Actor Ashton Sanders embraces vulnerability with fashion phenom Selah Marley

Ashton Sanders and Selah Marley discuss African American identity and finding self acceptance

At the 89th Academy Awards, “Moonlight” became both the first LGBTQ film and the first film with an all-black cast to win the venerable Best Picture of the year award. The victory in itself was a rally cry for marginalized groups everywhere, especially at a time like the present when social upheaval seems irremediable. It was also a glaring relief, following the previous year’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign. Directed by Barry Jenkins, the movie catalogs the life of a young black man, Chiron, in three crucial stages: exploring African American identity through each lens and the complexities of its virtues. Masculinity, and its perceived value, is at the core of this meditation. Ashton Sanders appears as the main character during his teenage years, struggling with questions of sexuality while dealing with his mother’s drug addiction. For a young actor at the start of his career—just 19 when filming began—the role was an enormous emotional task to take on.

The daughter of Lauryn Hill and Rohan Marley, barely-legal N.Y.U. freshman Selah Marley is one of fashion’s newest darlings. Between walking in Kanye West’s Yeezy show and studying astronomy, she creates self-reflective GarageBand tracks for her SoundCloud account. A few days after “Moonlight” took home its Oscar win, the two young minds connected to speak about the dualities of black identity and staying true to oneself.

Joshua Glass—Following the monumental Best Picture win last week, I’m so glad we could connect today.

Selah Marley—Yes, I’m going to start by saying congratulations, Ashton! “Moonlight” was a really, really powerful movie. As black people, we are oftentimes put into a box with only two choices of who we get to be. Your role definitely brought these limitations to light by showing the gray area.

Ashton Sanders—Thank you so much for saying that. It’s really great that everything happened the way that it did. The movie looks at a part of black culture that isn’t really talked about; something that’s really swept under the rug. Everything that’s happened since has been really, really crazy, but it’s humbling to know that a passion project—a project that is socially conscious—can be so respected and well-received.

Selah—I was actually just watching an interview you did, and I saw that you mentioned a lack of love and a lack of a father figure. I think that the movie really shows that and how this lack can manifest so differently. While “Moonlight” shows homosexuality in the black community, it goes deeper. It shows the polarity between masculinity and femininity, and I think that a lot of times we struggle with that.

Ashton—People hate what they can’t understand. You can be the most masculine guy and be the gayest dude or look the most feminine but have the most women. In the black community, everything just is what it is. If it doesn’t match up to that, then it’s looked down on. We judge each other so much.

Selah—It’s a lot of fear. That’s the ripple effect of post-traumatic stress. We don’t realize that we’re suffering from our parents’ problems, who are suffering from their parents’ problems, who are suffering from their parents’ problems.

Ashton—Exactly. It all starts in the household: You become what you’re raised around. Sometimes people can’t help but think and feel and be how their families are, because that’s literally what and who raised them. And that’s a big thing, too. If we’re trying to progress and move in our society, then we have to think outside of the box. So many people are afraid to do that because we’re taught to be just like this or just like that.

Joshua—Both of you are very young artists and you’re talking about these multigenerational issues that, you know, are not just a short-term phenomenon. Could you speak to emotional versus physical maturity and how you grapple with each?

Selah—I don’t think that many people these days are even allowed to be emotionally mature. I don’t think that we’re even really taught to deal with our emotions, so when we come across something like sexuality, it’s a little baffling and it’s a little confusing. You don’t know what to do. A couple of years ago, I was really battling with my sexuality because I didn’t know what I was. I didn’t know who I was. I was never really taught how to deal with these things. I think a lot of conversations about sexuality, sex, relationships—a lot of things seem somewhat taboo, and I feel like this forces many young kids to cave into a shell.

Ashton—It traumatizes people or just makes them scared to experience. Experiencing is a big part of maturing. For the physical, the spiritual, and the emotional.

Selah—I think that experiences align with truth, and the more you experience the more knowledge you can obtain, and with knowledge comes truth and wisdom. Knowledge is power. In refraining from experience, you keep yourself ignorant. You keep yourself in a box.

Ashton—People are afraid, literally, to jump outside of that box and do things that they don’t want to do. People don’t know themselves and they wear that social mask for so long that they lose themselves, and then that mask becomes who they are. How can you grow and learn as a being on this planet if you can’t even experience or be yourself? It hinders your growth. You could be 60 but mentally 20 years old because that’s when you stopped growing. It’s really saddening.

Once we face those demons, it’ll be scary—everything in life isn’t always going to be great—but the outcome will be satisfying. For us to be so young and to realize all of these things about life in general, again, we’re ahead of the game.

Selah—That’s intense and true. I feel like I’ve shaped myself according to who people want me to be so many times, and I’m just now breaking out of people’s opinions and judgements and decisions of who they want me to be. It’s hard because I have a real primal fear of rejection and abandonment. When people impose their beliefs on me, it’s like, I feel where they’re coming from. I feel their judgment. I feel their anger towards me. I feel their sadness.

Ashton—That’s a blessing.

Selah—Yeah, but then it kind of becomes my own emotion because I’m like, “Now they hate me.”

Ashton—You end up battling yourself for no reason. That’s the thing: It’s a blessing and a curse to be empathetic. You gotta separate yourself from them. For you to be so young and to know yourself so well is really rad. Most people walk around so ignorant and don’t even try to understand what’s going on with themselves.

Selah—I think that the greatest strength is vulnerability. If your protection or your armor is your vulnerability—you at your “weakest”—then that’s your strongest, too. If your protections are your weaknesses, then what are your strengths? That’s godly right there.

Ashton—We don’t like to face our reality. People push it to the backs of their minds so they don’t have to deal with it. They think that it’s helping them out, but at the end of the day…

Selah—It’s destroying them.

Ashton—Once we face those demons, it’ll be scary—everything in life isn’t always going to be great—but the outcome will be satisfying. For us to be so young and to realize all of these things about life in general, again, we’re ahead of the game.

I’m constantly stressing and going back and forth between myself and between my ideals. I’m tweaking this or that, and I get so hard on myself. It’s a lonely experience that people probably don’t understand, but they can’t; they’re not me. It’s like a soul connection when you do talk to somebody who fully understands. Like, “Oh, I’m not crazy!” [Laughing.]

Selah—These past few days I’ve really been like diagnosing myself with all these things because I just feel so crazy sometimes.

Ashton—Dude, you need to stop doing that shit.

Selah—Yeah, I actually do. It’s a box, it’s a box. And you know what’s funny? Like 10 months ago I was a senior in high school, and I got in this huge Twitter argument with my entire school because I told them that, “Ok, I understand that there are people whose brains are wired differently, but don’t put yourself in a box.” Like, if I were to really sit here and diagnose myself I would be so many different things, and all of it is beneficial too…

Ashton—It goes back to the whole idea of being comfortable with being different.

Selah—Just like because someone is a little bit more tender or a little bit more gentle or sensitive does not mean that they’re gay. We automatically impose that on the world. It’s like, there are extremes: You’re either hyper-masculine or, if you’re not hyper-masculine, “Hm, I don’t understand what that is, so I’m just going to go ahead and call you gay.” That’s been going on for so many years now.

Ashton—That happened to me growing up because I didn’t play sports and because I was an artist living in a black community. People would put labels on me and I was bullied and called names. I’m a skinny guy and I always have been. I can’t help that shit, that’s my body makeup. That type of shit can really affect you. And it did affect me for years until I found this collective of artists and we all embraced each other in our individuality. We were all African American artists and having that community of people that are just like you can really do wonders for you.

Selah—They elevate you.

Ashton—People go through this world and feel so alone. This is definitely a time when we need to embrace individuality. There are lot of outdated views on a lot of things within the black community and within the world. It’s up to people like us to change them. Even just what I’m trying to do with myself and with my image. I’m trying to embrace myself and realize, “Damn, it’s okay to be that other. It’s okay to not fit into societal norms and it’s ok to be yourself.” It’s so beautiful, man. It’s so beautiful, and I fuckin’ love it.

People hate what they can’t understand. You can be the most masculine guy and be the gayest dude or look the most feminine but have the most women. In the black community, everything just is what it is.

Joshua—On this note, I’d love to hear about dreams or maybe even fears for the future from both of you.

Selah—Well, my biggest fear is…I don’t know. I’m kind of getting rid of my fears. I can’t even answer that question. But my dream: I just want to be myself and share that with the world. Because I’ve been blessed with a platform, I’m no longer hiding my essence. I’m going to express myself and be who I am and hopefully people sign onto that. Maybe they won’t. But I just want to push my dreams and my passions and pave a way that allows me to bring those things with me. I’m tired of doing what people want me to do. I’ve decided to be my own boss, if there’s gonna be one. I really don’t want there to be one at all, I just want to be fluid in who I am and in my self-expression.

Ashton—Hell yeah.

Selah—I live day by day. I just want to grow that connection with myself and with God, honestly. That will lead me through anything.

Ashton—Damn man! Yes. I want to be my full self and to be completely happy. To continually go and grow on this soul journey that God wants me to be on. I just want to continue to be the man of God that I’m supposed to be. It’s growing pains and I’m living and learning every day. I want to be a voice for others and for all of those boys and girls who have felt different and who were bullied. It’s okay to be different, it’s okay to be your full self.

Published in Document No. 10