“If anything you say could make headlines around the world, then you better say something that’s going to inspire people,” Willow Smith tells NME. “You better say something that’s going to help.”
The artist knows a thing or two about speaking to a global audience. Famous since before she could walk, she soon appeared alongside her dad, rap and big screen megastar Will Smith in Hollywood blockbusters I Am Legend (2007) and Madagascar 2: Escape To Africa (2008) before she released 2010’s global pop-rap hit ‘Whip My Hair’ at the age of nine. The attitude-ridden track was a phenomenon, establishing Willow as a star in her own right – if a little too soon.
Now 11 years later, just like her brother the rapper, actor and viral sensation Jaden Smith, Willow stands fearlessly in the spotlight. As well as boasting a back catalogue of raw, confessional music that dabbles in everything from glitzy art-pop to socially-conscious R&B, she also co-hosts the Red Table Talk – a show that sees her sit down and discuss everything from sexuality and mental health to her own childhood with her mother, the actor and former rockstar Jada Pinkett Smith, and her grandmother Adrienne Banfield-Norris.
Given how comfortable she is speaking on behalf of herself and her generation on the “many historical shifts in the perception of humanity and the zeitgeist”, it’s little wonder Willow has become a Gen Z icon. She even wrote the perfect soundtrack to her status with 2021’s ‘Lately I Feel Everything’, a swaggering alt-rock album that she’s currently bringing to enraptured audiences – next week, she’ll play a one-off show at London’s Electric Ballroom.
Willow admits that it is tough to be vulnerable when she is so exposed. Her battles with self-harm, her run-ins with cyber stalkers and even trivial matters like changes in hairstyle are broadcast online for the whole world to see and judge her by. However, she knows you can’t be a role model if you aren’t seen as human.
“You need to show that life is hard for everyone,” she explains today from a restaurant in Los Angeles. “We’re all going through our own struggles. We’re all trying to figure out the most healthy ways to cope with the parts of ourselves that don’t make us the most comfortable or that are that are scary to us.”
The young star, now 21, knows that other people in her privileged position might shy away from being so open, but as she explains: “Sharing the human experience is what makes life worth it.” Speaking of the media’s constant glare, she admits: “It’s an insane world out there, but you can’t focus on that.”
Willow released her debut album ’Ardipithecus’ in 2015 and self-produced 10 of the neo-soul record’s 15 tracks. She followed it up with the raw, conscious pop of ‘The 1st’, which came on the day of her 17th birthday before 2019’s self-titled third album saw her toy with dream pop, psychedelic folk and R&B. This trio of experimental records was a world away from the radio-friendly rebellion of ‘Whip My Hair’ – a hangover that took a while to get over.
The sudden explosion of ‘Whip My Hair’ in 2010 and the gruelling press cycle that followed saw her questioning her dream of being a musician. She released the electropop ‘21st Century Girl’ at the start of 2011, while the Nicki Minaj-featuring ‘Fireball’ came 11 months later. She supported Justin Bieber on the UK leg of his ‘My World’ tour, but wanted to drop out of the upcoming Australian dates, apparently walking off stage in Dublin and telling her dad she was done. He refused to let her quit on the commitment so, one night, the 11-year-old shaved her head in protest. Willow wouldn’t release another song until 2014, with the soulful three-track EP ‘3’.
Speaking on the Red Table Talk in 2018, Willow said to her mum: “I definitely had to forgive you and daddy for that whole ‘Whip My Hair’ thing. I spent a couple of years trying to regain trust for not feeling like I was being listened to or like no one cared how I felt. I had to forgive myself because I felt guilty because everyone is trying to make me better, trying to make my dream [come true]. But I didn’t really understand what my dream entailed.”
“Oppression in America puts something inside of us that makes us want to growl and scream”
She adds: “I was extremely done with music after that. I tried to do so many other things. I didn’t make music for a whole year, which is insane for me. I wanted to do other things to figure out if music was the real deal or not. But it just stuck, man. It would not go away. It’s like music was saying, ‘I’m in your mind and in your heart; your forever roommate. You could write a book if you want, but it’s not going to be your main thing. You’re not going to leave me behind and be an author’.
“I definitely could do both, and that’s going to happen soon – but still: music has my heart. She’s got me by the ovaries.”
After 12 months of avoiding music completely, it was Radiohead that reignited her passion; she wrote her own song over the intro to the spindly ‘Codex’ from their 2011 album ‘The King Of Limbs’. “I hadn’t made music in such a long time, but that song slapped, so I wanted to see if I could do anything on it,” she says. “I looped the intro and it turned into ‘Sugar & Spice’, which is on YouTube. It’s kinda random and really depressing, but I thought it sounded tight. That’s when I knew it was going to be OK. ‘If Radiohead can make songs that sound this amazing, music is worth it and I should try and continue’.”
Fast-forward through several successful evolutions and Willow returned with ‘Lately I Feel Everything’ in July. A snarling, guitar-driven collection of songs that dealt with the growing pains of her generation, it saw her embrace the gnarlier world of alt-rock, pop-punk and grunge. Willow says of her fourth record, “The zeitgeist is shifting towards a more rock-influenced sound right now”, but insists it wasn’t a deliberate attempt to reconnect with the mainstream. Instead, she says, it was “just perfect timing – 100 per cent a happy coincidence”.
She continues: “This record is an amalgamation of everything that I wanted to be when I was 13. It’s not just about the crazy guitar riffs or driving drums. The angst, the darkness and the moodiness were very important to me.”
The record pays homage to ’00s guitar music, but she isn’t afraid to take the genre to new places to speak to where she and the world are at right now. ‘Grow’, her easycore anthem of self-acceptance, features scene legend Avril Lavigne and sees Willow sing: “No one ever truly knows just who they are / And I feel closer knowing I don’t have to hide my scars.” Meanwhile, the slow-burning ‘Naïve’ finds her wide-eyed in the face of political turmoil: “We got shot by rubber bullets at a protest in the Bronx / And I never notice when the night goes sour.” On tracks the thundering ‘Lipstick’ and the dreamy ‘Xtra’, she’s frank about her struggles with mental health.
Some may have been shocked by former child star Willow Smith returning with a rousing rock album, but she’s always dabbled with heavier music – and teamed up with producer Tyler Cole in 2020 to create side-project The Anxiety. Their self-titled record was a 10-track indie collection that came alongside a 24-hour art installation which saw Willow and Cole lock themselves in a glass box and work through the stages of anxiety: paranoia, rage, sadness, numbness, euphoria, strong interest, compassion and acceptance. Earlier in her career, there was the bass-driven ‘RandomSong’ on ‘Ardipithecus’ while ‘The 1st’ featured ‘Human Leech’, a snarling grunge track.
“Travis Barker is just pop-punk royalty”
In fact, Willow’s been a fan of heavy music since childhood. She’d regularly sit side-of-stage, watching her mum Jada front heavy-metal group Wicked Wisdom. This introduced her to that world, but also to seeing her mother subjected to racist, sexist abuse when she took to the stage. In the ’00s, metal was very much a white, male space.
Willow says of her mother’s influence: “She showed me what being a woman is really all about. There are literally no words to describe having to get up in front of people who literally hated her, every night. She did it with such grace and power. And at every single show, she won them over. By the end of the show, the people who were calling her racial slurs and throwing things at her were like, ‘Actually, they kinda went off’. That made it really worth it.”
While the rock scene has become more diverse and accepting in recent years with acts such as Nova Twins, Meet Me @ The Altar, De’Wayne and Fever 333 breaking through, women of colour are still very much in the minority. Willow doesn’t feel she has anything to prove with this record “but just a road to continue down. My mum did her thing, as did so many other beautiful black women like [US metalcore band] Straight Line Stitch’s Alexis White. It’s not about proving anything; it’s about continuing the legacy.”
The legacy may have been her first foray into rock, but it was pop-punk groups such as Blink-182, My Chemical Romance and Paramore she really connected with as a teen, drawn to their emotionally intense but accessible music. So why has it taken so long for Willow to really explore that style for herself?
“It’s a mixture of a few things,” she tells us. “I had so much respect for the rock genre, but I didn’t know if I could give it exactly what it needed. I was trained very specifically as an R&B singer and I had seen my mum screaming and doing it so perfectly. For a really long time, I just didn’t feel like I would measure up.”
However, with time, experience and a lot of vocal work during the pandemic, Willow realised that she “didn’t have to make what I thought I needed it to be – I could make it my own”. She adds: “I could make it something truly unique and authentic to who I am as a person and a writer. I could make something that people didn’t even know they needed.”
Of her lifelong love affair with the genre, she explains: “There’s a certain level of reckless abandon that comes with rock music. Specifically, I think the magnitude of oppression that any minority in America has historically experienced, it puts something inside of us that makes us want to growl a little bit and scream. I think pop-punk is a very beautiful expression of that.”
“My mum did her thing, as did so many other beautiful black women. It’s about continuing the legacy”
Pop-punk renaissance man Travis Barker of Blink-182 – who’s also worked with rappers such as Machine Gun Kelly and Trippie Redd in recent years – features on three tracks on ‘Lately I Feel Everything’, with Willow hailing him as “pop-punk royalty”. “He’s the first person I think of when I think of pop-punk – well let’s be real, him and Avril Lavigne,” she says. “The proficiency and efficiency that they both have with their art and the execution of their vision is extremely inspiring.”
‘Lately I Feel Everything’ isn’t going to be a one-off expression, either. “I can see myself diving deeper and refining my musicianship,” Willow reveals. “Through refining my musicianship, I can execute new genres authentically and with quality. That’s really where I’m trying to be.”
Lately, she’s been hanging out with fellow Gen Z guitar heroes KennyHoopla, Remi Wolf and Beabadoobee, but seems more excited to explore those heavier influences she picked up from her mother. “Not to be racy and give things away, but some things are brewing in the metal regard,” she teases.
And how about a KennyHoopla collab? “Oh, 100 per cent!” she giddily replies. “We’ve definitely been throwing around ideas and getting in the studio to have fun, so I definitely feel like something’s gonna come soon.”
Because of who her parents are, and how she got into the industry, Willow knows she has to push back against expectations and questions about her authenticity. “I wouldn’t say I have to prove myself, but I have an obligation to give more of myself,” she says. “I’ve got to really try. So much has been handed to me and if I’m not going to put my whole foot in the music, the art, and really try to refine my skill, then what am I doing?”
Earlier this year, after appearing on Red Table Talk, she made headlines when she revealed she was polyamorous (engaging in multiple romantic and sexual relationships at once). “With polyamory, I think the main foundation is the freedom to be able to create a relationship style that works for you and not just stepping into monogamy because that’s what everyone around you says is the right thing to do,” she explained to her mother and grandmother while the whole world was listening.
Today, Willow tells us how she’s open about her sexuality in the hopes of normalising it: “So many people live [in] so many different kinds of ways. The one thing that humans have never been good at is accepting that people are different. It’s about time we started getting good at that, though. As long as people are being honest and compassionate, how they live has nothing to do with you.”
Likewise, she sings in-depth about her struggles with mental health and anxiety. “At first it was to get my emotions out, because otherwise I might explode and have a panic attack,” she explains, “but the after-effect of that is that it can help others, which I’m so glad about.”
Willow sees a side of how much power and influence she has through using her voice for good, but admits, “but I don’t see the whole picture”, adding: “A lot of people might think, because I have resources or am supported in so many ways, that those things don’t come into account. But we all feel lonely. We all feel like we don’t have a purpose. We all need to find the reason to get up everyday and continue. I want people to know that we all feel that. As humans, I hope we can connect on that and be kinder to one another and more understanding.”
That message is more important to Willow than whatever genre it’s broadcast through. “Even if my music was trash and I wasn’t talented at all, I would 100 per cent still want to have the content of self-love, love for the planet, love for each other and unconditional compassion,” she adds. “That’s so important to me.”
As part of this mission, she will join fellow Gen Z rockstar Billie Eilish on the road as support for Eilish’s Happier Than Ever US tour in February and April next year. The entire support bill is a who’s-who of scene-shaping rising superstars: Arlo Parks, Girl In Red, Duckwrth, Jessie Reyez. Asked what it means to be part of the line-up, Willow says she’s “honoured” to be alongside “a young woman who isn’t afraid to just be completely uniquely herself and so talented while she does that”.
Before the year is out, though, Willow is taking to London’s Electric Ballroom in Camden for that one-off show next week – and she’s more than ready to step up to a rock-ready British crowd. “I just feel like this music specifically hits differently in that demographic,” she says. “I’m really excited to see how that turns out. To be able to be together and share that mutual love and excitement for one another, is everything.”
Playing live gives Willow the chance to bring her messages of community, acceptance and self-expression to glorious, guitar-driven life. The room will be her whole free-loving rock dream made manifest. Welcome to Willow’s world.
“The one thing that I want my music to give to people is a place to feel seen and a place to feel free,” she says. “I just want more acceptance and compassion – people just be compassionate to people and have an open mind.”
Willow performs at London’s Electric Ballroom in Camden on Thursday December 9. ‘Lately I Feel Everything’ is out now via Roc Nation