Digital Cover: Willow’s Rock Revival
Willow Smith is forging the path for Black women in punk rock music and graces her V Magazine digital cover donning Valentino’s Roman Palazzo Collection and Cartier’s emblematic hardware.
Black women rock. They have always had a presence in rock music from ‘70s and ‘80s icons like X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene to 2000s punk rock cult-favorite Fefe Dobson. Though there’s still a lazy stereotype that associates Black female singers with R&B and soul, there is a burgeoning shift as mainstream culture starts to welcome the overdue inclusion and diversity in a genre that is led generally by white men.
Willow Smith is not one to abide by cultural standards in any regard, but especially concerning her musical repertoire. Smith’s early musical stages explored stomping pop with “Whip My Hair,” and over time she ventured into spiritually charged depths with experimental ballads on her eponymous EP’s Willow and The Anxiety but she always came back to her early taste for punk.
In Smith’s formative years, her mother Jada Pinkett Smith—herself the lead singer of punk rock band, Wicked Wisdom—introduced Willow to Tennessee-based metal band Straight Line Stitch, led by a Black woman, Alexis Brown, now known as Alexis White. The band made waves amid the underground metal scene, from 2000 to 2015.
Unbeknownst to White, she would eventually influence and inspire 20-year-old Smith to pursue her own punk rock dreams leading up to her latest pop-rock single and ‘90s teen angst music video for “Transparent Soul,” featuring Blink-182’s iconic drummer, Travis Barker.
Diving deep into the evolution of Black women in punk rock and metal and the injustices that come along with them, Smith and White come together for a discussion long in the making, as if paired by the rock gods themselves, as she embarks on a new musical journey.
Alexis White: I’ve read in interviews that you traveled with your mom while she was on tour. Was she the one that inspired you when you were younger to do music?
Willow Smith: Wow, that’s a really good question. Both of my parents just constantly had me in the studio with them while they were working, doing so many different things. I was exposed to a lot of different walks of life at a very, very young age. I think that seeing my mom on stage and how she commanded the music and the band just made me realize that’s what I want to be. I want to be that strong woman who is putting it all out there on the stage. I think that it was mostly her with just a mixture of always being around different kinds of entertainment.
AW: You were super young when “Whip My Hair” came out. I remember when that video came out, everybody was posting it on my Facebook. So, I guess what I’m wanting to ask is that when you started out—and you started out so young—did you aspire to do anything else besides music?
WS: I started dancing at the age of seven. I think that was around the time that I was starting to get into doing music. But I had made a GarageBand song on the set of Karate Kid in China, and I brought it to my parents. I remember being so excited going, “Guys, I really think this is what I wanna do. I really think I want to sing.” And the first thing that they said to me was, “Are you sure?” And I was like, “Yeah. I’m sure.” And they said, “Okay, we just want to make sure because it’s going to be a lot of work. We just want you to know that you’re really young. And most of the people who do this are much older than you, and you have to handle a lot more pressure.” They told me right off the bat. I was so young that I just didn’t really believe them. And lo and behold, I got to a place where it was just too much. I just needed to take a step back and figure out what I wanted to do.
AW: I can relate, because I started singing when I was itty-bitty. It’s all I ever wanted to do. I was just dead set on, like, “I’m gonna be a singer and I don’t care.” And my mom supported me and my brother supported me, but my dad was just like, “Is this going to put food on the table? Is this gonna be able to pay for you, have shelter and stuff like that?” And I was so dead set [on being a performer]. For me, it was like, “this is what I want to do and I’m going to do it.”
I have to say, he did come around and is now my biggest fan. But I see you with your family and, without a doubt, you have support. Your closeness with your brother definitely reminds me of the relationship I share with my older brother who actually introduced me to the metal genre. I wanted so badly to be an R&B singer, but it did not work out. I used to tape-record myself, and I hated the sound of my voice. Then, as I got older, and when I got to school, I put together a little girl group. Back in the day, R&B was all love songs. I didn’t know what that was about. I was in middle school! So, it was tough. I was just bummed out because all I wanted to do was sing.But then, my brother introduced me to Pantera, and when he introduced me to Korn, I lost my mind. I wanted to be [Korn’s frontman] Jonathan Davis.
WS: Honestly, that was how I felt when my mom introduced me to Straight Line Stitch. But it’s different when you’re a teenager, you don’t really want a fangirl for your mom, you know? So when I saw you, it was like, “Whoa, this is a thing!” This isn’t just a phenomenon that I experienced in my life, more Black women are into this. That’s why I wanted us to do this interview because, I feel it was just [such an important] part of my life in seeing that when I did.
AW: I’m so humbled by that!
WS: So, I just want you to know that inspiration carries far.
AW: And, you know what? I really do appreciate it because it’s not about me, it’s about you. You have the torch now, you go, girl! My time is over, it has passed. But it’s so nice that the newer generation can see what we’ve done, your mother, and myself. We did something that carries some weight.
WS: But being a Black woman in the metal crowd is very, very different on top of the pressures that the music industry puts on you. Now, it’s like an added pressure of the metal culture, the metal world, and just rock in general. I used to get bullied in school for listening to Paramore and My Chemical Romance.
AW: Yeah, there’s a lot of,“Hey, you’re Black. You’re not supposed to listen to that.”
WS: Exactly! And it’s not okay. Just through the music that I’m putting out right now and the representation that I can bring to the mix, I just hope that the Black girls who are listening to my music and listening to this album see that there’s more of us out there. It’s a real thing, you’re not alone. You’re not the only Black girl who wishes she could flip her hair to the side, and wear black eyeliner, you know what I mean?
AW: I remember Black girls would come out to the shows, and they would have their hair braided and colored. And they were like, “I just love being out here because I love this music. Back at school or back at home, they don’t accept me.” I want people to know that music doesn’t have to have a color. I always heard “heavy metal belongs to the white people.” I hated that so much because why is it about color?
AW: I read that when your mother toured with her band, some audiences did not receive her well and were not very nice to her. Is that true?
WS: Yes, she actually got lots of death threats. It would be mostly through letters, though. When she was on stage, people would say violent things and throw shit at her. Luckily, Jaden and I never got caught in any physical crossfire. I used to get sneaked into her shows on the security’s shoulders, put my hands up, and just rock out. I never saw anything violent be done to her, it was a lot of verbal harassment.
AW: Earlier, you said you were bullied in school. So was I, and I think with the harsh treatment that I received at school, I learned to internalize things. I would just try to use music as an outlet.
WS:Metal is perfect for internalized anger!
AW: Music was totally an outlet for me. But it wasn’t until we did our first major tour after we got signed, that I didn’t really have my eyes open until we played Detroit. Then you had the Neo-Nazis who came out. When I tell you they heckled me the whole show, calling me the N-word. I was humiliated. I think I ran off the stage and cried. I was so embarrassed because I felt like it wasn’t even about me being a female on stage because, if it was a white girl rocking out, they’d be like, “She’s sexy.” I was devastated because this is for real. To not like me because of the color of my skin? It’s a very real thing.
WS: This is why it’s so important to talk about this. Everything that I do, I want it to be a mixture of activism and artistry. I’ve always wanted to do this type of music and always been so afraid to do so because of exactly the reason that you’re saying. And because I saw the hate and verbal abuse that my mom had to go through, that stuck with me.
AW: You can cut a record and do shows but it means more when you actually are standing for something. A lot of us Black women, we don’t have a voice sometimes. And especially in the metal genre–forget about it. You have to work 10 times harder.
WS: Yes, 100 percent.
AW: It’s not just about you and it’s not just about me, but it’s about us as Black women. You can do anything. Rock, rap, country, all of it. It’s exciting because no one should be able to put a limit on what we can do. It’s been a minute since I’ve been in the scene, but do you feel embraced as your music explores the rock genre?
WS: I feel embraced. I posted a guitar riff from one of my favorite bands, System of a Down, that I had learned. One of the bassists reposted it on his Instagram, and I was so excited. Then I’m looking at the comments, and it’s just a lot of hate. It’s just a lot of white men, and I’m not going to throw shade because it is what it is.
AW: Do you find that you’re paving your own way?
WS: It’s crazy that you said that you wanted to be an R&B singer because I was trained to be one. I felt like I couldn’t really do rock because my voice was trained to be a certain way. For a really long time, I was like, “Oh, I don’t think it’ll be authentic; I’ll just sound like an R&B singer trying to be a rock singer.” I tried this over quarantine and wanted to do something different. I wanted to shake something up and feel a different vibe. I feel very stagnant in this pandemic, so I started just messing around. It took a couple of demos to find that right balance because I do have a very alternative voice. My voice is not specifically an R&B voice, and it’s not specifically a rock voice. It kind of does whatever it wants when it feels like it. I was worried about that! “Transparent Soul” was the fourth or fifth demo that I did whenI felt that balance. But there were a few songs before that, that just didn’t hit the mark.
AW: I watched the [“Transparent Soul”] music video and I thought, “Wow, stunning.” How did you come up with all that? Like the visuals and everything, and the concept of the video.
WS: I was reading a book by a spiritual teacher called Radhanath Swami. There was a quote in the book that said: “A saintly person is so pure that when you are in the presence of a saintly person, they act like a spotless mirror and they reflect your inner truth back to you.” And sometimes, that can be terrifying because sometimes we don’t know our inner truth. I wanted to have that pop-punk, angsty teen party vibe, but mix it with this spiritual, extraterrestrial, psychedelic feeling. I don’t know if you caught this, but in the beginning of the video, I’m being really mean to everyone.
AW: I can see that! I was like, what’s going on? She’s mad!
WS: Basically what I wanted to show was–this character in such a state of unconsciousness. This character is going around drinking and smoking and just wreaking havoc on everyone. I wanted them to have a moment where they had to come in contact with their higher self and have a come-to-Jesus moment. When I’m talking to myself in the mirror, and I’m like, “I knew a girl just like you,” I’m reflecting on my pain. I’m reflecting on my insecurities, on my darkness inside. Healing is very scary. So when my hand is shaking, going to touch the being, even though I’m afraid, I’m choosing to try to be better.
AW: Wow. I love that! Do you feel like with this single–I could tell just by you speaking on it– there’s a maturity there, but do you feel like you’ve grown as an artist with the single?
WS: One hundred percent. Even just the fact that I did a song like this, and I haven’t made a music video in–I don’t know how long. Music videos aren’t my thing. I find music videos to be very stressful to execute. And I haven’t done a music video in forever, so this was like the first music video that I’ve done
AW: That’s awesome. I love what it’s about because, in its truest form, that’s what we all need. We need to check ourselves. I want to talk about fashion. Can you tell us about your current fashion style?
WS: It’s a little bit of grunge, a little bit of punk. I’m trying to go for a more psychedelic feeling. I don’t want to do the regular, grunge, punk vibe. I want to bring something a little weird into it. That’s not usually there in fashion.
AW: You pick who you want to be! You can hear from people and get people’s advice, but at the end of the day, you make the choices of who and how you create yourself to be. It’s good that you have your power. You keep your power. Don’t let anybody take that from you.
WS: I know what it feels like to not have that power and that’s why I fight really hard to have it.
AW: Then keep it. Don’t let them take it from you because I’ve been there. So what are your go-to pieces?
WS: Right now, I definitely would have to say there are these Onitsuka Tiger shoes that I really love, they have this chunky base. They’re so unique and that’s the weird touch that I feel like I’m putting into my style. Those shoes make the punk look, not all punk. There’s a futuristic, psychedelic, trippy thing happening here. I love those shoes for that reason.
AW: Well, that’s awesome. So what else have you been up to in the fashion world? You’ve had some other cool partnerships, like your ambassadorship with Cartier.
WS: Cartier was doing the Pasha watch campaign and I got to model the watch alongside a couple of other young visionaries and artists. It was just really dope. I love doing things that revolve around art and creativity. I feel like doing that campaign for Cartier connected me with so many beautiful people that I love, respect, and would want to create art with in the future.
For this shoot, I’m dripping in Valentino. I’m beyond grateful and honored to be able to start this new musical journey. And it is a new fashion journey because I feel like all of my different musical vibes are me. I don’t feel like I need to change as much, but this is the first time that I’ve been putting out this many visuals. It’s cool to just exercise that other part of me a little bit more because I haven’t really done that in the past.
AW: So can you talk a little bit about the album? We just got a little bit of it, so what’s next?
WS: I am going to be having a lot more features on this album. On my previous albums, I was in the studio by myself a lot. It was a very insular process for this album. I wanted to open myself up a little bit more and not just be so anti-social in the studio. I’m so excited that I’m going to be having a song on the album with Avril Lavigne. She is so iconic. From [ages] 13 to 16, she was my idol. It’s really nice to be able to have a quintessential pop-punk record with the pop-punk queen.
AW: Do you think you’re going to stay in the rock genre or punk pop-rock, or are you just going to go wherever the music takes you
WS: I’m going to go wherever the music is, but I love pop-punk a lot. But, where my heart lies, is metal. At some point, that’s definitely going to happen.
AW: I love that! Is there a tour on the horizon?
WS: Yes, I’m planning that as we speak.
AW: I love that you are doing your thing. I love that you stay true to yourself. I wish you nothing but the best. God just has a way of work that came out of the blue. I was just like, me? I’m humbled to be here. I’m humbled just talking to you. I get to see a glimpse of the future
WS: I want to say thank you for being so instrumental in paving a way for modern Black women in rock. It’s really just that simple.