How do you explain the meaning of love? An action and a feeling that lives in us, forever changes us and is a memory so strong it can impact us for generations. In 2019, Matthew A. Cherry explored the meaning of love in his Academy Award winning short Hair Love, about a Black father, Steven, trying (and at times failing) to do his daughter Zuri’s hair before they visited Angela, his daughter’s mother and girlfriend in the hospital. This simple task, told through the eyes of 5-year-old Zuri and her father, broke down stereotypes about Black fathers, the Black family unit and showed pride in African American hair, especially during a time when hair discrimination was (and still is) legal.
Now the Youngs are back with Young Love, a 10-episode series that gives an honest, heartfelt, and comedic glimpse into the lives of African American millennial parents Steven Love (Scott Mescudi/Kid Cudi) and Angela Young (Issa Rae) as they experience the relatable ups and downs of modern life. Two months in remission following a battle with cancer, Angela struggles to balance her work as a stylist with the demands of parenthood, while Steven attempts to carve out a career as a musician in an ultra-competitive industry. Along with their fearless daughter Zuri (Brooke Monroe Conaway), this tight-knit Chicago family juggles careers, marriage, parenthood, social issues, and multi-generational dynamics while striving to make a better life for themselves.
In celebration of Young Love’s premiere, The Koalition spoke to Cherry about expanding the short into a series for the millennial crowd who once grew up with Black ’90s sitcoms that tackles with honest life’s struggles as individuals and as a family in a gentrified Chicago that maintains its stance as one of the media’s richest positive African American family portraits.
“[Ever] since the Kickstarter campaign and we got the artwork back from Vashti Harrison, we were like, ‘Yo this art is so dope, it could be a picture book, it could be maybe a TV series.’ We kind of knew from day one it had that potential, but having an idea and actually doing it [are] just two different things and I think as Hair Love continued to get into the world, the book, [now] shipping almost three million copies at this point, the short film being viewed almost 100 million times on YouTube, we just knew people love these characters and wanted to see more of them. [Therefore], it just made sense a TV show was the natural next step. ‘[It’s] been three years in the works.”
“Young Love is basically a continuation of Hair Love. It takes place about two months after the events in the short film [with] Angela being released from the hospital and recovering. We wanted the show to be way more about just hair and doing hair, so there’re definitely nods and different little Easter Eggs in there and all the different hairstyles that we feature. We really wanted the show to focus on a young millennial couple who haven’t really achieved their dreams yet. They’re trying to figure out where they fit in life, their career and within their family, but they also have a young daughter they want to be present for. A lot of the stuff in the short made its way into the series and we just expanded upon it.”
The beauty of Young Love is its refreshing take on family animation that focuses on a millennial couple that don’t have it figured out and have a kid. The language isn’t dumbed down for kids, nor does it focus on situations too adult. Instead, its genius tone straddles the in-between, refusing to alienate neither party while incorporating the short film and the book. It’s a show that really does have it all.
“It’s really a family show. We tried to really hit a tone that both parents and kids can enjoy and kind of watch together. A lot of times, [parents] these days [are] having a hard time trying to feed [kids] stuff that is just specifically made for their age range. A lot of kids like watching [shows] a little bit more mature than what their age is, and we just really wanted to lean into that. We know that when we’re in Zuri’s world we want a lot of the situations and the experiences she was going through to be things that were relatable to adults. Things we can all remember dealing with growing up and also experiences that were more adult-like situations but kind of retrofitted into kid things. And when we’re with the adults, we just want to embrace being with the adults. Such as when we’re in the music industry, let’s deal with that or in the hair salon, but we really never wanted to be raunchy or anything like that. [It’s] all about servicing the family, so hopefully the entire family can watch together.”
Young Love isn’t just about a couple raising their daughter, but also focuses on other characters in hilarious and heartwarming situations that feel inspired by real life. Gigi and Russell are the definition of opposite attracts. While both are God-fearing loving grandparents, Russell believes in stereotypical gender roles while finding comfort in the predictable routine. He’s also cheap. Gigi would prefer to be wined and dined, be more appreciated and for Russell to be spontaneous, even for a day. Steven also spends time as a male role model for his nephew, a young artist in need of guidance, acceptance and care.
“With animation [we] can’t be super topical and talk about the things that are popping up on Twitter because it takes two or three years to make. So, we just really tried to deal with topics that we knew were going to still be here three years later. We know gentrification, appropriation, houselessness, recovering from illnesses and trying to get back on their feet [are going anywhere]. [There there’s] the music industry, young kids just dealing with feelings of being taken advantage of in school. [There are] all these different topics we try to touch upon and felt they will always be relevant, and kind of forever be relevant. These are things that just made sense for our characters to try to tackle.”
Set in Chicago, it was important the series felt lived in and authentic. Art Director Ed Li captured the personality and style of the characters, such as hairstyles and clothing, and also the architecture of Chicago with the two-flats and three-flats that are featured so prominently on the west and south sides of the city. Each building has a history and tells a story even if it involves gentrification. Older buildings mix in with new ones. The hair salon is bustling with customers, the music studio comes alive with beats. Homes on the streets are fully conceptualized as the spirit of Chicago permeates through the screen. Being from Chicago, it was imperative to Cherry the city felt authentic as possible.
“Chicago is a city that just really represents strong Midwestern values. People work hard [and] play hard. People try to have fun. Chicago also kind of gets a bad rap in the mainstream media. Everybody always wants to talk about gun violence and all these other things, but it’s not any different to any other major city. It just [has] a little bit more of a spotlight on it just because it’s a state that has strict gun laws but all the states around it don’t. So, it’s easy to get things through the borders. Chicago is really dope and important because we really just want to represent those hard-working-class people. The people that don’t have all the resources. People don’t have a ton of money, but people have really big dreams and big goals and they try to make it. That’s really what shaped me growing up and that’s really what we want to try to get into the show too.”
To learn more about Young Love, check out our full interview in the video below. The Max Original animated series Young Love debuts with four episodes Thursday, September 21st on Max. The twelve-episode season continues with four episodes weekly, leading up to the season finale on Thursday, October 5th.
To further explore the Hair Love universe, check out HAIR LOVE ABCS by Matthew A. Cherry and illustrated by Vashti Harrison (Kokila; on sale August 29, 2024; 9780593695647; $8.99; ages 0-3), is an alphabet board book inspired by the bestselling HAIR LOVE, from the original award-winning author and illustrator duo. As well as, A is for Afro, N is for Natural, and W is for Waves … in HAIR LOVE ABCS Zuri, her parents, and Rocky the cat return for another joy-filled journey through the kinks and curls of Black hair, letter by letter. With all new artwork from Vashti Harrison, HAIR LOVE ABCS is perfect as a baby gift, for young readers embracing their natural hair, and toddlers learning their ABCs.