Willow Smith: My mom got so much hate, sexism and racism while touring
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Willow Smith is all grown up and it has seemingly happened right in front of our eyes. I remember the little girl whipping her hair back forth, singing the summer anthem about loving our natural tresses. For the last two years I have watched Willow grow from teenager to grown ass woman on Red Table Talk. Now Willow, who is more known for her pop and R&B songs, is returning to a genre that she has always loved but was afraid to approach, punk rock. Willow has a new profile in L’Officiel USA. She opened up about watching her mother, Jada, get racially abused when she used to tour with her nu-metal band, Wicked Wisdom. Willow said that experience gave her anxiety about stepping into the rock genre until recently. It was Jada’s courage and tenacity that eventually convinced Willow to “woman up” to pursue her dream of being a Black woman creating rock music. Below are a few more highlights from L’Officiel USA:
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, but 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 4 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 internalized 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 emphasize the word “Black” in a way that effectively reveals how important representation is for her.
The rock genre needs more Black musicians as it came from the Black community in the first place. I really am proud of Willow. I didn’t realize how talented she was until I saw her playing with Jada’s band for Jada’s birthday. I hope that Willow never allows haters to keep her from pursuing her dream. I want to hear Willow’s album, The Anxiety, because I just love listening to someone grow in their craft. (It’s out on July 16th.) Plus I used to suffer from major anxiety before I started practicing yoga and pranayamas so this album is right up my alley. Willow’s art installation before COVID is not necessarily my style but I am glad she is willing to put herself out there. I loved Whip My Hair and I used to play it for my kids when I taught English in S. Korea back in 2012. The kids loved the song and the Sesame Street rendition.
I have a feeling that we haven’t seen the best of Willow yet. To be fair she is only twenty and has a lot of years ahead of her. I like the fact that Willow is willing to reach out to people like Travis Barker to help out on her album. The fact that Travis contributed and basically gave her a seal of approval makes me like him even more. It’s been evident since Willow was a child that she is tenacious AF and isn’t one to back down from a challenge.
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