Willow Smith on Breaking the Mold–With or Without Your Permission

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“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.

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.

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