For someone who gets to go to college twice, you'd think Yara Shahidi is ready for a break. But the actress-cum-activist is just getting started. After wooing us on Black-ish, the 17 year-old is ready for her next chapter: in real life, at Harvard, where she's set to double major in Interdisciplinary Sociology and African American Studies; and on TV, as Zoey Johnson, who's off to Cal U in her very own spin-off, Grown-ish. She may be famous, but Shahidi is redefining — or perhaps "undefining" — what it means to be an ambitious young person, with the whole world taking note. For a special episode of UnStyled, Shahidi talks about all of the above and more with R29's co-founder and global editor-in-chief Christene Barberich.
Though Shahidi admits to not having watched much television growing up — like, one hour per week, she shares — it's served her well. Off screen, she takes advantage of her social platforms in the only ways she knows how — via calls to action for social issues that affect young people across the world and spreading the word on her favourite charities, to lighter moments, such as friendly reminders to just shake it off sometimes (literally). Like Zoey, her Grown-ish persona, Shahidi is a breath of fresh air for Generation Z — and, hopefully, a glimpse at what the future looks like.
And, while her plate may be full, it's no surprise she's managed to squeeze in some pretty impressive extracurriculars, too. Shahidi has teamed up with Eighteenx18, which encourages young people to vote, and you can see her in the latest #AerieREAL campaign, too, as she takes on a role that comes pretty naturally: inspiring people to be themselves, no matter what.
We know what you're thinking: Shahidi makes doing good look really easy, but we honestly can't help but love her for it. Tune in to her conversation with Barberich to hear more about why young people should get political, just how grown-up the Black-ish spinoff is, and what's next for the rising star. (And don't forget to subscribe to UnStyled for even more good stuff!)
Turn to history. Because as cyclical as history is, there are always those inspiring outliers.
Good morning, Yara.
Yara Shahidi: "Good morning."
Thank you so much for being a guest on UnStyled today.
YS: "Of course."
Our super, duper bonus episode.
So, you’ve kind of grown up alongside your character, Zoey.
But now that she’s headed off to college, in your new show Grown-ish, you’re gonna have even more in common because you’re heading off to college too?
YS: "That’s being worked out, my personal college schedule. But yeah, “life imitates art, imitates life.” I remember I was finishing my own applications when Kenya Barris, the creator of Black-ish called with the idea of, “what if Zoey goes to college?”
Why do you think he wanted to do it? Was it because of the history of college campuses being such an important place for protest, discussion, reactions?
YS: "I mean, multiple reasons. First and foremost, he has children of his own, and his oldest is headed off to college, and…
Didn’t you go to school together?
YS: "Mm-hmm, I went to school with Kaylee Barris, and so she’s headed off to college, I was already kind of talking about college and applying myself. And so, what he’s always loved is making sure that Black-ish, as exaggerated as it can be for the sake of comedy, is based in reality. And so, the one thing that he wanted to make sure was that my character was still allowed to grow. And he didn't know if it was as fully possible if we didn't discuss this side of her adventure. Especially when you have a character that has been so independent from day one. Every other line she’s like, “Well, when I’m out of here.” And so, it was more so just such an appropriate way to continue the journey. And also again, like you said, college campuses are highly politicised and so much happens in terms of personal development, but also the development of one’s opinion, and larger public self."
It does sound like a cliché, but it is such a moment of awakening because you’re really distanced from this world that has been your life for the last eighteen years. And you really are forced to create this new identity.
YS: "I know it may have been a shock for some people coming from Black-ish in which she was possibly the most confident person other than Dre on the show. But, moving into this new college environment, starting from the first moment you see Zoey on screen, she’s unsure of herself. I think it was expected that she would go in with the same kind of energy as she had in Black-ish, but it’s just not real. I mean even watching my friends who are in college now, who have always been independent and selfish. There’s a certain moment that everyone goes through of realising that this is a whole new environment that they have to manoeuvre and that you do not have the same support system that you did before. And that you pretty much single-handedly have to deal with the consequences of your actions without having the family that protects you."
There’s also a really interesting relationship between you and your dad on the show. And it’s like, I don’t know, I felt it was really symbolic of this sort of passing of the torch of men to young women, and really like believing that my daughter is gonna change the world.
YS: "Oh yeah, I mean, the one thing about Zoey and Dre, is I’ve always said that they’re the same person. Quite honestly, I feel like‒"
So that’s really, really, really interesting, especially right now with just the different narratives that are being exchanged between men and young women.
YS: "Yeah, I’ve always personally felt that some of the times in which you see them butting heads is because they have the same type of energy. Fire and fire just begets more fire. Even though they have these similarities which have been expressed throughout the seasons, I mean, Dre refers to her as the “favourite child.” And so there have been those‒"
Which is terrible by the way.
YS: "I know. But there have been those moments throughout the seasons, and so there is a sort of passing of the baton, and it’s symbolic, and also quite literally, even with Kenya giving me the platform of this show. It’s a very literal transition of being confident in a seventeen-year-old to carry a show, and being confident in a group of young people. Whether you think about how young our writer’s room is, and everything from the fact that we have a female DP, there’s a passing of the torch in so many ways from Black-ish to Grown-ish, and‒"
It’s really exciting.
YS: "Yeah, and allowing new voices, and new narratives because the one thing that we’ve never shied away from is that Black-ish is also Dre’s narrative."
YS: "We do tell everyone’s story on the show, but it’s through his point of view. And so, it’s different if Zoey were to have gone to college on Black-ish because it would have been through his point of view and through his form of self-realisation, versus then seeing this entire other person discovering her own journey. And there’s more assemblance of ownership of her story with Grown-ish, and with her having this other platform."