napping in her common room? Why were they called on a woman at Waffle House?’ You have to find the common denominator — and, for me, I realized I shared that common denominator and couldn’t help but be involved.”
While the series that propelled her into the spotlight explicitly addresses those sorts of vital issues, it shows that addressing politics is not mutually exclusive with comedy: that the two can happily coexist. Off-screen, Yara is the embodiment of a modern, multifaceted approach to political engagement: look at her Instagram feed and you find images referencing gun control and Black Lives Matter, interspersed with selfies and red-carpet snaps. In 2018, you can go to the March For Our Lives rally in the day (as she did in March, where she gave a speech on gun violence) and Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards in the evening (where she appeared on stage for a snowball fight with Zendaya) without one detracting from the other. Being a politically engaged teenager doesn’t mean you need to spend your evenings at home glued to the news 24/7. “Who plans these events anyway?” she sighs. “I kid you not, awards shows always align with these major social movements. I just want to make sure that I can be there for both.”
As if to prove the point, when we leave the restaurant after an hour-long conversation about identity politics, Yara grabs my hand. “Do we have time to go shopping?” she asks, as we’re already halfway down Fairfax. She hurries me into Melody Ehsani, a store she proudly announces is owned by a family friend, the first woman to set up shop on a strip dominated by male-oriented streetwear brands. “This is what I wanted!” She picks up a white T-shirt printed with an illustration of her hero, James Baldwin; it matches the Grace Jones version she is wearing today. She excitedly stuffs it inside her Black Lives Matter rucksack, where it nestles alongside his masterpiece, Giovanni’s Room. “That’s my favorite book,” she beams. “Baldwin is at the intersection of so many different identities, and represents the proletariat in such a beautiful way. I recently re-read it while listening to Blonde by Frank Ocean. I couldn’t stop crying.” If this is what the future looks like, we’re in good hands.
Originally printed in the October 2018 issue of British Vogue