It’s easy to feel like you know Willow Smith. Born into the public eye, her every move has been traced from the beginning, labels flung from all sides from those determined to figure her out.
At one time or another, she’s been the “child star,” the “alt-R&B soul child” and the “precocious” teen host of her family discussion show, Red Table Talk, but her admirable frankness has also been mistaken for pretension, her genre exploration for indecisiveness and her outsider tendencies policed by antiquated, racialized notions of what an “alternative” musician should look like. We all know what it feels like to be put in a box, but what does it take to be bold enough to break out?
Spend a few minutes in WILLOW’s company and you will quickly see just how many multitudes she contains. The 20-year-old might be the literal child of Hollywood royalty, but she’s also a real student of the universe—inquisitive about the world around her, passionate about the ways she can make change, committed to art-making as a mode of progress and critical thinking.
She’s also incredibly versatile. A guitar player since her early years, her latest artistic development has allowed her the space to fully channel her beloved pop punk, joining the long-necessary charge for a new wave of diverse representation and gatekeeper-free expression.
Of the three songs that Alternative Press are fortunate enough to hear from her forthcoming album, “t r a n s p a r e n t s o u l” feels like being transported straight back into the early noughties, while “Lipstick” is more gothic and dramatic, imbibed with the drama of My Chemical Romance and Evanescence. Best of them all is “Grow,” a duet between WILLOW and Avril Lavigne that positively emanates joy, the sort of song to play loud as you dance in front of the bedroom mirror to psych yourself up and face the day. WILLOW sounds fully at peace with who she is, and come album release time this summer, she will likely play a huge part in helping others to feel the same.
Her new sound may be a shock to some, but four albums and countless EPs in, she has more than paid her dues. A path of stepping-stone connection from her earliest childhood memories to her most freeing expression of now, star fragments of all of her previous works are still very much in place; her soaring voice, an ear for an undeniable hook, her lyrical enthusiasm for the mystical and divine. Getting here wasn’t always easy—there were insecurities to shed, new friends to make, uncomfortable spaces to take up. For the very first time, WILLOW is ready to be vulnerable—and more than ready to rock.
I think when you grow up in public and under a certain scrutiny, there is a sense of self-preservation that must kick in. And yet, you are someone who has always really strived to normalize the fact that you’re allowed to develop and change your mind. I think that’s something that gets lost a lot in the digital age, but I’ve always really appreciated how you own that fact, even when it gets you labeled as a bit precocious or weird. Why do you think society is still so scared of young people who have something different to say?
I think it’s not only just young people, but I think it’s young people of color. I think that has a lot to do with it. Historically, African-American youth have been constantly put in these boxes, and I feel like even in our own community, when we try to step out of those boxes and when we try to do something different, we are scrutinized by our own community. Over time, I realized that it wasn’t all 100% because I was famous. I was seeing peers of mine who weren’t in that position but were still hitting the same walls.
I feel like people are afraid to allow that awakening to happen because for so long, people in minority groups have just been held down. Allowing minorities to express themselves fully brings up the fact that we’re going to have to address these societal and systemic oppressions that we experience. I don’t think we talk enough about how the creative outlets of people of color can be a huge avenue of inciting change. Obviously, I’m extremely privileged, and I would never put myself next to the thousands of people who have died in the street because they wanted to wear a certain thing or because their skin was a certain color, or because someone thought that they were lesser than themselves.
But I still deeply, deeply relate and continue to analyze those experiences in my own life and how it manifests in my own life through my privilege. Being Black is being Black; even if you’re privileged, you’re still going to experience some of that pushback. I just want to keep expressing myself, and I want to keep letting other people of color know that we can just do what we want. We can be artists, and we can express ourselves, and we can have communities that lift each other up, even if there are some people that don’t want to do that for us.
Growing up, I remember being super into emo and pop punk; super into Paramore, My Chemical Romance, Panic! and all of these great groups. And yet, as much as I loved the whole scene and still do, I definitely felt like I didn’t have the right hair texture for the emo fringe. I didn’t have the body shape for skinny jeans. I didn’t have the right accessories. I think if there had been someone like you, visibly doing pop punk when I was a teenager, it would have changed everything for me.
Yeah. I just know so many girls who felt specifically like that. I remember going to some of my peers when I was in school and expressing to them that I wanted to perm my hair and do the classic emo swoop to the side and them just looking at me going, “I don’t think that that’s going to be a good look for you.” I remember feeling exactly that, like, “Wow, I just want to be a cute emo girl and just live my life.”
There’s a barrier there, every single time. And, you know, that’s one of the reasons why I loved watching my mom on Ozzfest and touring [with Wicked Wisdom]. A lot of people didn’t want her to be doing that. A lot of people felt offended and angry that a Black famous woman was there in their community, doing something that they didn’t want her to be doing. She got so many death threats; people were throwing shit at her onstage, just being really, really racist and nasty and sexist. And me seeing that happen and seeing how gracefully she dealt with it, I was like, “Damn, if this is what I’m going to have to go up against out there, I’m going to have to do some mental and emotional training.” And she helps me do that.
Obviously, pop punk and heavy metal are two extremely different genres, but I think Black people in the rock world in general are still pretty rare. There’s just a tension there and a resistance that I really wanted to push back against. And on top of the fact that I wanted to push back against that, I just love rock, and I always have for my whole life. Those are two really big reasons why I decided to make this project.
Imagine that somebody had never experienced the noughties emo years or hadn’t heard any pop-punk stuff before—what would be on the mixtape you’d give them?
I would definitely give them Avril Lavigne’s whole album, The Best Damn Thing. There’s a specific song on there called “I Don’t Have To Try” that I just would blast as a kid. My 13-year-old self would be living! And then My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade…although, there’s also Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge. Oh, my God. OK, I’m going to put Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge first. I know there’s probably some deliberation about this in the pop-punk community, but I love Three Cheers.
I feel like that’s a strong selection, and the point about breaking down those divisions between genres and subgenres is really important, too. I’m curious; how do you feel about genre in the wider sense? Do you think it’s still a useful way of looking at music, or have we moved past it?
I think there are some things that are just undeniable, but I don’t think that we should hold everything up to the same measuring stick. Even my output, this album, it’s pop punk, but to make it authentic to me, I had to put a little bit of those alt-rock vibes in there, too. I had to put a little bit of those shoegaze vibes in there, those Mazzy Star vibes.
And so I don’t know. I feel like in some cases genre can be helpful because it is historical, and the only reason why we’re seeing so much genre-mixing today is because it’s 2021 and so much has evolved. I feel like it’s really case by case, but overall, I’m all for getting rid of the categories and just doing whatever you feel. But sometimes when I’m conceptualizing things, I do need to know each different kind of genre that I’m going to be nodding to—like laying out a road map that’s specifically for me.
What was Avril like to work with?
My goodness. She’s just amazing. She knows this genre like the back of her hand. It was just effortless watching her come up with her verse. Just the tone of her voice and how she knows exactly the right tone that’s going to work with the song. When I heard her verse, I was like, “Oh no, should I even get on this?” Because I’m not going to sound nearly as hardcore or amazing as she sounds. But then I was like, “You know what? Don’t go back into that mindset. Be confident, hold your head up high and sing this damn song with this amazing woman.” I’m so excited for it.
As you’ve grown up and changed and developed and grown, what has stayed core to your self-expression? What are those root qualities that make you proud to be you?
At my core, I am a devotee of the divine. I want to be in service to the life on this planet. That has a lot to do with music but also nothing whatsoever. It just has to do with what my soul came here to do, what I believe about the universe and what I believe about Earth. With everything that I do, I just hope that it brings me closer to the divine and closer to being in service to people who can benefit from what I have to offer. As long as that’s happening, I’m cool with whatever I’m doing.
I want people to know that I’m just so grateful for my whole journey and for my music career in general. I just want to keep putting out good vibes and keep making people feel heard and loved and seen. Gratitude and growth—that’s all!
Smith will release “lately i feel EVERYTHING,” as well as a performance of the album on Watch Together available on Instagram, Messenger, and Facebook on July 16.
You can read the full interview with WILLOW in issue 395, available here.