As soon as Yara Shahidi dials into my call, I'm struck by her consideration and eloquence. She hasn't kept me waiting long, but she's deeply apologetic and clearly sees my time as just as valuable as hers – a rarity between journalist and interviewee. She's also blessed with a demeanour that's wise far beyond her years, and she clearly feels comfortable enough to just be herself.
'I have a very strong family unit who consistently remind me of the fact that I am supposed to be in every room that I’m in,” she tells me, by way of explaining her self-assurance. Whether it be the Johnson family’s living room on Emmy Award-winning sitcom Black- ish; a university dorm on her very own spin-off show Grown-ish; or holding a discussion with Angela Davis about dismantling the patriarchy and the crucial value of voting, Yara is in a lot of pretty major rooms.
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Born in Minnesota to an African-American mother and Iranian father, 20-year-old Yara started her career as a child, appearing in commercials for the likes of Ralph Lauren, Disney and McDonald’s. She went on to become a household name at just 14, after bagging the part of Zoey Johnson on Black-ish – a show that’s celebrated for addressing race, culture and socio-economic issues. Despite having its finale in May of this year, Black-ish found itself back in the news recently as an episode that was dropped over fears it was too anti-Trump became available to watch for the first time. Creator, Kenya Barris asked ABC to reconsider its decision this summer.
“I’m really pleased,” says Yara, passionately. “I remember when Black-ish first came on, before we knew Trump as President Trump in any capacity, one of the first mean pieces of vitriol we got was from his Twitter account, saying ‘“Blackish”? Can you imagine the furor of a show, “Whiteish”! Racism at the highest level?’ She pauses to laugh in disbelief and point out that she’s paraphrasing.
“So many families don’t have the privilege of turning these subjects on and off. Even with my own family, when an episode ends I don’t have the privilege of saying ‘well that conversation is over with’ because these are things that affect us 24/7. So to be able to air an episode that dives into these issues, of what it’s like to grow up as a black family, is important for our very large audience to see.”
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And she’s keen to highlight that speaking about Trump doesn’t have to be seen as political: “I really don’t believe that responding to Trump’s behaviour is a partisan issue. It’s not that you have to be part of a certain political party, it’s really a large moral question of who is allowing this... who are the enablers not calling into question what he’s doing?”
Yara’s Eighteen x 18 initiative encourages young people to vote, and as the United States’ elections fast approach, it’s high on her priority list. With the US, like the rest of the world, navigating its way through the COVID- 19 outbreak and resulting economic decline, it’s not a straightforward task. “What the pandemic has brought is the knowledge that nothing is certain, so you have to be as dynamic as the circumstances,” she explains. “We used to rely on the fact that voting is super simple; it takes two seconds. Now it looks different. We have to be really transparent about the changes. We have to figure out how we can level the playing field and arm young voters with the information they need.”
It’s this political engagement that gained her the respect of Oprah Winfrey, who on interviewing a then 17-year-old Yara, told her: “Your future is so bright it burns my eyes.” And her high hopes for the young actor didn’t stop there. While taking part in a Q&A on Instagram, Oprah went on to say: “I hope I’m still around when she becomes President of the United States – and that is going to happen – if she wants it to.”
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Yara is certainly a force to be reckoned with, and her compassion for others is clear. She spent her formative years in a tight-knit Iranian community, and both parents made a concerted effort to teach her about her heritage. While Yara’s multicultural background is extremely important to her, she also tries to understand communities beyond her own. She notes that often people in the US can make sweeping generalisations about Middle Eastern countries, instead of seeing the communities within them as multifarious, and the people as individuals.
“Having a family that’s Iranian, I’ve always had a global sense of community and culture. It goes back to why I’m a total history nerd. I think [we should] continue to create a more realistic version of history that doesn’t push forward this [idea] that Europe was the centre of the world. What we’re ignoring are the levels of contribution that everywhere else in the world made to our development and wellbeing. I don’t know if people would equate technological innovation to the Middle East, although if there was a fair portrait in our history, there would be a better understanding.”
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This ability to truly hear people is a skill that comes from her mother: “When I think of the impact she has made on many people in our lives, whether they are just passing through or people we’ve had lifelong friendships with, it comes down to her being present enough to be able to service them to the best of their ability. It’s knowing that we may have a common anchor, but all our experiences are different. For example, with the pandemic, I can’t speak on behalf of essential workers, but I can listen, and then I can try and figure out how I can be of service.”
It’s a wonderful outlook on life, and something that doesn’t always have to come via grand gestures. Yara explains that sometimes helping others can just be as simple as spreading some happiness on Twitter.
While her social media is peppered with joy, wisdom, and important social issues, one post in particular stands out this week: a tribute to the late Black Panther star, Chadwick Boseman. She describes Chadwick’s role in showing young people how big they can dream as “monumental,” before taking a long pause.
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“I don’t know how many times we’re lucky enough in the world to receive somebody who is an unabashed artist, who cares so deeply about his community. To even think that we didn’t know that for four years, while he was making some of his best work, he was fighting this fight... and also doing great work [for the community] outside of that... I’m rambling because there’s just so much I want to say about him. For the couple of instances that I was lucky enough to be in his presence, his artistry and his grace was felt.”
When it comes to her own goals, she isn’t afraid to set the bar high. Yara is a very rare kind of dreamer – the type who actually reaches into her dreams and pulls them into her reality. She has a sense of hope that seems to be ingrained in her DNA, and she certainly has high-achievers in the family to look up to. On her father’s side, her cousin, Anousheh Ansari, was the first Iranian-American astronaut and the first female private-space explorer; while on her mother’s side, famous, award-winning rapper, Nas is her second cousin.
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“I’d be lying if I said I always had this level of confidence,” she says of her ability to aim high. “It’s something that, as I’ve grown up, I’ve had to be reminded of. I think this is a universal experience for many people, regardless of your intersection of identity. Often times you’re not in the majority and therefore it feels like, are you really supposed to be here? It doesn’t matter how qualified you are, or how many things you’ve done to get there. It’s something that I need to be reminded of daily!”
Confidence aside, it’s certainly an anxious time for people, especially youngsters who have had their plans derailed by the pandemic, and may not be sure which path to take. It can be hard to remember that Yara is, after all, a 20-year-old woman, with many of the same decisions to grapple with as her friends. She acknowledges that it’s hard to think about the future at the moment, but she tries to find the silver linings. “I think the reason that I try and remain hopeful is I’m watching my peers innovate and find new ways of doing things that are even more efficient than they were before,” she explains.
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There’s so much that Yara still wants to do as an actress and a producer, but given the way she often delves into the past when answering questions, it’s not surprising to learn of her other huge passion. And given the breadth of our discussion, it also doesn’t come as a shock that Yara is thinking BIG. “My dream of dreams?... If I could rewrite the fundamental ways that we learn history, that would be incredible. I haven’t necessarily taken off on that path yet. I know the importance of narrative, and it’s like, what is the most impactful way to change the narrative?”
That’s a question so complex that it almost sounds rhetorical. But if anyone is going to figure out how to answer it, that person will be Yara Shahidi.
Harper's Bazaar Arabia September 2020 Issue
Editor in Chief: Olivia Phillips.
Photographer: Greg Swales
Stylist: Jason Bolden (JSN Studios)
Fashion Director: Anna Castan.
Make-Up Artist: Emily Cheng (The Wall Group)
Hair Stylist: Fesa Nu
Set Designer: Lucy Holt.
Producer: Elle Hutchinson.
Art Director: Oscar Yañez