YARA SHAHIDI IN NEW YORK, JULY 2016. SHIRT: DIOR. HAT: LOLA HATS. EARRINGS: FALLON. STYLING: KATELYN GRAY. HAIR: JAWARA FOR DAVINES/BRYANT ARTISTS. MAKEUP: ERIN PARSONS FOR MAC/STREETERS. SPECIAL THANKS: MODERN VICE STUDIOS.
Minnesota-born actress Yara Shahidi has been working since she was 6 weeks old. Back then, it was strictly commercials and print modeling with her family. “You hug your parents, take a bite of cheese, look at the camera,” she recalls fondly. Her feature-film debut came at age 9, alongside Eddie Murphy in the 2009 comedy Imagine That. Now 16, Shahidi is known for her roles as the young Olivia Pope on Scandal and, more recently, Zoey, a clever, phone-obsessed teenager on ABC’s hit sitcom Black-ish. The day before we met in New York, the show’s second season had been nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series, and Shahidi tells me how fantastic—and fleeting—the good news is in a summer marked by so much violence around the world. “It’s heartbreaking,” she says of recent events. “I’m apprehensive to open up Twitter and see what the next hashtag is.” An active participant on social media, Shahidi acknowledges that it’s a fantastic tool but also a destructive one. She sees the level of detachment and blasé reposting as compounding the problem of our ever-shortening attention span. “People unite for ten hours and then forget.”
Shahidi is particularly interested in current events, perhaps because they often hit close to home, both for her and for her two brothers, ages 8 and 13. “You don’t see them and think half black, half Iranian—they get a safe pass. We are black Shahidis.” Shahidi’s father is Iranian-American, their last name meaning “witness” in Persian; her mother is African American. Her family has a legacy of social activism, including a grandfather who was a Black Panther, a cousin who was the first Iranian female space tourist, and an aunt currently en route to Rwanda to study reconciliation in war-torn areas. When not on set or in class, Shahidi prepares for speaking engagements across the country. After we talk, she’s headed back to her hotel room to work on a keynote to be delivered at a Cincinnati high school where she’ll represent ABC at the NAACP convention.
Black-ish, which starts its third season this month, has a massive following, Shahidi doesn’t necessarily see acting as a career. She plans to study sociology and is creating content for her own digital series, which she describes as “TED talks for teenagers.” In the meantime, she’s happy working with her second family on the Los Angeles set. “The show finally gave me a way to describe myself,” she says. “Black-ish.”