Mere days before the world went into lockdown, Willow Smith locked herself inside a 20-foot box at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art for 24 straight hours. She did so in the name of performance art, inviting guests to silently watch through a glass pane as she and her frequent musical collaborator, Tyler Cole, cycled through what they describedas the “eight stages of anxiety.” For many, the COVID-19 pandemic will be remembered as a time when our collective mental health was shaken. But for the youngest child and only daughter of actors Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, the unheralded period of chaos that defined 2020 will stand out as the crucial time when she finally learned how to properly manage many aspects of her own anxieties.
Smith’s MoCA installation coincided with the release of an album with Cole, titled The Anxiety, and, like that 10-song effort, found the pair working through their respective histories with the disorder. The 20-year-old singer intended for the exhibition to raise awareness about anxiety; still, she had no idea how personally cathartic the experience would prove to be. Just over a year later, she reflects now on the day-long experience as “emotional turmoil.” The extended time in “the box,” as the face of Onitsuka Tiger describes it, forced her to confront some uncomfortable truths and emotions. But where she might have once been able to distract herself with any number of other diversions, the then-worsening pandemic – and the worldwide quarantine it mandated – left the newly-minted performance artist alone to wrestle with everything head-on.
“It was a crazy parallel,” says Smith, joking that she crawled out of a literal box only to immediately exchange it for a more symbolic one. But like many musicians before her, she used the free time to dive headfirst into new music. Only this time, it was different. The Anxiety was the product of a 19-year-old only recently coming to terms with the fact that she had long been wrestling with the condition. By the time she began recording her new music, however, Smith, who still realises that she’ll never be able to truly “conquer” her anxiety and the insecurity that comes with it, had at least been armed with a set of new tools meant to help contend with it.
With so much about her changing on the inside, all while the world seemed to be crashing and burning outside, it’s no wonder Smith found herself desperately seeking out “a new journey, a new goal” during quarantine. She eventually discovered it in the beloved sounds of her youth – namely, pop-punk artistes of the aughts like My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, and Paramore. The stylistic shift finds the young performer in good company, as the genre is currently experiencing a widespread cultural resurgence, thanks to the popularity of artistes like Machine Gun Kelly and The Kid Laroi, trending challenges on TikTok, and Kourtney Kardashian’s very public current relationship with Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker.
Smith, typically a producer of experimental R&B and singer-songwriter-indebted pop, had experimented with rock-adjacent sounds before (most prominently on The Anxiety, and also on earlier tracks, like “Human Leech,” from her 2017 album The 1st), but for a long time, she was fearful of fully stepping into this new arena, despite her longtime reverence for the genre and the culture surrounding it.
At least part of this fear stemmed from what she thought was a limit to her vocal range. After spending over a decade comfortably crooning over sultry production, the shift in genre would force Smith to expand her vocal palette. On “Transparent Soul,” the lead single from her new project, for example, Smith gives into pop-punk’s token bratty speed-shouting in the song’s verses but blends that with soaring vocals in the title-referencing chorus. The singer personally reached out to Barker to ask him to contribute percussion, which he does on several of the album’s tracks. And when combined with her own skillful guitar-shredding, the propulsive emo energy of Blink’s best work shines through.
Coincidentally, the other aspect of Smith’s insecurity was also key to her eventual inspiration. From the ages of four to 10, Smith accompanied her mom on tour – around the same time she became a box office sensation thanks to The Matrix, Jada was the frontwoman for nu-metal band Wicked Wisdom. Such were some of the younger Smith’s first musical experiences, and predictably, watching her mom keep crowd after crowd entertained had a profound impact on the impressionable child. Also influential were some of the unsavory facets that affect black women in the rock realm. “My mom got so much hate,” she admits. “It was intense racism and sexism, just packed on to the tens. People giving her death threats, throwing glass at her onstage. Some crazy stuff went down when she was touring with her band.”
“I got to see that hate firsthand,” she continues. “It was so scary to me, and I think I internalised a little bit.” But as she worked through her anxiety in other parts of her life, the singer also found that she could shed some of the insecurities she had about her music, too. “Every time I feel that coming on, I just go back to my memories of my mom and how she would deal with actual physical danger – she just rose above it,” she adds. “Obviously, she was scared. But she really showed me what ‘womaning up’ really was, by taking a stance and not being afraid of other people’s judgements and perceptions. I really wanted to just go within that place in myself and try something new, regardless of what my insecurities were.”
And now, while she’s quick to correct anyone who might conflate the nu-metal of her mother’s Ozzfest-approved musical venture and the playful pop-punk of her own latest work, Smith is indeed proud to be carrying the torch for black women working under the rock umbrella. “I just wanted to fulfill that desire that I had ever since I was 10 or 12 of singing rock music, of being a black woman singing rock music,” she lets off, pausing ever so briefly to emphasise the word “black” in a way that effectively reveals how important representation is for her.
This importance pops up in other aspects of her work, too. Though music is Smith’s primary focus for the time being, she has also been working on several other projects on and off over the last few years. She’s been writing The Black Shield Maiden, a work of historical fiction, while also developing a six-years-in-the-making anime that she hopes to turn into a graphic novel. Both stories center black women who “struggle with the pushback they get in the world.”
Similarly, Smith feels a certain strength in her work with Onitsuka Tiger, specifically being a black woman serving as the fashion brand’s global ambassador. She describes the popular sports shoe as “some futuristic, but also utilitarian,” and admits to identifying with the Japanese brand’s history of going “full slay mode, full savage mode.” Then, there’s the fact that Bruce Lee, a hero of Smith’s, wore Onitsuka Tiger. “He was one of the most savage I’ve ever seen,” she jests.
On the topic of heroes, Smith lights up when asked about getting the chance to work with one of her childhood idols on the upcoming album – on a song called “Grow,” which features pop-punk fixture Avril Lavigne. The song finds the two singers trading verses about the never-ending pursuit for self-actualisation over throwback Barker drums and zippy guitars that easily recall some of Lavigne’s biggest hits. Smith wanted the single to be a juxtaposition between the “super angsty” energy of most pop-punk tracks and the “more evolved spiritual concept” that she had been exploring lyrically. The idea to recruit Lavigne came naturally, particularly since Smith figured that the singer, who famously signed a multi-million-dollar recording contract when she was only 16, would be able to relate to many of the song’s themes. As she explains, “I feel like our journeys of just figuring out who we are while being in the spotlight so young [had many similarities].”
Of course, being in the spotlight hasn’t been all bad. In recent years, Smith has become accustomed to sharing intimate details about her personal life in a very public way thanks to Red Table Talk, the Facebook Watch talk show she hosts alongside her mother and grandmother, Adrienne Banfield-Norris. And after speaking more freely about her interest in an episode from April 2021, the talk show’s resident Gen Z surrogate promises to have these discussions in even more detail on the upcoming album.
“It would be only right for my music to reflect my mental and emotional state at this time,” she responds about the topic. “I’ve really never been the type to talk a whole lot about romance in my music, but on this album, it definitely comes out a lot more.” Naturally, she credits her work at the Red Table with pushing her to feel more comfortable to “bring [these conversations] into my own [musical] space.” But she also thinks this kind of lyrical rawness is key to the ethos of her new sound. “It’s rock-and-roll, man!” she exclaims. “It just feels so good to feel like I have no secrets. I’m a transparent soul!”
But what about that other, older music – the music that didn’t address these topics, the music from her youth? Who could have predicted that this wise-beyond-her-years performer is the same one who, in 2010, recorded “Whip My Hair,” the free-soaring debut single that catapulted a then nine-year-old “Willow” into superstardom, seemingly overnight. Smith admits that, for a long time, she hated the song – an experience not unfamiliar to young pop stars who break out with a studio-manufactured radio hit years before they’re allowed to find their own sound. “For so long, I wanted to condemn that time of my life and forget it, just kind of push it under the rug,” she confesses. “I really regretted it.”
But recently, she’s begun to reconsider her stance. “I realised that the content in my songs has always been centered around self-love and the universe and our humanity’s divine path, about expressing oneself and being unapologetic,” she continues. “I listened to ‘Whip My Hair’ not too long ago, after many years, and realised that it’s the same message. I’m not saying anything that’s against my values, and on top of that, I’m saying things that are in harmony with my values. I kind of just had a huge aha and was like, ‘Yo, don’t condemn this side of your life because it gave you a foundation and a platform and a fan base of so many loving individuals who have been by my side through this whole crazy, topsy-turvy journey that I’ve had. Now, I would never take it back.’”
Like many things in her life, Smith credits this realisation to her connection with The Divine, the feminine spiritual power from which she derives much of her strength. She’s been honing this bond, in some form, since childhood thanks to her mom’s interest in a wide array of spiritual practices. Last year, she commemorated that reverence with Rise, a collaborative EP she recorded with Kirtan singer Jahnavi Harrison, and most recently, she had the connection permanently inked into her arm with an elaborate tattoo sleeve. The wise-speaking 20-year-old seems most grounded when detailing her spirituality; it’s no surprise that she sees the presence of The Divine “underlying” almost everything she comes into contact with.
In the months following her performance-art exhibit at MoCA, as Smith learned to manage her anxiety, experimented with new sounds, and eventually wrote her new record in its entirety, the young artiste was sure to keep up with her daily spiritual practices – especially yoga, which she’s been learning to treat as more of a lifestyle choice than a physical fitness exercise. At first glance, the quiet and peace usually associated with these mindfulness practices may seem at direct odds with the louder, brasher, and altogether more intense energy of the music she also recorded during this time. But for Willow Smith, the different energies all work together to create something truly harmonious and beautiful – just like the three different goddesses, Kuan Yin, Saraswati, and Kali, she now has emblemised onto her left arm.
Bonus: Watch Willow Smith Explain What True Love Means to Her
The L'Officiel Singapore August 2021 coverstar talks about all things love — her love of music, why she doesn't write love songs, and what she thinks love might sound like. Sharing the moment she first fell in love with music, Willow Smith is an open book. Earlier this year, she delved into her identity on her family's Facebook Watch show Red Table Talk, reflecting how the young talent continues to drive the conversation about relevant topics around gender, sexuality, and race. When it comes to love, Smith believes there are different types — but romantic love is the one that gets the most credit in the music industry. In this exclusive video for L'Officiel, Smith explains why she doesn't write love songs, but still puts her heart into each track.
Willow Smith wears ONITSUKA TIGER Fall/Winter 2021
PHOTOGRAPHY Miles Loftin
STYLING Jason Bolden
CINEMATOGRAPHER Kadar Small
HAIR Vernon François
MAKEUP Raoúl Alejandre
PROPS STYLIST Daniel Horowitz
PRODUCTION Dana Brockman VIEWFINDERS
PRODUCTION COORDINATOR Suze Lee VIEWFINDERS
LIGHTING TECH Evadne Gonzalez
PROPS ASSISTANT Jade Soensen
PRODUCTION ASSISTANT Chris Olsen