“Fuck it—let's do it.” This is the phrase that just about sums up Willow Smith’s vibe right now. At 20 years old (yes, two zero), the multi-hyphenate has done it all. Her acting credits date as far back as 2007, when she starred opposite her dad—a low-key actor by the name of Will Smith… Ever heard of him?—in the box-office smash I Am Legend as a spry 7-year-old. She’s encountered the most rarefied experiences, such as stealing Oprah Winfrey’s heart at age 5 with twinkling eyes and a toothless grin on the megastar’s self-titled talk show. Smith really has been in a league of her own from the jump. She’s all grown up now, though, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that we’ve watched it happen right in front of our eyes. But the question still remains: Who is Willow Smith? For a long time, she didn’t want us to know. (Can you blame her?) Don’t worry, though. She’s more ready now than ever before to show the world what she’s made of.
Photo:Djeneba Aduayom; STYLING: David Koma dress and shorts; YVY harness and choker; Dr. Martens boots
Smith has made her own foray into the talk-show space, co-hosting Facebook Watch’s Red Table Talk alongside her mother, Jada Pinkett Smith, and grandmother, Adrienne Banfield-Norris (more affectionately known as Gammy), and providing a Gen Z take on topics from love and relationships to race, privilege, and, perhaps the most salient topic for Smith personally, mental health. “We can have these conversations where we can process emotions together, and we don’t have to suppress them or push them under the rug. That creates more problems in the future and more problems for our children and their children and their children,” she explains of RTT’s impact, especially where conversations surrounding mental health in the Black community are concerned. “If I can do anything, I want to show that we’re all going through it. No one is exempt from feeling like they’re being drowned by their emotions or feeling like they’re being drowned by their confusion or their sadness or their external circumstances, whatever they may be. So many negative feelings stem from feeling like you’re the only one who is experiencing these emotions, and that’s just never the case,” she says.
We’re now more than a decade removed from “Whip My Hair,” the ubiquitous platinum single that turned Smith into a bona fide pop star at the tender age of 10. But the singer has been candid about how tumultuous a time that was for her, despite it looking like every kid’s fantasy. “I think being exposed to so much at a young age and having to make really difficult decisions at a young age kind of bestowed me with this feeling of ‘You can't trust anybody,’” she shares. After that whirlwind experience, the youngest member of the Smith brood took some time away from the musical limelight to reset before delving deep into a creative exploration to the tune of five albums and EPs spanning R&B, neo-soul, alternative, and an eclectic mix of just about every genre in between. And now, Smith is finally ready to embody a version of her musical self that’s always felt kind of off-limits: rock. “A lot of the time, Black people, in general, are shunned from rock spaces or metal spaces,” she says of this invisible boundary that feels all too familiar. But she’s forging ahead—boundaries be damned. “When you really just let go of all your inhibitions and can truly be honest with yourself, beautiful things can happen,” she tells me with a hopeful smile that I could just feel, even through the screen.
Photo:Djeneba Aduayom; STYLING: Sacai dress; Cold Shoulder necklace
So here she is, a nouveau punk, if you will, unleashing a musical prowess that, frankly, she didn’t know she had. Even though she’s been there and done that, as they say, she’s only just getting started on this nuanced journey. This time around, however, she’s not asking for permission.
Smith’s big brother Jaden said it best in an April 26 tweet, which we now know was the eve of the release of his sister’s debut single and video for her latest musical project. The message simply read, “Beware Of Willow.” No context, no clues. But there was an evergreen fittingness to it that garnered thousands of likes, comments, and retweets. I think I speak for everyone when I say this: If there’s one thing you know about Willow Smith, it’s that she’s an enigma you’ll never be able to put into a box, so a call to beware somehow feels more like an invitation than a threat of danger. She is that girl without even trying. Proof of this theory came the very next day when “Transparent Soul”—the first single from Smith’s new album and her first official pop-punk creation featuring iconic Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker—sent the entire internet into a frenzy of questions, comparisons, and, not surprisingly, plenty of critical acclaim. The accompanying music video finds our artist draped in the most deliciously alt-inspired looks, from spiked chokers to edgy utility pants complete with dangling suspenders and chains, while strumming away on her custom guitar. (And no, it’s not just a prop—she’s been playing the guitar since she was 13.) She comes off assured but not overly rehearsed. Deliberate in her delivery but not unauthentic or contrived. The song itself sounds like exactly what it is: an extension of the emotions coursing through this deep, soulful human at this crucial juncture.
Photo:Djeneba Aduayom; STYLING: Peter Do suit; Nanushka crochet top; Tibi leather bra
It all started at the top of 2020, following a joint album and art installation aptly named The Anxiety, which Smith produced with friend and longtime creative collaborator Tyler Cole. “We put together this insane idea to be in a box where everything is white and made out of canvas, and we go through stages of anxiety for 24 hours and paint the entire room with all of these different mediums that we had,” she details to me. Almost immediately after the installation and subsequent album release, COVID-19 swept the globe and effectively shut down life as we know it. “I was just in such a raw space because I had just gone through this experience where so many emotions came up that I wasn't really expecting to come up. And so I was just in a mood like, ‘Fuck it—let’s do it. We’re in this house. No one’s going to hear this. I don’t need to be insecure about if I’m not hard enough, if I don’t sound rock enough,’” she explains. And just like that, Smith and Cole went to work, cutting demos and dialing in the sound, which Smith describes as a mash-up of some of her ultimate alternative-rock influences, including one I definitely didn’t see coming: her mom.
Photo:Djeneba Aduayom; STYLING: Area full look
If you think Smith just woke up one day with an out-of-the-blue urge to headbang with the best of them, you’re missing a major piece of the story. “This album came from a deep desire that I’ve always had because I grew up on tour with my mom’s metal band when I was 5, 6, 7 [years old],” Smith says. “The band was called Wicked Wisdom, and I always just loved how powerful my mom was on stage and how she would growl and she would scream and she would sing in such a passionate way.” If your mouth is slightly ajar at this tidbit, you aren’t alone. “I always thought I could never do that because I was trained specifically to sing R&B/pop. And so then when I was 12 and I started getting into Blink-182 and My Chemical Romance and Avril Lavigne, I was like, ‘Oh, this is so fire, and I’m loving this angsty energy,’” Smith goes on. “But again, I still felt like I couldn’t do it. That same mindset was like, ‘Oh, well, you’re in this lane and not in that lane.’ You would think that me seeing my mom do that made me go, ‘Shit, I could do it, too, then. Who cares?’ But seeing her do that made me realize just how strong she was and just how hard it actually is to contend with real racism and real sexism together.” Smith recounts instances where her mother even received death threats during her musical tenure. “But on the flip side, seeing my mom do that made me realize that it’s natural for a Black woman to do whatever she wants. So to me, it wasn’t an internal struggle. It was more of an external worry like, ‘Oh, I'm afraid of what they’re going to say about me.’”
The entire aesthetic and persona around Smith’s new music are somewhat of a departure from how we typically see the singer express herself through fashion and beauty. On the one hand, the vibe she’s looking to embody now is deeply rooted in a desire for pure, free-form exploration. “I wanted to bring a psychedelic, abstract, almost Björk vibe to a Black, Afro-punk feel,” she explains. Smith even took an active role in the creative direction for her Who What Wear cover shoot, sharing her own curated mood boards and communicating the visual cues she wanted to bring forth to mirror the aesthetic of her latest project. But on the other hand, Smith admits that she’s pretty boring about this stuff on a day-to-day basis. “I’m the kind of person who never really gets dressed up unless it’s a part of my work, which I kind of like because I’m such a simple person that I like my work being the place I go for these things,” she says. That might come as a surprise since she never seems to shy away from bold fashion, hair, or makeup statements, whether it’s sporting an open-back Seen Users blazer-dress on a red carpet, fashioning her dreadlocks into pointy space buns, or being photographed in rich cerulean or golden eye shadow. On a random off-duty day, though? You’ll catch her chilling makeup-free, wearing a Cool Tape Vol. 3 or Existential Crisis Club sweatsuit. “I’m honestly such a bum in my real life. I literally wear the same five things,” she chuckles.
Photo:Djeneba Aduayom; STYLING: Dion Lee suit; Stuart Weitzman shoes
So what is it about this new musical phase that’s got Smith pulling out all the stops in terms of her look? It’s all about full and untethered expression. “For my other albums, I really didn’t feel the need to step into a persona because I kind of felt like the music just spoke for itself, and I just didn’t see the importance in that. But for this album, I just want to have fun. I’m trying to be shameless and not let my insecurities keep me in the dark like I’m hiding,” she says. Where she would normally put out music and then find herself all but disappearing from the discourse, or “scurrying away and not wanting to talk to anybody,” as she puts it, this time around, she feels whole enough to stay present. “It definitely feels like a good time for me to say fuck it and just do what I love and do it shamelessly. I’m ready to just break out,” she says. After a year of being sequestered in our respective caves, that sentiment is more relatable than ever.
Smith told me this next chapter of her life is all about acknowledging her feelings. With her forthcoming album set to drop this summer, it feels like an especially appropriate time to try a little tenderness. “Over the pandemic, there’s just been so much healing, and I’m starting to see a lot of trauma that was always there, but for some reason, I just didn’t know it was there,” she says. So what does that really look like? Smith said she’s making a conscious effort to slow down and build more mindfulness into her life with a morning routine centered on meditation and journal prompts from a workbook called The Artist’s Way. “I’ve been doing this for about two or three months now, and the amount of clarity that I enter my day with compared to when I would wake up and immediately look at my phone is unprecedented.” She may be stepping into her rock-star era, but Smith’s biggest flex yet? The level of peace she’s coming to know by staying true to herself.