“It's hard to separate the personal from the political,” says 18-year-old actress Yara Shahidi. Christened by Teen Vogue as “one of the most prominent Generation Z political voices,” the Grown-ish star’s activism is not just her social justice commentary on Instagram or her hand in movements like the Eighteen x ’18 campaign encouraging young voters to show up to the midterm polls. For Shahidi, having a political voice comes down to the very fabric she puts on her body—the monochrome Melody Ehsani tracksuits she labels her signature; the Pyer Moss men’s leisure suit she’s wearing for today’s photo shoot (a shamrock-coloured number printed with the faces of an African American father and his kids). “Wearing what you want is a powerful political statement,” Shahidi asserts. “Fashion is a reclamation of identity.”
A few days out from the turn of 2019, Shahidi is wearing her identity on her sleeve more visibly than ever. The focal point of Shahidi’s look today is her braids. Having taken an hour to install, the twists pour a proud 63 inches from the crown of her head down to the concrete floor of this pristine Venice rental house with such natural ease that it’s as if they were always there, like Yosemite Falls, or a chandelier in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Barefoot, Shahidi arranges them neatly around her green silk trousers as we sink into a low gray couch for our interview, two rooms away from the music, cameras, and dozen or so people making sure today turns out beautifully. “I can get people’d out sometimes,” Shahidi says with affection.
If I had experienced a year anything like Shahidi’s, I’d be all people’d out, too. In the summer, Shahidi shot The Sun Is Also a Star, a romantic drama film based on the best-selling YA novel and set for release May 17, 2019. She also currently stars on the hit new Freeform series Grown-ish (a spinoff of ABC’s Black-ish), which follows Shahidi’s character Zoey Johnson as she navigates the tribulations of early college life. Meanwhile, Shahidi balances her own real-life course load as a first-semester Harvard undergrad.
Yara and Grown-ish’s Zoey are doing freshman year very differently, however. Shahidi, who received a college recommendation letter from Michelle Obama and finished high school with a nearly flawless GPA, intends to major in African American studies, and when she can’t make it to Cambridge between shooting schedules, she fulfills her credits online. Shahidi has very little room to stumble, which is not the case for her plucky, sometimes foolhardy Grown-ish character.
“One of the perks of my job is that I get to live an alternate life with no consequences,” Shahidi says with a smile. “So my character can date some guy or be on Adderall temporarily, and Yara is not affected because I’m just eating sugar pills. It’s a privilege, especially as a teenager figuring out who I am, to be able to live out such an extreme opposite.”
Shahidi does have one minorly rebellious goal for 2019, though: her first tattoo. She’s considering getting a memorial tattoo, maybe at the end of January, she tells me, in honor of the civil rights movement—a date on her wrist. Indeed, even when Shahidi acts like a regular teenager, it’s both personal and political.
Acknowledging the privilege to express her viewpoints, especially knowing that others are listening, comes naturally to Shahidi, who was raised in a multicultural family she describes as “very socially engaged.” Even when she was a little kid, Shahidi’s parents invited her to articulate and debate her political stances; so now, at 18, she boasts a lexicon consisting of pithy buzzwords like “quantifiable action” and “performative activist.” It’s like encountering a younger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“My parents have always wanted to know what I thought and why, which I think is rare,” she says. “Oftentimes, when you’re young, you’re told to stay quiet, and then when you become an adult, you’re all of a sudden supposed to have your mind made up about the world. But you never got that clumsy growing-up period of figuring out the right words to express what you want or need.”
As Shahidi’s celebrity grows, she’s using it more and more to expand the speaking floor. “Part of the purpose of me sharing how I feel is to empower other people to realize that their opinions are worthy of being shared,” she explains. “It’s normalizing that idea of civic engagement.”
Looking forward, Shahidi has big activism plans for 2019, mostly involving live events and salons aimed at young adults, encouraging hype for the 2020 election. When asked if she’d ever like to run for public office herself (after all, she has the disposition for it), she says, “I don’t know. I think I would love to run a think tank or something,” that being an organization funding bias-free social science. “Oftentimes we create social science to back up the political rather than social science guiding the political, which means that a lot of what we receive is already extremely jaded,” Shahidi explains. “Like, even pharmaceutical companies’ clinical trials are usually conducted with white men. There’s so much information missing about how pharmaceuticals affect other groups of people because there’s no inclusivity. So I want to help create something that could help break that cycle. I don’t know exactly what that would look like yet.”
Other 2019 goals for Shahidi? Ironically, to work on prioritizing her own well-being before concerning herself with the well-being of others, let alone the entire country. To zip up her own tracksuit before helping the person next to her, so to speak. It’s easy to forget, even for Shahidi herself, that she’s only 18; and even though her social and political consciousness is higher than anyone else’s on this set, as a child star on the cusp of adulthood, she’s still learning how to do some practical things, like take care of herself.
“Oftentimes I find it easier for other people to take care of me,” Shahidi admits, petting the end of one of her braids. “I’ve been privileged to have a group of people surrounding me whose opinions align with mine, but sometimes I’ll become physically uncomfortable trying to speak for myself, like, Hey, guys, I’m exhausted! Which is not something I’ve chosen to make anybody else’s life harder. But there’s pressure to just keep going. You work 70 hours a week, and you tell yourself, oh, it’s cool. I’m an overly pragmatic person, so there are moments where I go into a robot mode. I’ll say, Well, theoretically this is what will be best for the greater good, versus This is what I want. So I’m trying to get better at that.”
Here’s to a 2019 full of epic braids, tracksuits, civic engagement, more sleep, and the courage to speak for yourself.