When we begin to talk about music and the art of creation, however, she immediately lights up. It’s been over a decade since Willow’s pop music debut and she’s become an unlikely leader of the mainstream punk/rock resurgence and an alternative, freer way of living. Around the world, people gravitate to Willow, whether it's due to her music or her vibrant personality on Red Table Talk, the Facebook Watch series she co-hosts with her mother and grandmother, Adrienne Bandfield-Norris (“Gammy”), in which they conduct topical and candid conversations with friends and family.
As the daughter of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, it would be easy to attribute Willow’s success solely to her famous lineage, but that would be a woeful miscalculation. Not only has she been determined not to exploit her inherited fame, but she has carved out her own distinctive, courageous path based on her own merits.
With her 22nd birthday being on Halloween, just a few days away, it seems like a cosmic coincidence for someone who is an expert in the art of reinvention. Starting her career at such a young age, however, she’s had to be.
“I started doing vocal lessons when I was turning 8,” she says. Approximately a year later, she recorded her iconic song, “Whip My Hair,” which was released in 2010. Ironically, the track wasn’t actually her choice for a debut single.
“Wow, this was so long ago,” she reflects. “I was just in the studio with some producers trying to figure out what it was that I was going to do. Then this track came along. It wasn’t my favorite. Everyone loved it, and they were like, ‘Let’s just record it. Let’s just see what comes out.’” So she did, but she wasn’t exactly “shitting my pants in excitement.”
“Everyone was like, ‘This is going to be a hit record and I was like, ‘Okay, I guess.’ Being 9, I didn’t really register,” she continues.
They were right. The song became a Top 40 hit in the U.S., peaking at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and reaching No. 2 on the U.K. charts, making Willow a Guinness World Records holder as the youngest artist with a top 20 single in both countries, a momentous achievement for a pre-teen. But it wasn’t just a formative moment in Willow’s career. It also played a pivotal part in RuPaul’s Drag Race herstory, during Roxxxy Andrews’ revolutionary wig reveal. “It’s so iconic,” Willow gushes. “I honestly shed a tear, the fact that I’m involved with this.”
What’s more, ballroom-dance icon and Legendary judge, Leiomy, appeared in the “Whip My Hair” music video, which Willow didn’t learn until recently. “I was watching Legendary and I was looking like, ‘I know her. Where do I know her from?’” She called her mom and was stunned to find out that Leiomy was in the clip’s classroom scene. “She’s a teacher and she whips her hair out and does a death drop. All the kids are like, ‘Hell yeah.’”
That same year, Willow followed “Whip My Hair” with “Fireball,” a forgotten dance track featuring Nicki Minaj that has been mysteriously scrubbed from streaming services. When I mention the song’s absence from her catalog, Willow responds wistfully. “Yeah…I know…very interesting, right? Different times. It is strange,” she says. “I’ve gone through a lot of things, to say the least. I’m the fireball of the party. What can I say?”
Though that era of Willow’s music seemed playful and joyous, she doesn’t recall it particularly fondly. “You can’t go back in time,” she says. “I just learned that, now, I have the control. Now, I have the mind and the wherewithal to create what I want to create, but there was a sort of anxiety attached to that. I was very keen to want to show the world who I really am, like now I have to do something different and show them that I’m not that.”
Willow’s metamorphosis from pre-teen pop star to alt-rocker is astounding. Her pivot to establish herself not just as a performer, but also an artist, was exemplified during a Facebook Watch concert last year where she transformed “Whip My Hair” into an almost unrecognizable punk rock song. She smirked while delivering the corny lines her 9-year-old self once uttered, and in the middle of a song about flinging one’s follicles, she shaved her head. It was an act of rebellion, a visceral reinvention and a fierce declaration: That’s not who I am anymore. This is me, now.
She first shaved her head when she was just 11 years old, less than two years after the release of “Whip My Hair.” At the time, she was worried that everyone would “think of me as the same kind of person forever. I’m never going to be able to get rid of this. I’m never going to be able to run away from this.” Cutting off that baggage felt like the only escape. “I can’t be the ‘Whip My Hair’ girl if I don’t have any hair,” she says.
“For our ancestors, hair has always been such a deep part of just who we are,” she continues, noting the sacred link between a woman and her hair. “Our connection to hair is very primal and very spiritual. It’s our cosmic roots, realistically.”
Willow shaved her head once again for The Anxiety, her 2020 performance art exhibit. Ahead of their joint album of the same name, Willow and her collaborator, musician, singer/songwriter, and actor, Tyler Cole, spent 24 hours in a glass box at the MoMA in Los Angeles, personifying eight stages of anxiety: paranoia, rage, sadness, numbness, euphoria, strong interest, compassion, and acceptance. The exhibit concluded with the shearing of Willow’s dreadlocks. “It was almost like I wanted to personify a new beginning,” she says. “If you’ve ever struggled with anxiety, it’s almost like layers and layers and layers of unresolved trauma.”
Currently, her head is shaved, so I ask if she’s going through another rebirth. Nope. “I like being bald,” she smiles. “I think that’s how I look best.” She’s now more comfortable living what she calls her “true tribal alien life.”
In 2015, after five years of trying to determine the kind of musician she wanted to be, Willow was still unsure of herself when releasing her experimental debut record Ardipithecus. “For a really long time, I thought that that album was so shitty,” she says. She couldn’t stand the messy stream-of-consciousness musings of the 14-year-old she once was, but fans loved it. “Wait A Minute!,” the album’s 13th track, is her most streamed song to date, and recently had a resurgence on TikTok. Over the next six years, Willow would release three more albums, including 2021’s pop-punk-leaning Lately I Feel Everything, which featured Travis Barker, Avril Lavigne and Tierra Whack.
Reflecting on her debut record, Willow says, “As an artist, you have to live and die by your own hand.” She was reminded of that after the Killswitch Engage, Animals as Leaders, and Lamb of God show in Los Angeles last month. During the car ride home from the concert, she revisited Ardipithecus and had an epiphany about the album. “The first thing that struck me was the depth of the content of the lyrics. I was saying some really, really deep things,” she says. “The second thing that struck me was the fact that it’s all of my production. That’s really, really crazy. The third thing that struck me was that even though it might not be the greatest-sounding project, I’ve always been a message – and above all else, I can call myself an artist, an author, an activist, a model, or whatever, but I’m not even any of those things. What I am is a walking message. Whatever that message is channeled through is what it's going to be.”
That message is more important than an idealized version of herself and her art, she realizes. “For so long, I had this anxiety of, I need to become a better musician, which I do. I need to become a better everything,“ she says. “But I’m not even a musician. I’m a message. The message is what hits people more than anything. Even though I spent painstaking hours working on my voice and guitar playing, which is also very important, the thing you can’t teach is intention. Connection to purpose. That’s what I realized.”
While Willow’s intensive soul-searching can be exhausting, she stresses its necessity. “We take self-analysis to unhealthy levels sometimes, but self-analysis is the vehicle of becoming the person that you really want to be,” she says. “Let me observe this and really let it sink in and not just judge it because my ego wants to be like, ‘This hurts. This sucks.’ But what is this going to teach me? And how can this experience or this observation make me a better person?”
Her introspection also pays off in her art. You can actually see Willow’s wisdom in her eyes during her live appearances, including the two Saturday Night Live spots she landed this year. In April, she accompanied “Havana” singer Camila Cabello on their ethereal tune “Psychofreak.”
Cabello, who was a fan of Willow before they worked together, says, “She’s so open and magical. She’s a creative force. What drew me to her was her vulnerability and her sense of artistic integrity. You can tell she makes art because she loves it.” She notes that Willow now “feels like a little sis’ to me.”
Six months later, Willow performed her more metal-leaning new song “ur a stranger.” Rocking a bald head and a leather tank top, she broke into screams and dropped an uncensored F-bomb. Sorry, FCC. Yelling at the top of her lungs on national television was cathartic in and of itself, but she took it one step further when she smashed her guitar – along with any notion that she’s not a total rock star – into pieces.
Fans of her parents or Red Table Talk might not have anticipated Willow’s punk energy, but bucking expectations is a rite of passage, especially for Black women who deal with societal racism and misogyny. When the world is determined to see you one way, do you go along with it and make yourself fit, or do your grit your teeth and fight against it at every possible juncture?
If her rebellious spirit lands her in the arena of the Angry Black Woman trope, so be it. “If you look at history and you look at what the Black woman has had to endure, what other emotion are we going to have?” It’s not a pejorative, she believes. “We shouldn't be afraid of that stereotype. We should be like, ‘Okay, yes, and, let me tell you why.’ There are 15 million reasons. I’m not just angry for nothing. I’m not just angry because nothing ever happens. I’m angry because there are hundreds and hundreds of years of really just unfair abuse and violation and violence. Even our own men turn on us. That also hurts. I think we need to come together and be more compassionate toward one another, Black women as well.”
Willow has felt obligated to just grin and bear it a few too many times in her life. She recalls when she went to the restroom in a restaurant and returned to the table to find that the waiter had assumed she’d dined and dashed. She wasn’t sure how to respond, let alone that when he came back with the bill, he added that he was a big fan of her music.
She shares another unsettling anecdote that is similar to a scene in the Jennifer Lopez-led film Selena. “I was working at a very reputable fashion brand and I went into the store. I was the ambassador at the time,” she says. “I went in and I was like, ‘Oh, I have an account here,’ and I gave them my name.” The employee replied, ‘You must be mistaken.’” Admittedly, Willow says she “looked a little hobo-ish. I don’t dress up every day. But that’s no excuse. I went in and there’s a picture of me right there.” Willow looked “to the wall and I look to the chick and I look to the wall and she’s like, ‘Oh my God.’ Obviously, I didn’t get what I was going to get because I felt so humiliated. It wasn’t a good feeling.”
Even though these prejudicial characterizations turned to admiration and regret once Willow was recognized, the implications are palpable. Still, while she acknowledges the pain from these experiences, she won’t be defeated by them.
“I’m not going to be beaten down by this,” she says. “I look back and I’m just like, what else are we supposed to feel? Things are changing, but in the grand scheme of things. Each step is a beautiful step we take and we should honor and cherish that, but there’s still so much that needs to be done, and there’s still so much that really hasn’t changed.”
It’s not just Black women. We all need “to give ourselves the freedom to purge these emotions. Here’s the thing, you can’t fully heal from something unless you’ve fully felt it – and for a long time, we’ve been not fully feeling it, trying to push it down and push it away and not think about it and not talk about it. But you have to feel it and you have to let it come up and you have to fully express it to heal and transcend it. We’re not going to let it go, but to heal it.”
Every feeling comes to the surface one way or another. Her new album, Coping Mechanism, is angry and reflective, soft and vengeful, horny and depressed. “Making the album was an emotional and psychic purge,” she says. “I think that makes the best art.”
This album has some of her best work to date, she says. It’s about a painful breakup with a girlfriend, taking responsibility for what went wrong, accepting fault, and unleashing pent-up emotion. “The purge of who you were before,” she says. “You cocoon, then you come out as a butterfly. That sounds very cliché, but there’s really no other way I could say it. A caterpillar turning into a butterfly is primal…it's natural…but it's also magical. It can be both things at once. It can be messy. It can be uncomfortable. It can be scary. But it can also be beautiful, fantastic, and magical. It can be very earthly and also very spiritual, also very cosmic. I like to accept those dualities. With my songwriting, it's just an expression of who I am. When you’re learning to love who you are, it’s all spiritual.”
Willow remains vague as to who the lyrics are about and exactly what happened, and when I ask about her experience with polyamory, she skirts the question and goes off on a tangent. “The problems that I see most in relationships are…If you Google why people break up, number one is money. Number two is infidelity, or people wanting to do different things. This has been happening since the Greeks and the Romans To me, it feels so played out, just this constant back and forth,” she says.
“We can make spaceships, we can make iPhones, but we can’t figure out how to let the person we say we love experience their life the way they want to experience it,” she continues. “That blows my mind. In practice, it's very different, it’s a struggle. Some people can vibe with [polyamory] more than others. Some people have a certain kind of love language and some people don’t, and that’s completely okay. I think it's about knowing what really works for you and having the freedom to really lay that out.”
Willow came out as polyamorous to her mother, grandmother, and the world at large on Red Table Talk last year, openly expressing her desire to maintain romantic relationships with more than one person simultaneously.
Moving forward, she is focused on not repeating past mistakes, about which she speaks candidly. “The biggest problem that I came up against was trying to take the high road and be the mature one. It gets you into a place where you’re actually not being honest. You’re just trying to say the right thing. That is deeply detrimental, specifically in an open or poly relationship,” she says.
“Now, what I’m learning is even if you don’t like the way you feel, you have to express it, and express it without the judgment of ‘Well, this isn’t very evolved,’ she adds. “That was my biggest mistake, trying to be mature. You would think that it would not be that, but it's very counterintuitive when you actually get down to what actually creates sustainable communication between two people. That can be deeply simple and deeply complicated. The harsh honesty and maybe the messy vulnerability is better than the fake maturity any day.”
Willow learned this the hard way. “I hate being messy but in order to heal something, you have to let it come up. There’s a lyric in ‘BATSHIT!’ that says, ‘murdering my ego with a hatchet / you’ll never understand.’ It gets messy. If you’re really trying to get rid of your ego and really trying to learn someone selflessly, that’s going to be messy at first, until you go into the learning process. Some people just don’t want to go into the process. The process is long and difficult. I’m not in the process right now. I took a break from the process. That process gave me Coping Mechanism. I created something out of it. I’ll get back on the process very soon. Even thinking about it makes me exhausted.”
Though she has stepped away from self-analysis momentarily, Willow remains committed to her mental health and well-being. As a result, she’s taking time away from substances. “My problem is the extremes,” she shares. She loves smoking weed but “once I start smoking, I’m smoking every day. I would love to be able to just do it casually. Not doing it at all is easy and doing it every day is easy, but the middle is not easy for me. It’s so weird. So I’m trying to figure out that middle ground. If I can’t figure out that middle ground, I think it’s best if I just stay sober.” She says she really doesn’t “have a plan of how long it's going to be, but I do feel so much better.”
Sobriety means reevaluating what she does for recreation. “I smoked weed and went to the bar with my friends. That’s fun but that’s not like core real fun,” she says. “We’re getting inebriated and we’re going crazy…because that’s what you do when you’re inebriated, but trying to find that pure childhood self-expression, that’s spiritual.”
What’s sparking that spiritual feeling for her now? Nature, doing nothing, walking her dogs, the movie Slumdog Millionaire, and stickers. “I went to the store to buy some stickers, and the amount of joy…” she laughs. “Hundreds of stickers.” For fun, she also writes. “I’ve been writing a book for six years. I’ve been writing a graphic novel for close to seven years now. I don’t really have time to write anything else because I’m just trying to get these done.”
Willow spent a long time running from her youth, but now she’s embracing it gleefully. You can’t divorce yourself from who you were, she’s realized. Whether she likes it or not, she is the “Whip My Hair” girl. She is the daughter of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. She is the bald girl. She is the screaming “FUCK” on national TV girl. She is her softness. She is her anxiety. She is her joy. She is exactly who she wants to be now, and every incarnation that came before. “I’ve now come to terms with the fact that I’m all of it. I’m all these different things. That’s a beautiful thing,” she says.
Who will Willow Smith become next? There’s no specific agenda, but she does “want to learn how to play the cello,” she says, pausing before she continues. “And I want to completely get rid of my ego. Those two things are very difficult. The cello seems like the closer thing.”