Yara Shahidi isn’t your vegan colleague that’s been evangelising the plant-based diet every time you sit down for lunch together since The Game Changers hit Netflix. But just like that kind of annoying but well-meaning colleague, Shahidi cares—deeply—about the state of the world. Humanity’s actions and its consequences. She’s just mastered the art of articulating it in a manner that’s considered and thought-provoking. Ergo effective, and not at all annoying.
The actress of African-American and Iranian-American descent’s first proper introduction to most would be as Zoey Johnson on ABC’s Black-ish in 2014, as the eldest daughter in the sitcom about an upper-middle class family of colour navigating their place in society. Barack Obama loves that it confronted circumstances about race head on, Shahidi and fellow cast members Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson swept the comedy segment of the NAACP Image Awards the following year, and Shahidi’s character Johnson went on to star in her on going spin-off, Grown-ish since 2018. More impressive, is that the spotlight on the young actress since hasn’t just been an enviable reel of red carpet fits and jet-set ‘grams.
Her Instagram captions will give you the quick read, tackling topics like racial inclusivity, representation and the importance of voting, and the panels and forums she’s been invited to speak at the comprehensive version. Shahidi’s willingness and confidence to speak up about potentially contentious issues on such a public level goes back to an “ah-ha!” moment. At 15 years old, shortly after Black-ish aired, she was invited to sit on an NAACP panel ‘Hollywood: New Ideas and the Next Generation’ alongside Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas and actress-producer Numa Perrier.
Did she measure up to her peers that were far wiser in years? Well, in opening Shahidi’s door to public speaking, Oprah Winfrey hopes America will see her as president someday as a result. Michelle Obama penned her college recommendation letters. Was it daunting? “Nerve-wrecking!” she exclaims, over the phone. “I definitely questioned what I would have to contribute in a space like that, especially when you’re sitting with people that have made it their life’s work.” Shahidi continues, “That feeling of, ‘What am I doing here?’ never fully goes away for anybody I think. But I have realised — and it’s constantly re-affirmed — that the importance of using my voice is to not only bring other people into the room, but also to know that I’m constantly educating myself on the world.”
When asked, essentially, how she got to be so brilliant so young, the actress never fails to cite her parents and upbringing as the catalyst. Her mother who was a commercial model and father, a photographer whose high-profile work includes Prince, taught the young Shahidi — “a large nerd” with a love for reading and history — that learning wasn’t just done in school.
Key lessons from the Shahidi household: “To find a solution when you’re bringing up an issue you may have; I think the art of a constructive conversation has influenced how I talk to people, engage with people, or even my perspective on what the purpose is of conversing.” She continues, “And always feeling like I should, in some way, hope to add to a person’s life in this conversation rather than take anything away.”
This mindset of adding rather than subtracting is ingrained in a lot of what Shahidi does. On the activism front, she’s galvanising her generational peers to vote through the platform she founded, Eighteen x 18. She’s championed the importance of education to end poverty, and called for empathy for the Iranian protesters. “The other thing that I’ve learnt is just to have a sense of global community. [My parents] have not only taught us about our own heritage—about being black and Iranian—but also placed us as children of the world that should have concern and care for everybody else,” Shahidi explains.
On screen, the characters whose shoes she steps into then have a larger purpose beyond pure entertainment. Black-ish and Grown-ish respectively, give black race and culture the representation it rightfully deserves on television, and raises awareness about the social issues people of colour face. But the latter is also the modern-day bildungsroman to younger viewers from all walks of life. Her latest film, The Sun Is Also a Star released in 2019 is a love story laced with the very real issue of deportation that immigrants face.
Her role as an actress, Shahidi says, is “really about being part of projects that in one way or another, start or move a conversation forward. That give insight into a piece of life that an audience may not know.” For many, film and television are some of the building blocks of how we come to perceive the world: the way it functions, a glimpse into the lives of those across oceans and continents, and the manner in which we interact with one another. Shahidi fully understands the educational imprint of these mediums: “I’ve personally been so impacted by the books, TV shows and films that have been in my life, and I know first-hand the power of that. I never want to waste that power.” That said, the medium itself is still grappling and working towards greater inclusivity and diversity of ethnicities and cultures, of its actors, and also the people producing the shows.
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Yara! Yara! Yara! The cover star of our March issue is a force to be reckoned with, beyond the confines of Hollywood. Off-screen, Shahidi is rallying for her generation to actualise the power of their voices and this, this is just the beginning. – Read more in the March issue on newsstands now! – Photography @justinrcampbell Stylist @ojnjenine Subject @yarashahidi in @coach Hair @nikkinelms Makeup @emilychengmakeup Manicure @luxebytracylee – #ELLESINGAPORE #yarashahidi #celebrity #actress #fashion #coach
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This is an except from the cover story of Yara Shahidi who fronts ELLE Singapore’s March issue. Pick up your copy on newsstands and at selected bookstores.