'on my block' star jahking guillory is not a 'hollywood kid'
The long-haired Long Beach teen talks growing up in the hood, and what he learned from Mahershala Ali.
Photography Ben Colen
Unlike the previous generations of child actors who lived in a perpetual bubble, teens on-screen today are revolutionaries who understand how entertainment, and social media, can shape the world they live in. Jahking Guillory, a 16-year-old California native, is one of those budding stars. Born and raised in Moreno Valley, Riverside County, Guillory appeared in bit roles on TV at the age of six, before uprooting with his mother and extended family to Long Beach after his parents split up when he was 12. At that point, he went from being a sports-obsessed running back for Snoop Dogg's Junior football team to facing adult decisions in order to support his household. “I had kids looking up to me. My niece, my two nephews, and my little sister.” Guillory tells i-D. “I don’t want to say I was a father figure, because my dad is an amazing father. He’s in my life 100%. But that whole separation was hard on the whole family. So, I had to step up. And that’s when I started taking acting seriously.”
Not long after, Guillory landed the lead role in the 2016 sneaker film Kicks, playing Brandon, a loner from Oakland who finds his inner strength after buying a pair of Jordans, which are subsequently stolen by a rival in the neighbourhood. Since his big screen debut, Guillory played the lippy Coogie in Showtime’s The Chi, and most recently, the bad boy, Latrelle in the Netflix Original series On My Block. Based on his trajectory, he’s made the right choice.
i-D sat down with Jahking Guillory to talk about growing up in the hood, misconceptions about masculinity, and how black depictions on film and television can shape an entire community.
What’s it like being a teen in Long Beach?
Movies and television try to make it seem like it's a war zone and it's crazy, but it's not. Sometimes it is, but there’s so much beauty in the struggle; there's so much love in the hood. We could go there right now and see so many kids outside playing football with smiles on their faces. I'm telling you, there's so much talent in the hood. But if you're a young man in the projects, to be honest, there are only a few things you can do to make it out. You’re either fiddling with mics, or you are dribbling the ball, or you are throwing the football, or you could be selling drugs or gangbanging. Or there’s education. But, let’s be honest, for a young black man in this world, trying to get somewhere with education — compared to a white person — is harder.
As a kid, did you feel you were different?
Most definitely. Most of my friends are dark-skinned. I had to battle to fit in as far as football went. I took sports very seriously. Other kids would talk shit to me, but my ability to play football would prove them wrong. They would be like, “He too pretty to play good; he’s not as good as me.” Then I’d catch the ball and run right past them; run their little asses over. The conversations were about me being excluded from a group to “He's really good, and he's one of us. His pops is black.”
It’s just that this is the only family that we have. Black people as one, we are all we got. Chance the Rapper has a song called “All We Got.” We have to support each other. Mixed and light-skinned people are still part of the black community. We gotta support one another to grow.
You have striking features, and your long hair is your trademark. Do you have to justify your masculinity because of your appearance?
Let me explain this from my standpoint. Growing up, I was always teased for having long hair and looking like a girl. But once I opened my mouth, it was like “Oh! He good.” I have to carry myself a certain way. I talk the way I talk so people won’t get the wrong idea. There's nothing wrong with loving who you love, and there's nothing wrong with me looking how I look and dressing how I dress, but there is always this battle [to not be judged based on appearance].
You worked with Mahershala Ali, who went on to do Moonlight . Would you consider roles that deal with sexuality or do you think it would be problematic because of how you look?
There’s nothing wrong with playing a character dealing with those issues, but it has to be broader than just sexuality. With Moonlight, they hit that on the nail. [Based on a lot of perceptions] the worst thing to be growing up black in America or black in the hood is gay. That’s the worst thing you could be, period. You could be a gangbanger; you could be killing people, you could be selling drugs, you could be poisoning your community, but to be gay, that excludes you from everything. Moonlight told a story about a lot of young black men growing up. There are probably a lot of young black men dealing with their sexuality and battling with that feeling of being free and loving who they want, but they don’t, so they live with that for the rest of their lives. I will [take on the role] but I have to think about it. I can't just take a part for the sake of it, ‘cuz If I do, my worst fear is to get pigeonholed in general.
Do find yourself getting typecast as the bad guy because of how you carry yourself?
With The Chi, I wasn’t necessarily a bad guy. The three roles I’ve done: Kicks was a coming of age story of a kid living in the hood, who was a loner and an outsider. At that time, I related to that so much. Coogie from The Chi was free-spirited, full of joy. At that point, I related to the role so much because I was finally doing this for my family. Coogie was Jahking. With Latrelle from On My Block, I'm not feeling like a bad guy, but I'm feeling like I have a chip on my shoulder; trying to prove to people what's next. I got this movie called Sk8 Skool; we're filming in South Africa.
I love that acting is opening this door me, like I get to travel to different parts of the world, it’s crazy. I’ve been getting not necessarily smart roles but geeks; I’m trying to mix it up. I’m not trying to do one thing and have that stick with me for the rest of my life. It’s always about expanding and doing other things. I’m also doing Five Points, a series on Facebook Watch. I play a skater in that, too.
Are there enough roles for black actors in Hollywood?
No. There really isn’t. And if there is, it's gangbanging and selling drugs, and occasionally, there will be a black football player. It’s a long fuckin’ story. That’s why I’m glad Black Panther came out. Hopefully, it will open up a bunch of other things. Same thing with Get Out.
How important do you think it is to have strong black representations of our people in TV and film?
Let me tell you, this Black Panther movie; I'm so proud it did what it did. A Marvel movie and a superhero at that. Now you got little white kids saying they wanna be Black Panther. Now you got little Mexican kids saying they want to be Black Panther. Now, when you go to the projects, instead of Spider-Man, they want to be Black Panther. It's like that golden figure. This is what we can be in every single field we choose to do. We can be the T’Challa of fucking mathematics. I’m so proud of that movie. Even Michael B. Jordan’s character, Erik Killmonger, speaks volumes because he’s a victim of society. A lot of kids grow up without fathers. When I was living in the projects, the streets are raising us and keeping our bellies full.
We are starting to see more black roles on TV, too.
Yeah. We got Atlanta – I just watched episode seven [from season two]. Donald Glover played a white man; he had a butt chin and all that. I was like, “What the hell is this.” And that guy, Lakeith [Stanfield who plays Darius] – that dude is amazing.
You have music coming out too, right?
I just dropped a song on Apple Music and Spotify called “Runaway.”
Are you a singer?
Nah. I can sing, but it's kinda like alternative singing. I kinda rap as well. I wanna see if people rock with it.
Are you doing a Drake ting?
Yeah, a Drake ting [laughs]. Big tings comin’ soon you know what I’m saying.
Are you excited about it?
I kinda don’t want people to know I do music. I love my followers; I love all my fans, all my Jahqueens, you know what I’m saying. I love it all. But I’m a very low-key person.
What’s the point in putting out music if you don’t want people to know about it?
I'm a huge hypocrite, and I contradict myself 24/7 [laughs]. It hasn't come to that point where it's like, if I don't want people to hear my music, I'll just do it for myself. If it gets to that point, then where’s the fun in that? I kinda wanna be out there because I’m still on the grind. I’ve gotta keep inching forward to the top spot. To me, success is getting the rest of my family out of the projects and putting them through college. Letting them be set. That's my definition of success.
Do people try to filter you?
Yes. But my immediate family knows how I am right off the bat. I keep trying to get into everybody else’s head that I’m not a Hollywood kid. It wasn’t all smiles. I have a chip on my shoulder. When I open my mouth, they're gonna be like, "he came from the hood." If people don’t like it, fuck it, because if I care about all the negative things people say, then what the fuck am I doing?
Do other teens message you on Instagram to say you’re an inspiration to them?
Yes, and I love it. I love being that to kids around my age and to people older than me, too. When people give me big blessings, I give big thanks because that lets me know I’m doing my job and I’m telling a story that somebody has lived or is living. That’s why I love all my supporters and people who have been there for me from day one. This is only the beginning. I’ve got so many things I've gotta do for my family. I already moved my mom and my little sister out the hood, but I want to move my people. And once we get to that point, I’m probably gonna cry about it. It’ll be like, “Yeah. I did this.”