Aley Arion is a writer and digital storyteller from the South, currently living in sunny Los Angeles. Her site, yagirlaley.com, serves as a digital diary to document personal essays, cultural commentary, and her insights into the Black Millennial experience. Follow her at @yagirlaley on all platforms!
For Black girls and boys alike, the quest to find stories that reflect their everyday experiences starts as early as the flames of self-awareness begin to flicker. Ayana Gray — The New York Times best-selling author of the YA fantasy novel, Beasts of Prey — embarked on a similar journey when Black characters that reflected her as a young girl were few and far between. She’s made it her mission to tell the stories that position Black youth at the center of fantastical adventures ever since.
“I didn't see stories with Black kids that were having magical adventures,” Gray tells xoNecole. “If I wanted to read a story with a little girl like me on the cover, there was going to be racism, some sort of trauma or something sad was going to happen to that little girl or boy.” As disheartening as it was to come to grips with this reality, Gray began exploring her past in order to reimagine a story for the future.
Courtesy of Ayana Gray
While in college, Ayana’s education in African and African American studies led her on a trip to Ghana that would profoundly expand her worldview. While there, the landscape, culture, and her own curiosities for ancestral connection inspired the novel she was destined to write. “I'm a Black American woman. My heritage is messy. I don't know what region, what area of Africa my ancestors came from. So I wanted to write a fantasy novel, one that drew inspiration from the continent and honored the land itself,” Gray shares with xoNecole.
What she birthed is Beasts of Prey, an epic adventure colored with the rich and complex depths of our collective heritage, history, and culture. It tells the story of two Black teens on a magical quest to hunt down a monster. In Beasts of Prey, Gray provides more proof that Black youth, and even our inner child, can be the heroes of our own stories.
xoNecole: One thing I really appreciate about the work you do is that you’re committed to represent Black stories without them being centered in race-related trauma, tell us more about your intentions behind this.
Ayana Gray: You think about other groups of people and they're able to read fantastical stories and not have to read about trauma based on their race or identity. They're able to just transport themselves, and Black kids haven't had that. So we gave Black people a break. [Beasts of Prey] is magical and adventurous. There are monsters, and some are good and some are evil, but race – it’s not the centerfold. Everybody in the story is Black, but they're nuanced. You have different skin tones and hair textures.
There are Black people who are good, Black people who are evil, Black people who are funny. There's comedic relief, there's romance; Black people are able to occupy all of these spaces. And I think it was just a bit of wish-fulfillment in saying I wrote the story that I just really wanted a kid.
"Black people are able to occupy all of these spaces. And I think it was just a bit of wish fulfillment in saying I wrote the story that I just really wanted a kid."
xoNecole: Rejection can be a reality that many writers face. How did you manage those moments of rejection early in your career and bounce back to get to where you are today?
AG: I want to be very transparent: Beasts of Prey certainly faced rejection. And the moment that I always think about most sharply, was when a literary agent told me that she felt that Ekon, as a character, wasn’t strong enough. I remember being hurt, but what I think about when I face rejection is one of two things: I can take that rejection and critique and use it to make myself better if it's constructive. There are also some cases where there's projection because that story is not for that person. In that situation, when she said, “Your Black boy is not strong enough,” I said, you know what, she didn't understand what I was trying to do here.
Because I don't want to create this, “strong” Black boy, I want Ekon to be a Black boy who doesn't have to fit this expected mold of “strength” and what we think of strength being for Black people and Black boys. Sometimes, it's just accepting that, not every story is for every person and using that as fuel to write stories for the people who it is for.
Courtesy of Ayana Gray
xoNecole: Why was it important to center teens as the heroes of their own stories and see themselves within the pages as well as the cover?
AG: It's incredibly hard to be what you don't see, and I'm so proud and happy that I'm not the only Black writer who is committed to this. Black kids shouldn't have one option. When they go to the bookstore and the library, they should have a whole bookshelf, they should have shelves of options to see themselves as the hero of their story. Heroes and heroines of their stories. It's important because I felt it as a kid, I read books where I was never the hero, and it kind of informed the way I felt about my value for a very long time.
For the cover, I so adore the original cover of Beasts of Prey, but after speaking with my editor, who is also a Black woman, we realized there was so much power in having Koffi and Ekon, this Black boy and Black girl on the cover as people are wandering shelves of libraries and bookstores. I joked around on TikTok and I said I want people to know this is a 'Blackity Black Black' YA fantasy story. No apologies, no hesitation. This is a story of Black kids and when you're talking about representation, the more in your face you can be about it the better.
"No apologies, no hesitation. This is a story of Black kids and when you're talking about representation, the more in your face you can be about it the better."
Courtesy of Ayana Gray
xoNecole: 'Beasts of Prey' has been adapted into a film with Netflix. What was your initial reaction to this news and how does this align with the dreams that you’ve set for yourself?
AG: The success that I've been so blessed to have in the last year has really forced me to expand my dreams and dare to dream bigger - which is a weird thing. It's a weird thing to have a dream that you hold on to for so long and suddenly you have it and now you have to think about the next thing. I'm still processing it and still thinking about what’s next.
When I reflect and hope for the legacy that I leave behind, I want to write stories where Black kids get to see themselves in all sorts of spaces and see themselves as heroes. But more importantly, I really want for Black people, if and when they come across my books to say, “She did it, why can't I?”
It's hard to be what we can't see, but if you see authors out there — Black people out there chasing their dreams and accomplishing their goals, it leads you to say, “Well, I can do that too.”
Featured image by Marston Photography
Before the world was introduced to Serayah’s coquettish on-screen persona Tiana Brown on Fox’s megahit show, Empire, the actress/R&B singer was at a crossroads. She and her mother (now manager) experienced a season of homelessness that served as the precipice of her realizing her dreams. “You can get weary and feel like giving up, but I had no lower to go,” Serayah tells xoNecole exclusively. “I could only go up [from there]. I decided within myself that this was not going to be [my] life anymore.”
When the opportunity came for her to audition for Empire, Serayah knew that it was now or never. And as fate would have it, landing the breakout role on the show would not only allow her to overcome her hardships but serve as the catalyst to manifesting her dreams of making it in the entertainment industry and penning her perspective into her art.
Serayah, best describes her six-season run on Empire as, “super cool, glamorous college.” After her six-year run on the show, Serayah decided to mark “the end of an era” with a bold, platinum blonde pixie cut, shedding her girlish charm in favor of fully embodying the multi-hyphenate woman she’s becoming.
Breaking out as an R&B songstress meant tapping into who Serayah, the artist, declared herself to be. In her highly-anticipated new single, "P.O.V.," Serayah invites her fans and listeners into her real life, to show that even the most challenging experiences can be an opportunity for growth and refined perspective. From shifts within her inner circle, her blooming love life, and everyday challenges of being a public figure, "P.O.V." is the essence of Serayah’s journey through her words, in her way.
“Music has helped me [find perspective] before. I always want to be true to the narrative in the space that I'm in; it’s the transparency through music. I'm not necessarily chasing a sound or chasing a social media platform. I want art to imitate life,” she tells xoNecole. “That’s why I love R&B, blues, and jazz because it was always authentic to what was going on in that time and era. I want to continue to push that side of music that really encapsulates a time and a space. I want my music to feel like that.”
"I'm not necessarily chasing a sound or chasing a social media platform. I want art to imitate life."
Serayah is creating from a space that is true to her intuition by living and learning through trial and error. While she’s flattered to be “#goals” to her fans, what she hopes to get across through her music is that she’s just figuring it out. “I want people to know where I come from and to know my struggles. I want to be an example for those who admire me, but I don’t want them to think that all things that glitter are gold.” She continues, “The prettiest, most expensive diamonds had to go through pressure. It’s okay to have ups and downs, I want to be a realistic role model.”
Allow this to be your re-introduction to Serayah.
xoNecole: What does your new single "P.O.V." mean to you as it relates to the direction you look to take musically?
Serayah: When I recorded the record, I always knew that it would have to be a part of a body of work — an EP or an album — because it's such a story and I just feel like a lot of people can relate to what I'm talking about. "P.O.V." encapsulates my early life, about struggling, finally getting a piece of success, and earning money I've never had before. My friends are changing, I’m losing friendships, some of my family members are acting weird now; it's like success brings different things out of the circle of people around you. And obviously, also my romantic feelings. "P.O.V." is the point of view of early life up until like 21 [years old]. I used this time to leave everything there and I'm moving past it.
xoNecole: Sometimes when it comes to new artists, the first debut project can come with some pressures. Have you had any hesitations about releasing new music and how do you overcome those feelings?
S: Oh my God, yes! I’ve had this song for like two years. Maybe three? I mean, we're artists and we're sensitive. It's literally the most vulnerable thing you can do is say, ‘hey, here's what I think is cool, this is what I put all my emotions into, and I hope you guys like it.’ It's nerve-racking. But I think for me, it's just, like, making sure that I'm 100% into it. I've overthought some records before but I'm putting those out now; I’m past that. I’m sure there'll be another project or another single where I'm overthinking it as well. I just feel like it's a part of the creative process; you may overthink sometimes.
xoNecole: You and your boo, Jacob Latimore, have been together for some years now, and the girls want to know, what's the secret? What do you think has been the key component to having a thriving relationship?
S: No secrets, sis! I just really think that things should be extremely simple. I feel like, dating, in general, is a little complicated, but then you add on social media and add on [the fact that] you're celebrities, and it makes it a little more complicated if you let it. [Jacob and I] have had our moments. We talk about everything; how we feel and we're completely transparent. He's so open in that way. He's very warm and nurturing to where he wants to know what's going on with me and how I'm feeling throughout the day, and I appreciate that. That creates a connection to be able to get through things that maybe if I wasn't comfortable, we wouldn't be able to get through it.
And so I think the secret would just be to be transparent and sensitive with each other because we all come from somewhere; we all have triggers and pasts. We have to build up respect for each other, especially as Black men and women. We have to respect each other and be just a little bit more gentle with each other. There's a lot of trauma going on, and you have to understand what that is and everything that plays into it. As you can see, if I'm serious with someone, I'm going into it with everything. Just keep it 100% with each other at all times.
xoNecole: How have you grown in your relationship?
S: It's so important when you are in love or in a relationship with another person that you prioritize your self-love because how you feel about yourself, your life, and your career reflects on you and will bleed into your relationships and how you view them. I've learned to just have self-reflecting moments instead of reacting; if there's something that bothers me, I don't need to say it as soon as it happens, I can take a second, a day, or an hour, and reflect on it myself. Is it me? How am I interpreting the situation and how can I talk to [my partner] without being angry or something? It's helped me just be able to communicate more efficiently and in a healthier way. Communication's everything.
Especially for [me and Jacob]; I haven't seen him in a month. So we have to communicate, we don't have the lifestyle to where we're always gonna just be around each other. We should give our men their flowers too. There’s this big thing going on that says, ‘He needs to buy me Birkins, he needs to buy me this and I'm in the club singing it too, don't get it twisted.' But I really feel like the gem is to celebrate our men and make them feel wanted and appreciated and that they're doing good. They're changing the trajectory for Black men in general. It's just so important for us to think about the overall picture when we talk about Black love.
"It's so important when you are in love or in a relationship with another person that you prioritize your self-love because how you feel about yourself, your life, and your career reflects on you and will bleed into your relationships and how you view them."
xoNecole: You’ve had a lot of rapid growth and life transitions over the years, what advice would you give to someone who’s learning to adjust to a new chapter in their life?
S: I would say: be humble, not modest. Being humble is a great thing and humility goes a long way, apart from being grateful. So when you’re in that transition, bring your confidence and attack your goals head-on. Big places and big blessings are always going to be uncomfortable, the more that you want [in life], the more you’re going to be uncomfortable. As long as you know that you’re never in a place you’re not ready to be in, don’t even worry about the small things. Just focus on the bigger picture and it will all work out.
Featured image by Sterling Gold
What if I told you, "Black people get sunburned too?" On the surface, the statement could come off as offensively obvious or even controversial depending on which end of the belief spectrum you stand on. Among the plethora of misconceptions surrounding melanated skin, the latter comes as one of the greatest fallacies to combat since much of the conversation surrounding it has been, quite literally, black and white.
For decades, sunscreen products have been reserved for people with lighter and less melanated skin. Although it's true that folks of darker complexions benefit from the built-in shield of melanin that protects them against the sun's damaging UV rays, this notion subsequently created the myth that Black people don't need sunscreen at all; which isn't the case. As education around skincare and skin health in our community widens, one simple, yet profound truth has become clear: the sun doesn't discriminate.
Thankfully, there is one entrepreneur on the mission to bring light to the importance of sun protection for people of color, proving that even though our melanin glows as if it's magic, you better believe that it needs protection.
My Skin Is Black
For Shontay Lundy, founder of Black Girl Sunscreen, early knowledge of sun protection came in the form of self-education and personal experience. Growing up, Shontay became aware that her deeply-hued complexion was in need of a shield from the sun's harmful UV rays as well as harsh, verbal assaults. "I wouldn't say I had complexion issues… or maybe I did… but I had a phobia of getting darker," she revealed to xoNecole. "When I was growing up, Black wasn't necessarily beautiful. I was called 'Blackie' and I wanted to maintain the color that I was."
Courtesy of Shontay Lundy
"When I was growing up, Black wasn't necessarily beautiful. I was called 'Blackie' and I wanted to maintain the color that I was."
Since empowering colloquialisms like "Black Girl Magic" weren't around for her to access in her time of need, the best way for Shontay to persevere her skin and self-esteem was to either opt-out of outdoor events and activities like pool parties and beach trips, or invest in the only sun protection she could access, "I would be the girl who would pay $25 for the pricey umbrella just so I wouldn't get darker or sunburned."
This journey stressed the importance of self-love and acceptance while acting as the catalyst that motivated her to seek out information around skin protection for women who represented her story and resembled her identity. "I felt like general market sunscreen products never included Black people in their ads; you never saw Black people frolicking on the beach, basking in the sun, or on vacation," Shontay shared with xoNecole. In the case of representation, it became glaringly clear just how difficult it can be to know what you need if you've never seen it before; so she went looking for it.
Shontay's initial discovery phase for sunscreen fell short of her expectations. After googling phrases like, "sunscreen for Black girls", she soon found that no one was speaking to Black girls directly about protecting their skin and it became profoundly evident that there was a gaping hole in the market that needed to be filled. As Shontay puts it, "I recognized that women of color needed something that was dedicated to them and spoke to them. I said to myself, this is clearly a problem, what can I do about it?"
Courtesy of Shontay Lundy
"I recognized that women of color needed something that was dedicated to them and spoke to them. I said to myself, this is clearly a problem, what can I do about it?"
For Us By Us
The beginning stages of her journey into entrepreneurship would come with their own set of challenges. In the earliest stages of Black Girl Sunscreen, Shontay was fresh out of a corporate career, with no formal beauty or skincare experience under her belt. Coupled with industry gatekeepers and investors who were reluctant to believe that Black people needed sunscreen, let alone would actually pay for the product, demystifying these mindsets was half the battle. Shontay understood that she had to work twice as hard to convince investors and her community that sunscreen was for more than sun-related activity or travel and holiday and that Black people could participate in the product too. "Our mission is to start the conversation and continue to educate Black and brown women on sun safety. Not everyone is open to changing their behaviors as far as incorporating something new into their skincare regimen."
Shontay believed in her customer because she was her own customer. "I'm coming from a place where I know why women of color aren't wearing sunscreen," Shontay shares. And what were those reasons? Traditional sunscreens tend to oxidize on the skin, thus resulting in a ghostly, white cast, which can be unflattering on Black and brown skin. That, paired with the fact that Black people have been disproportionately excluded from the research and information surrounding sun protection, Black Girl Sunscreen would undertake the task of providing a solution to an underserved market through community and connection by empowering Black women to take agency over their skin health.
Through a series of strategic social media marketing campaigns and the all-powerful force of word of mouth, the Black Girl Sunscreen brand began to spread online like wildfire. Since its launch in 2016, the fragrance-free, cruelty-free, SPF 30 moisturizing sunscreen has become a cult skincare staple. With natural ingredients like avocado, jojoba, aloe, cocoa butter, and carrot juice, it truly lives up to its name and is certified 'Black Girl Friendly,' and most importantly: no white residue!
Courtesy of Shontay Lundy
Black Girl Magic, Y’all Can’t Stand It
In May, the brand secured a $1 million dollar investment from a private female funding source. This milestone speaks to the power that ignites when women are fully supported and substantially funded and sets an example for what is possible for Black women entrepreneurs that are sure to follow in Shontay's footsteps, "It's a great time to be a Black woman. I love seeing women win, I know we've carried strength all of our lives. I've always been taught to be confident and to be strong. I think it's amazing that Black women are breaking barriers in so many different fields and industries."
Today, Black Girl Sunscreen is the only indie black-owned brand carried full-time in Target's sun care section; an achievement that Shontay doesn't take lightly, "When we initially started with Black Girl Sunscreen, Black beauty brands didn't take up a whole aisle; they only had a section, and you had limited options. When Black Girl Sunscreen was created, I said, 'We are entering an industry, not just a section.' We worked really hard for this, and I firmly believe that you get what you work for."
For those beginning in entrepreneurship, entering a niche market with such a distinct target audience may seem like a risky leap of faith, but Shontay's journey proves that the greatest risks can produce profound results. It serves as one of its kind for dark complexions, ethnic skin, and people of color. She trusted her vision and the value that Black Girl Sunscreen would provide to her community, all while cultivating a new mindset and boosting awareness around Black and brown people wearing sunscreen; for us and by us.
Featured image courtesy of Shontay Lundy
Originally published on January 18, 2021
Black Woman Owned is a limited series highlighting Black woman business owners who are change-makers and risk-takers in their respective realms. As founders, these women dare to be bold, have courage in being the change they wish to see in the world and are unapologetic when it comes to their vision. These Black women aren't waiting for a seat, they are owning the table.
With hyperpigmentation being one of the most talked-about concerns for melanin-rich skin, it almost comes as a surprise that something as revolutionary as Hyper Skin took the beauty industry by storm only two years ago. The star product of the brand, Hyper Clear Brightening Clearing Vitamin C Serum, is a zealous vitamin C serum designed to brighten skin and tackle dark marks and hyperpigmentation. What sets this buzzworthy serum apart from the sea of products on the market, is that at its core, Hyper Skin was created to be more than a band-aid for hyperpigmentation, it was formulated to be a solution. And we can thank its founder, Desiree Verdejo, for that.
Beauty and skin care have always been personal to Desiree. As a boutique owner of the Harlem-based, Vivrant Beauty, from 2015 to 2018, Desiree found herself within a beauty boom of Black-owned businesses sprouting within the market and wanted to curate a space for these brands to thrive and reach their core community. Although she was surrounded by a limitless selection of brands that could serve as a remedy to her hyperpigmentation, she knew she needed more than what the market was offering. "For so many years, we've been told, 'You can make this work.' But that isn't sufficient at this stage," Desiree shares.
Courtesy of Desiree Verdejo
Guided by the principle of "we deserve," Desiree decided that it was time to create a product that not only spoke her most difficult customer to please, herself but also connect with Black and brown customers to finally have their needs spoken to directly. She expressed, "I want to see myself, I want to see a product that speaks to my specific concerns, I shouldn't have to search for that and make it work in a space where there are so many options."
Hyper Skin offers something different. It fills a gap within the skincare space for women who have gone long overlooked, allowing their skin needs to be brought to light in an intimate way. "The community that we're building is an enthusiastic one. They feel like space is being created for them and so that energy is pliable, it's exciting, the industry is paying attention to that." In doing so, Hyper Skin is bringing realness back to real skin.
And yes, you can, in fact, believe the Hype.
xoNecole: How did you know it was time to launch Hyper Skin? What space did you hope to fill with the brand?
Desiree Verdejo: Being in my store [Vivrant Beauty] and being with so many different women of different skin tones highlighted how we have certain skin care concerns as brown-skin folks and there's such a disconnect between what we're experiencing and what brands are on the market. Talking to my customers and hearing what was bothering them and driving them to our store, made me realize that what the skin care industry was creating — we're saying dark spots, they're saying, "Here's some anti-aging stuff," — there's just a disconnect between our skin care needs."
I had a light bulb moment where I decided that we need skin care created that speaks to the clinical needs of brown-skin people. At the time when I started down the path of creating Hyper, I was still in my boutique [Vivrant Beauty] but I had just had a baby and my own skin was going crazy because I was dealing with all this hormonal acne and this dramatic hyperpigmentation from that. It was a personal moment that emphasized that this was something that was missing and my customers just affirmed that. So I went down the path of creating formulas and ultimately got really excited about the void that would be filled by Hyper, and just decided that I would pivot from my beauty boutique to Hyper Skin because I knew that story needed to be told clearly.
"I was dealing with all this hormonal acne and this dramatic hyperpigmentation from that. It was a personal moment that emphasized that this was something that was missing and my customers just affirmed that. So I went down the path of creating formulas and ultimately got really excited about the void that would be filled by Hyper, and just decided that I would pivot from my beauty boutique to Hyper Skin because I knew that story needed to be told clearly."
Courtesy of Desiree Verdejo
Before you took the plunge into entrepreneurship, it took you two years to actually leave your career as a lawyer. What was that "in-between" season like for you?
Yeah! I feel like on the internet and social media people are like, "Yeah, just do it [start the business], but the truth is it's not easy to leave a comfortable career. In New York as a lawyer, there's a great salary, there are great benefits — definitely a comfortable scenario, so it did take me a while to save and be mentally ready to make that transition. At the time, I was doing little things like meeting people, networking in the beauty space that I was trying to enter, exploring brands, and looking into real estate in New York.
And the same is true for when I made the transition to launching Hyper. There's always this middle space and even if you're in another career, there's always stuff that you could be doing personally and financially in terms of the business to move the needle closer to turning making that business into a reality.
Having struggled with skin acne and hyperpigmentation since you were a teenager which is such a pain point for melanated women, how has your relationship with your skin evolved over the years in acceptance? Where do you think you are when it comes to your skin and just embodying your imperfections?
One of the things that I've accepted is that skin is cyclical. It may be at a clearer point, then mid-month you might have a breakout, so for me, it's all about education and accepting the realness of skin. For so long, we've just seen airbrushed skin and models who have won the genetic lottery and the truth of the matter is hyperpigmentation and dark marks are not flaws, these are all normal features of the skin. I think I have come to accept that with my own personal skin and that's something that I've tried to breathe into the brand.
You’ve mentioned that Hyper, as a brand, is personal. Not feeling seen by brands or finding products that served your particular needs seemed to serve as a compass for you. How has creating a product that spoke to your needs first been a benefit as a business owner?
What I'm noticing is that in this [beauty] space, there are — and will continue to be — brands that try to speak to Black customers, brown customers, etc. But for me as someone who's always dealt with acne and hyperpigmentation, it's been important to not just show brown faces but to show and celebrate real skin and to show real results. As someone who has been on the other side of the aisle, I know that feeling. [We] have our messaging be really clear so you don't have to be a skin expert to understand how our products work and what our expectations are.
So many skin care lines are created by dermatologists, estheticians, models, and celebrities with perfect skin, but ours being created by someone who is my most difficult customer to please, myself, I think that's influenced all areas and that's what our customers are drawn to. It's something they haven't seen in the market for their own skin. So many brands will create a dark mark corrector but not show dark marks in their ads, or create a hyperpigmentation product that's the number one concern for Black people, and not show brown skin. I think it resonates with our customers that this is created for them for that reason.
As I look over your career, it’s very clear that you are a gap-filler. You’re able to see what’s missing in the market and you fill it. What are your guiding principles in trusting your gut to fill and create new spaces?
I think my guiding principle is: "we deserve." As a Black woman that's a lover of beauty, for so many years, in so many categories, we've been told, "you can make this work." But the "you can make this work" isn't sufficient at this stage. Because I was in the beauty space, I also realized that skin care is a crowded market, but because it is crowded, people expect to be spoken to directly. I want to see myself, I want to see a product that speaks to my specific concerns, I shouldn't have to search for that and make it work in a space where there are so many options. My principle is we deserve and we deserve to be spoken to directly and be catered to and for our issues to be solved. When that wasn't the case, I felt motivated to create those solutions and options.
"I want to see myself, I want to see a product that speaks to my specific concerns, I shouldn't have to search for that and make it work in a space where there are so many options. My principle is we deserve. We deserve to be spoken to directly and be catered to and for our issues to be solved. When that wasn't the case, I felt motivated to create those solutions and options."
Courtesy of Desiree Verdejo
What are your current go-to skin care products? How does your skin care routine look these days?
It's a hard one because we are in development and I am using a few things that we are developing. Outside of that, I do use SPF. It's a go-to! I am a Supergoop Unseen Sunscreen stan like so many other people. I am loving exploring so many of the Black-owned cosmetics brands that are on the market, Range Beauty, I love! I just ordered by Ami Cole which is like a no-makeup, makeup brand. That's what I'm loving right now, those are the highlights of my routine. Shout out to those Black brands!
"The community that we're building is an enthusiastic one, they're like, we love your serum, what's next? And it's because they feel like space is being created for them. That energy is pliable, it's exciting, and the industry is paying attention to that."
Courtesy of Desiree Verdejo
You've experienced a number of career pivots on your path. What advice would you impart to a young woman who's looking to take the leap into entrepreneurship or needs guidance about their next career chapter?
There's nothing that has helped me more in pivoting careers, problem-solving as a founder, or scaling my business than being surrounded by dynamic people from a broad range of backgrounds. I'm a community-minded person, I give a lot and people have poured so much information and support into me. I would advise young women at any point in their careers to surround themselves with people in their areas of interest. Social media platforms like Instagram, Clubhouse, and LinkedIn and in-person and digital events really allow you to get in front of and to keep up with people so use that access to your advantage.
Featured image courtesy of Desiree Verdejo
Originally published on June 28, 2021
For the leading fellas of Freeform’s college comedy-drama, grown-ish, graduation season is quickly approaching, forcing Aaron (Trevor Jackson), Doug (Diggy Simmons), Vivek (Jordan Buhat), and Luca (Luka Sabbat) to come to grips with what life after Cal-U will have in store. As the beaus find themselves crossed between self-induced drama and campus tea, the forthcoming season will bring the cohort of lads closer to the reality of the end of one chapter and the start of something new.
Through the ups and downs of managing hook-ups, mending broken hearts — and a few egos, while discovering who they are as Gen Z figureheads, their stories each paint, in broad strokes, the sort of illustration that arch the boyish behaviors of an adolescent, with the real-life decisions that most guys come face to face with as they cross over into manhood.
For Trevor Jackson, his radical, pro-Black portrayal of Aaron continues the second half of season 4 having to come to grips with the aftermath of a luau party that turned ugly, where he and Luca (Luka Sabbat) got Lei-ed and caught a fade. With emotions and testosterone levels high, it’s not always easy to see things clearly, so fans will be pleased to unpack how each character manages conflict when choosing the high road isn’t always the easiest choice.
As the grown-ish actor reflects on his character's progression, Trevor shares his sentiments on what it’s been like to play a character who’s actively exploring his vulnerabilities through introspection. “I think it’s awesome, I think it’s true, and I think it’s honest.” With that, Jackson meditates on just how much his own journey of self-discovery as a young Black man, mirrors that of his on-screen persona. “I think I’ve definitely experienced similar situations as Aaron — you kind of know what you want to do from a young age, but then you just start dealing with being human and realizing that at [some] point what you wanted might change, and who you are might change,” he tells xoNecole.
"You kind of know what you want to do from a young age, but then you just start dealing with being human and realizing that at some point what you wanted might change, and who you are might change."
As seen in the trailer for season 4B teases, Aaron’s successes as a socially-involved TA are opening doors that could put distance between him and his love interest, Zoey (Yara Shahidi). Although it’s not always easy to step into something new when what you’ve known lies within your comfort zone, Trevor tells xoNecole how the toughest choices can lead to the greatest growth. “[When] you’re younger, decisions were made for you but when everything lies on your shoulders, and you’re responsible for your own life, it definitely hits home a litter harder.”
As much as college can serve as a test drive to pre-adulthood, there are some matters of the heart that you want to learn and grow from before the pressures of real adulthood kick in. For the charming and mildly-toxic Doug, played by Diggy Simmons, balancing friendships and a new flame, while attempting to keep things cordial between his ex, Jazz (Chloe Bailey) in the show, brings up the question of what it takes to prioritize your relationship so that all parties, including yourself, are considered.
Still, as Simmons shares, “You have to put yourself first, especially coming out of a relationship.”
He continues, “All of us do that - we have the old saying of, 'I gotta focus on myself,’ but that’s a true thing.” Being that he’s had practice with this balancing act through his character, Doug, it comes from a place of deposited wisdom when he shared how setting parameters around your relationships can ensure the best possible results for you, and all parties involved.
Diggy tells xoNecole, “I think when cultivating a new relationship, that isn’t so committed yet or doesn’t have a title, you have to create your own boundaries that you're comfortable with and see if that person is comfortable with those same boundaries that you hold for yourself.”
Watch new episodes of grown-ish on Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on Freeform and the next day on Hulu.
Featured image by Freeform/Jabari Jacobs
Class is back in session for the grown-ish cast as the series makes its return for the second half of its senior-year saga. Freeform’s hit show premieres Thursday, Jan. 27 picking things up where they left off, amid a heated quarrel between the two ends of a love triangle with Aaron (Trevor Jackson), Luca (Luka Sabbat), — and Zoey, Yara Shahidi’s character, at the center of the beef. And whether you’re right at the peak of your college experience, or a few years removed, complicated dating entanglements, break-ups, and make-ups are realities we can all identify with.
Although it’s never fun to live out the growing pains of one’s youthful evolution, in its four seasons, grown-ishhas served as a vehicle to navigate the rough water of young adulthood through its character’s journey to self-discovery — from losing your virginity, friendship breakups, to dropping out — with all eyes pointing back to Zoey Johnson.
Over the years, we’ve watched Zoey evolve from the always-stylish and sometimes-selfish eldest daughter of the Johnson family in Kenya Barris’ ABC series black-ish, into a young woman split between her family’s expectations and the needs of her friends and lovers. She has done this all while attempting to not lose sight of her own needs and vision for her life in her spin-off, grown-ish.
It’s a delicate balance that young Black women often experience IRL, but are rarely given the space to explore on-screen in coming-of-age stories.
That’s why, for Yara Shahidi, the 21-year-old producer, and Harvard student, it’s important to not just have representation but to also have good representation that showcases women of color from an authentic and sometimes imperfect lens. “When we talk about good representation, I think the conversation has evolved so much even in the last [couple of] years. I think at first, it used to be this very static idea, of being ‘the good guy’ versus what’s shifted now, being allowed to be fully human,” Shahidi tells xoNecole.
In the second half of the fourth season premiering this week, fans will be able to explore Zoey’s story from a place that leans into her own self-choosing. And although she might now always get things right the first time, there’s always be a beautiful lesson that can come from a messy situation. Shahidi shares, “You can agree or disagree with her decisions, but the idea that she has the privilege of being a full brown and Black woman on screen is really what the beauty of her character is.”
“You can agree or disagree with her decisions, but the idea that she has the privilege of being a full brown and Black woman on screen is really what the beauty of her character is.”
Self-choosing, no matter what age or stage of life you find yourself in, can be uncomfortable and even disorienting, especially when your love life, friendships, and career are all tangled in a web that hangs on your every decision. As Yara reflects on her character’s growth over the seasons, she illuminates Zoey’s progress into self-awareness by putting herself first while expanding her outlook to see how her decisions can impact the people she cares about the most.
“For a second, she really did struggle with being selfish, and we see that in the pilot episode [of the show], she leaves Ana in the pool at a party. So, there’s a full-circle moment that after having gone through the full exercise, this is what it means to care deeply about people and put them first. She’s now returning to herself.” She continues, “How can [Zoey] still put herself first, not as an act of selfishness, but as an act of self-care.”
Zoey’s character this season shows the full scope of what it means to come of age on screen, with all the missteps, toxic unlearning, and moments of clarity that can only come from a hiccup or two. It’s to show that young Black women don’t always have to be in a role that saves others nor do they always need saving. But we can challenge the norms and have the space to live out decisions and grow from into the women we choose to be.
Shahidi adds, “It’s especially important that we see some of the dilemmas that are really unique to being a woman, and really unique to being a brown woman, in terms of feeling like, in order to pursue what you want, there will be sacrifice.”
Watch new episodes of grown-ish on Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on Freeform and the next day on Hulu.
Featured image by Leon Bennett/Getty Images