Zakiya Young on Faith Freedom & Finding Home in LA
Updated: May 9, 2020
Zakiya Young is an actress, singer, and voice over artist. She's been on Broadway in The Little Mermaid, on streaming tv shows like Mozart in the Jungle, and as a voice in the Final
Fantasy VII Remake video game.
I've known Zakiya since her days living in Brooklyn, NY. I was thrilled to catch up with her recently to hear about her life in Los Angeles. We covered a lot of ground: the difference between NYC and LA, being open to new experiences, and how she ended up on the latest BTS album.
WRBP: Heading to LA what did you have in mind it would be like and what was the reality?
Zakiya: I had visited LA for the first time on my birthday, in 2010. And I remember my sister said you're going to live here. I thought that's a lie, these people are fake. It's cute for a minute but I would never fit in there.
When I moved here I had made some more friends from the East Coast who had relocated so I know there are a few people here who are real ones. I expected everyone to be fake. I did. And that's not always true and that's been the nicest surprise. I have been able to start to form some genuine relationships with people here. That being said a lot of them are from Chicago and NY and they are transplants. But I've met some great people who are born and raised in LA.
I forgot that making friends as an adult is very different. It is very very different. And I also didn't realize how East Coast I was. So apparently if you look like this, you're not supposed to be in your face and blunt. I'm from the suburbs, but I am kind of blunt. This does not lie. It was fascinating seeing people respond to that. So I've learned how to navigate, oh this type of person is not, they need the edges softened a little bit. So I'll play the game. My real ones, I can just be me. I do confuse a lot of people.
I don't know what it is, I've met people who are surprised that I read books. I'm not kidding. People are surprised that I can carry on conversations from an intellectual perspective. And I'm like, because of this? That's weird. So it makes me wonder if I had come in with a different look would people not be surprised or is it just that it's more of a New York thing. In New York that was never, it's assumed you can carry on certain levels of conversation. I guess its not to say that people in LA can't, it's just that they choose not to. It was an adjustment.
WRBP: When you went to LA what is part of yourself you realized you could leave behind? What is the new and improved LA version of you?
Zakiya: I put down a lot of my baggage. I did not realize how much I was carrying. I didn't realize how stressed I was. In New York you wake up, you're fighting. You leave the door you're fighting to get to the train. You're fighting on the train. You're fighting to get to work on time. That was exciting to me, in my twenties.
But I honestly felt myself exhale when I landed in LA. And I didn't even realize I had been holding my breath. My brow unfurrowed. I realized that I had just become really intense. So I laugh more now. I'm learning to celebrate all sides of me. And I'm not trying to fit into a mold of what people I grew up with thought I was. Who people from church thought I was. I'm Zakiya. I'm from the suburbs and I'm kinda of a nerd. You're either with it or you're not. Either way good luck, God bless. I've chilled out a lot.
The funny thing though is that by LA standards I'm not really that chill. But my East Coast friends that had visited, they've commented that I am happy now. I didn't realize I was unhappy. I didn't have time to deal with things because of the busyness of New York kept me going. Ain't nobody got time to sit down and think about heartache or disappointment. You just kind of shove it down and do what needs to be done.
Out here, you're in your car, you're stuck in traffic. You got nothing but time to sit and think. As a person of faith, I've been spending a lot of time praying and getting to know God. Why did you bring me out here? What is it out here in LA that I either need to give or learn? And the biggest thing that I am learning is that God made me unique and awesome and I need to stop shrinking.
WRBP: How has that changed your professional side as a performer? Has it opened up anything in your singing? What is different for now being in LA being more free and healthier?
Zakiya: Because I am emotionally healthier, I allow myself to have more experiences which the informs my acting and my singing. So the expectations of being married by a certain age, having kids by a certain age, that has just gone out the window. I see my first marriage as it happened, I learned from it. The biggest takeaway for me was you don't have to rush, you really don't. As I have have moved on from that relationship and met incredible people I've realized that not everybody is supposed to walk with me in this journey. And releasing that has been amazing for me artistically.
Because there's not this panic. In New York it was I gotta do this, I gotta do that by this age or I'm a failure. Out here its just kind like, all right cool I did my best today. That is literally all I can do.
I think out here I am letting myself have so many more experiences. And because of those experiences including dating, which is not really something I was doing on the East Coast. That has helped me tap into different emotions that I'd only read about. And those emotionally journeys can give you such different textures in your acting as well as your singing.
And it's not that deep. I don't walk into the audition room anymore with that energy of if I don't get this my life is over. And I think there is something to the work life balance out here in LA. In New York as an actress I was always, always, always grinding.
Out here you can settle down and get a job. I am an adjunct professor at a college. So I am still in the industry. I'm teaching in the musical theater department. People actually put down roots here and have families. I felt that as a woman in New York I was not making the time to do that because I didn't feel like I could. Probably for a myriad of reasons. I do know actresses in New York who are happily married with kids. But there is something about the release and the flow out here in LA. Yea, I want that, it'll happen. Let me just live my life and I'll audition.
It also opened the door for new opportunities that I never would have never gone for. The gospel choir (The Singers of Soul) we are on the latest BTS album. It's crazy. I never would have done that in NY. It's literally like opportunities are coming partially because I am like Lord, what do you want me want to do? Instead of me saying no, I am doing Broadway that's it, I'm doing TV that's it. This whole voice over world has opened up to me. And I never thought I would be doing studio singing. I've been in the recording studio a lot this year. And we've been singing at SoHo House as their gospel choir on Sundays. And I'm singing Whitney Houston songs. Its just the openness. It's leaning into the abundance instead of a rigid mentality and I didn't realize that is what I was doing.
WRBP: You listen now to gospel, and BTS, and American standards? Do you have a favorite set of songs you sing?
Zakiya: You know, it's changed which is interesting. As I have been growing as a singer I've started exploring more of the artists that I always deemed that I can't sing them. So Whitney Houston, I've been doing a lot of her stuff lately which I never would have touched. Are you kidding me, no. I've been revisiting a lot of 70s, 80s, 90s soul music. I do appreciate a good country song though. Kerry Underwood.
I think I've been growing into my blackness in a different way. And not trying to make it look like anybody else's. 'Cus regardless, I'm a Black woman. Y'all don't have to think I am Black. OK. My melanin says otherwise. And my experience is just as valid. So I might sing a certain piece that you would never think that I would sing. But if I am honest with it, If I'm honest with the lyrics and if I feel the groove, why wouldn't I? So I think that's another thing that I've thrown off.
It was New Years Eve two years ago and I looked around the room and I realized it is all Black people. I don't know that I'd been to a New Years Eve party where it's been all Black people. And the girl I was talking to, she was like oh honey, this is where all the Black
Princesses move. They all move to LA so you're among your people. And I hollered. That's it. I'm home. I don't think I realized I was looking for that permission to just be. And that in turn has allowed me to explore the great soul music that I never gave myself permission to really.
WRBP: If you could wave a magic wand and be your own producer, what kind of projects would you like to see more of?
Zakiya: I think I moved here at the perfect time because we can create so much of our own content if we don't see what we want. So that is a blessing. I wish there was more room to see tall women as something other than threatening or ball busting. It's true. People out here look taller on tv. It's not only a height thing but they are also smaller with very thin yoga muscles. So if you put me around people that have a similar build I'll look normal. But if you put me next to somebody with a delicate build then I am suddenly plus size. That's a big frustration. But it kinda is what it is. And I have to work within the system so I can get to that next level and start creating my own content where I am part of casting and I can say I don't just need you to be tall I need you to have basketball or football muscles so I am not feeling overshadowed.
There's definitely something to the psychology of why things are cast the way they are cast. And I don't know that I have paid my dues enough to really criticize it. Because sometimes its just your own insecurities when your watching tv and you're thinking Hollywood needs to do this and why haven't I gotten this. It's probably more that yeah I'm a little insecure about being 5'10" and being big boned as my dad says. I look like I could beat somebody up even though we know I can't. There is that insecurity when you walk into a room of people who look just like you and the only difference is they're actually runway models and you are not. That's the height class that I am in. If I go to a commercial audience there are literal models and I'm not a runway model.
So when I look at Hollywood I have to be careful I'm not just projecting my own insecurities.
And that's part of why I wanted to do the YouTube channel (From Broadway to LA). I thought I should make fun of it because it actually happens. I do wish though that there was more room to be smart and sexy. I haven't seen a lot of that. And we're just very multilayered. With the movement of creating your own work, you're not giving someone else control over the story that you want to tell.
Issa Rae with Insecure, that's part of why I moved out here. I was like my people are there, those are my people. I shouldn't be mad at a system for not knowing how to tell my story. I should get in there, make some money, and then tell my story myself.
You can catch the full interview with Zakiya here.