Yaya Alafia arrived on TV screens more than a decade ago as Yaya DaCosta, the young model proud of her African and Latina roots in Season 3 of America’s Next Top Model. But, as she tells NPR’s Michel Martin, she has come a long way since competing on the series. “I have practiced such deliberate amnesia when it came to that show,” she admits. “Just hearing my voice at such a young, vulnerable age, forced into this other world that I wasn’t prepared for.”
But that experience did prepare her for a successful film career. In 2013, she starred in three films: Mother of George, Big Words and The Butler, in which she played a Black Panther.
“[My father] was an organizer in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. My mother did a little bit of work with the Black Panthers,” she says. “It felt kind of natural for me going on that audition.”
A graduate in Africana studies and international relations from Brown University, Alafia celebrates the fact that she is “one of those Africans in America that’s kind of a mutt, for lack of a better word.” And although her roots stretch from Nigeria to Brazil, she believes that “when people start to get a little too specific, it serves as a divisive tactic.”
Originally from Harlem, she spent a trimester of high school abroad in the Dominican Republic. She says her experience there made her aware of complicated issues involving racial identity. “I didn’t realize how deep-rooted the brainwashing went and how much self-hate there was. … My host mother would yell at me, saying … ‘You’re going to burn out there, don’t get too dark, you could be so pretty.’ And that really had an effect on me.”