Art and its worth: an interview with Zariya Allen

Story by Conor Hudnut

Photo by Autry Hayden Wilson

Zariya Allen walks with a careful tread. The 20 year old actress and artist grew up in Los Angeles, and has been carefully observing just how many pitfalls can be taken on the road to the type of success she hopes for: one which doesn’t sacrifice her artistic integrity.

Success, particularly for teenagers, and especially in the age of social media, can be incredibly temporary and insincere. Our generation is more fame-crazed than ever, and as Allen notes in our conversation, this desire often tends to outweigh interest in creating honest and interesting art. It’s easy to get lost in the muck of show biz if you’re not careful.

And so, Allen keeps her nose to the ground and follows one guiding principle: to create art she finds worthwhile.

Your work takes on many different forms–you act, write, create music, and perform your poetry in spoken word. What interests you in having so many creative outlets?

It’s about finding the best way to convey the feeling. Acting, writing—music or poetry—they’re all connected, for me. The more I learn and know, the more honest and specific my work can become. It’s really important to me, being able to create things that I feel reflect where I am, as opposed to just making something that’s palatable.

Do you feel pressure to commit to any particular art form, or do you think that in our current digital age, where sharing your work regardless of scale can be done at the push of a button, there is no longer the same urgency to commit to any one medium?

Nowadays, anybody can put reverb vocals over some random DJ’s track, and they’re calling themselves a musician. Even if they don’t play a single instrument or know anything about music production – same thing goes for acting, or photography. Artistry (or the state of being an artist) has become really trendy for people with no true desire to create something significant or push the medium in new directions- a lot of people just want fame- more so than in the past, with the influence of social media or social hierarchy. If anything, when everybody’s an artist, it makes you pay more attention to who’s actually making good art. I think that definitely lessens the pressure to commit to one thing. I just want to be the best I can be.

Who are some of the artists and writers you admire most?

I really love Alice Walker, Essex Hemphill, Mitski, and Jeff Buckley, to name a few.

Do you think combining art and politics does more harm or good in today’s culture?

Personally, I feel like any current artist that sets out with the intention of making something “political” generally can’t be coming from a purely authentic place. Especially in today’s culture- “Social Justice” has become a capitalist trend. Combining art and “politics” today is often just a thinly veiled attempt at profiting off the trauma of historically marginalized people. Of course, there are exceptions because it’s such a nuanced subject. But major production companies and individual artists alike have undoubtedly discovered the economic benefit of targeting black, brown and LGBT audiences—it’s not a reflection of some new found altruism. People are still being killed.

What are some contemporary political works of art that you found to be honest and worthwhile?

It’s the stories that are radical in their honesty and individuality that cause the most conversations. In recent years, that’s films like Pariah, Roma, Moonlight, Mysterious Skin. For books, How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti is one of my current favorites. Works that offer commentary and a new perspective as opposed to simply regurgitating the same stories of minority life and our suffering.

How has growing up in Los Angeles, and attending LACHSA, impacted your perception of the entertainment industry?

Being from here, you see how easy it is to get caught up. There’s just less fantasy tied up in it for me. Not like I love it any less. I just got a lot of reality checks, early. Fame is so fleeting. I just want to make things I’m proud of.

You also spent time living in San Franciscodid moving away from Los Angeles feel artistically refreshing or restricting?

Both. LA is such a bubble and I really wanted to get away from that for a while. My grandfather lived in San Francisco for 40 years and my dad is from Oakland, so I love the Bay, the community there and the creativity. But I was constantly going back and forth, trying to make it to auditions and gigs in LA. I became very familiar with the Megabus. Moving away made me appreciate home a lot more. But SF will always be special for me. I use to spend hours in Golden Gate Park, just writing. There’s a peace I feel there that’s hard to find any place else.

What can we expect from you in the near future?

New music in February… and more poetry.

Photos by Autry Hayden Wilson