The end of "Black-ish" was just the beginning for Marsai Martin.
Martin played Diane Johnson on the hit ABC show starting in 2014, when she was just 9 years old. The series launched her career and its ending this past April has opened up Martin's schedule: Disney greenlit a show she created, "Saturdays," this past March. She's currently in production for the film "Fantasy Football," starring alongside Kelly Rowland and Omari Hardwick. And on Wednesday, June 15, she announced a partnership with Eventbrite for a new mental health initiative, The Social Connection Project.
A key theme in these projects is the role of in-person connections despite the ever growing influence of social media in daily interactions. To combat the growing prevalence of social isolation, The Social Connection Project has organized a nationwide set of free events Martin curated to increase in-person connections among GenZers, who have grown up on social media and, amid the pandemic, have had to relearn how to interact with others in real life.
Martin, 17, said growing up on social media has impacted her mental health "in so many ways."
"Social media has been a connection to where people think they can be into your life or have something to say about whatever you're doing," Martin said. "It can take a toll on you."
Martin sad she is passionate about mental health and fostering relationships because she's homeschooled and grew up on social media, so she has personally felt the absence of in-person interactions and has to work for them.
How Martin approaches social media
As she's gotten older, Martin said she's learned two things: Don't read the comments and unplug when needed.
"Social media has always just been a business, if that makes sense, so comments are always involved," she said. "Taking care of my mental health, I've made sure — now that I'm older — to not look at stuff like that anymore, stuff that doesn't really matter in my personal life, and just try to move forward in that. At this point, I use it for fun. I use it for sometimes business as well. But for the most part, I do not look at the comments. I don't really feed into that stuff."
She said she leans on family and friends to stay grounded, along with taking breaks from social media, even though it's hard.
"It feels like it's hard to, but as soon as you unplug that and mentally go into something where you're comfortable, and whether that's with your family or your friends, it's way easier," she said.
Martin was already prioritizing her mental health before partnering with EventBrite, and the project includes a research component in which experts study whether in-person events help reduce feeling socially isolated. There are also partnerships between EventBrite and local organizations to plan events and provide mental health resources to GenZers this summer and fall.
In the meantime, Martin is planning her 18th birthday party, filming a movie and creating and producing a TV show.
Martin said entering this next stage of life has prompted her to cherish time while she has it.
"During COVID, we missed so much of just life in general,” she said. "I was 15 when COVID started. Now being almost 18, it feels like time just went by so fast and all of a sudden I’m almost grown. So it’s weird, it’s crazy, so getting that time back is definitely something that has been the most difficult for me and having those connections with family and friends is definitely something that I try to keep.”
Her family and friends will be at her 18th birthday party in two months. Martin has a specific theme in mind for her party that's never been done in the way she's imagined it, she said.
"The real ones know that I've been wanting to have this party for a long time ever since I was little," she said of the theme. "I've never seen it in a mature way. Every time I looked up any (related) parties for inspiration, they gave me 2-year-old and 3-year-olds. So with my unique mind," she's put a mature spin on a childhood favorite.
Booked and busy
Martin's favorite things also include regularly roller skating with her friends, and she said that's why she created the forthcoming Disney show "Saturdays," a comedy following three young girls and their competitive roller skating team. She's executive producing the show through her production company, Genius Entertainment. The show was just bought last March and has not started filming, nor has a release date been announced yet.
By the time work picks up on the show, Martin should be finished filming "Fantasy Football," a movie she stars in alongside Omari Hardwick and Kelly Rowland, who play Martin's parents. Martin said working with them has been like getting another set of parents.
"Their duo is so sweet. They genuinely feel like parents: They're super supportive, they're very protective and we just have fun, especially me and Kelly. We just have so much fun and jokes everywhere. She's my best friend. And then Omari, he's definitely the true definition of a dad, and of course with me and him in this project, our connection in the movie is really, really important and has a huge impact. So he is definitely the epitome of what a dad should be, especially to a teenage daughter and he shows that beautifully," Martin said.
Martin is used to playing characters with involved parents. On "Black-ish," Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross played her parents in a family of seven as they navigated social dilemmas and new spins on historical problems for eight seasons. Martin said she thinks the show's legacy is reframing narratives.
"I think the show's legacy is just being a Black family in America and changing the narrative on how, not only people see comedy and television now, but also what families talk about in their everyday lives," she said. "And I do believe that 'Black-ish' was one of those shows that is like the 'Family Matters' of the world or the 'Martin's of the world and all that type of stuff. So I am very grateful to not only be a part of something so, so legendary, but also having fun along the ride as well."
Martin said continuing that ride on the show's spinoff "Grown-ish" as a new student at Cal U is not completely off the table. But she's booked and busy now and the decision is ultimately up to Kenya Barris, the creator of both shows, she said.
"We gone have to talk about it," Martin said referring to Barris. "I am busy but we gone have to figure something out because I know, for sure, Diane probably needs to come back."