There’s a perennial tendency for a generation to put 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.
ALL I’VE EVER WANTED TO DO WITH MY LIFE IS CREATE AN ALTERNATE, MORE INCLUSIVE CURRICULUM
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.
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!
JOY IS SUCH AN IMPORTANT PART OF BEING A HUMAN
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.