Eleven years ago, aged just 10 and a half, Willow Smith was done with being famous. Off the back of her breakout hit, Whip My Hair, a Rihanna-esque banger that played on repeat across playgrounds and dancefloors for weeks, she had landed a prestigious slot supporting Justin Bieber on tour. The whole family flew out for her opening night in Birmingham, on 4 March 2011. She slayed that night, and the next, and the next. But when the lights went up at the end of the last European gig, she came off stage and declared, “I’m finished, Daddy. I’m ready to go home.”
Daddy – also known as Will Smith – told her that, no, she wasn’t done, because she had signed on for a slew of dates in Australia. End of discussion – or so he thought, he wrote in his 2021 memoir, until a few mornings later, when “Willow came skipping into the kitchen for breakfast. ‘Good morning, Daddy,’ she said joyfully, as she bounced to the refrigerator. My jaw nearly dislocated, dislodged, and shattered on the kitchen floor: my world-dominating, hair-whipping, future global superstar was totally bald. During the night, Willow had shaved her entire head. My mind raced – how was she going to whip her hair if she didn’t have any? Who the hell wants to pay to watch some kid whip their head back and forth?”
“I felt like I had no control,” is how Willow remembers the incident today. “That was the part that wasn’t cool for me. I felt so powerless. But because I was so young, I didn’t have enough experience for people to trust my opinions. So I just said, ‘I can’t do this.’” After that came “maybe two or three years when I wasn’t in the studio. I was just going to school and doing my thing, and that was really nice.” But she missed music, which “is a huge joy in my life. And I came to realise I love performing and recording. I just wanted to be steering my own ship.”
So, taking the preternatural poise and electric aura that powered Whip My Hair’s more than 230m YouTube views to date, she found her own path, navigating from pop through pop-punk to full-blown rock. Today she bounces into a London studio fresh from a live set at Reading festival, which came straight after a summer tour opening for Machine Gun Kelly in the US, and days away from the launch of her fifth studio album.
In front of the camera, Willow Smith seems older than her 21 years. She has a face like a cut diamond, with cheekbones that catch the light from every angle as if she is lit by her own personal spotlight. She arrived on set in oversized loungewear and Vans, but is unfazed to be handed a fuchsia pink leather Prada trenchcoat and looks immediately at home in oversized burnt orange Gucci tailoring. She poses with patient concentration, peeling off to roll her own cigarettes in a corner between shots. But when the crew are packing up and it is just me and her, she seems suddenly younger. She ignores the on-set catering (avocado toast, yoghurt with chopped fruit and organic almonds) in favour of a ham and cheese toastie from Pret a Manger, which she eats standing up, leaving the crusts in the packet. Then she changes back into her own tracksuit bottoms and T-shirt, sitting opposite me with her hoodie balled up on her lap like a comfort blanket, baring an intricately inked arm. I ask her when she got her first tattoo – the seed of life symbol – and she thinks for a minute and says it was about two years ago, when she was 21. This confuses both of us, because she’s still 21 now. “Yeah, it was on my 21st birthday that I got the first one. Huh. That feels like a while ago.” I guess life comes at you fast when you’re on the global stage.
As it happens, Willow is the same age her dad was when the first series of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air taped in 1990 and the resemblance is, for those of us who have strong memories of that show, frankly uncanny. The almond-shaped eyes, affable yet imperious beneath long lashes, have the same heady mix of charm and glamour. But it is the gestures that are most strikingly similar. She has a habit of jutting her chin at the end of each sentence that is precisely that of Will sparring with Geoffrey; there is a bounce to her walk that has exactly the bumptious charm of the Fresh Prince himself.
It took a while for Willow to make peace with her parents for having dismissed her anxiety as tantrums, but she has forgiven them, and both Will and Jada Pinkett Smith have acknowledged their mistakes. Will writes in his memoir that his parenting philosophy at the time was based on “pushing and prodding and cajoling people into the vision I had” but the incident changed his perspective. Earlier this year, on an episode of Red Table Talk, the Facebook Watch chatshow Jada hosts with Willow and her own mother, Adrienne Banfield-Norris, she admitted she “had a really difficult time relating” to Willow’s anxiety, because she struggled to see beyond the privileges of her daughter’s lifestyle and “didn’t know what it’s like to be a child under hot lights”.
Emotional openness is very generation Z, and Willow Smith is gen Z to her core, from her tattoos and intricately curated ear piercings to the mononym – Willow – by which she goes as an artist and the angsty all-caps shout of her new album title <COPINGMECHANISM>. She believes it is important to express negative emotions as well as positive. “I can’t stay up in that ethereal, celestial, high-vibration good-vibes place all the time. That’s the place we all want to be, and sometimes you’ve just got to white-knuckle through. But at other times you need to listen to your emotions, to learn from going into your shadow. Negative emotions can be cathartic. We don’t always have the answers, and that’s OK.” Her mental health is in “a much better place” than it was a few years ago, she says. As someone who “doesn’t do well with being overwhelmed”, she swears by meditation, “otherwise I would go crazy”.
But there is a curious sleight of hand to her generation’s predilection for earnest conversations around mental health. Willow prefers to talk about emotions in the abstract rather than divulge how they might relate to her own lived experience. For all her bravado about living life as an open book, Willow remains coy about the details of her personal life and relationships. In one episode of Red Table Talk, Willow talked about being polyamorous. (Polyamory refers to people who have multiple romantic relationships at the same time.) But when I ask if she still defines as polyamorous, she deflects the question. “There are so many labels these days. The labels go on and on ... I think I just like to be a person. I only like one label: human. That sums it up for me.” The more personal my questions, the more opaque her answers. “I don’t think it’s anyone else’s responsibility to understand you except yourself,” she tells me at one point.
In March this year, Will Smith derailed the Oscars and his own career in one shocking moment, by slapping Chris Rock in full view of a global television audience. But before that curveball, Will, Jada and their three children had been steadily repositioning themselves from the traditional Hollywood MO of closely guarded privacy to a reality show-adjacent openness with the media. In another early episode of Red Table Talk, Jada talked to her mother and daughter about losing her virginity, and her “addiction” to sex toys; Willow responded by revealing that her “introduction to sex was obviously walking in on you and Daddy”. Will wrote in his memoir about watching his own father hit his mother. He confirmed to GQ magazine in an interview the longstanding rumours that the couple have not always had a monogamous marriage. There was also a YouTube series, Best Shape of My Life, which ostensibly told the story of Will losing 20lbs in 20 weeks, but featured confessional moments including a tear-stained acknowledgment of his failure as a parent to recognise and respect his daughter’s mental health.
By putting three generations of women front and centre in Red Table Talk, the Smith family have established their own USP as distinct from the Kardashians or the Beckhams: emotionally literate; a little left of centre; open to ways of relating that don’t fit within patriarchal traditions. Her lesson from Red Table Talk, Willow tells me, has been “that everyone will have a different perception on life, and that that’s OK and you shouldn’t try to change it. To agree to disagree can be a beautiful thing.” It is quite the journey from Willow’s California childhood, when the family lived a private, isolated life high in the mountains outside LA.
There is rich drama in how the cross-currents of the Smith family dynamic intertwine in ways both public and private. Willow and her older brother Jaden’s names are spin-offs of Will and Jada, crosshatching the genders and generations. It is an affectation in the same ilk as the Kardashians’ penchant for names beginning with K, but – as befits the Smith brand – a little quirkier. “I always knew I was very different from my parents,” Willow says, but still it is striking how the same motifs reverberate through the Smith family history. Hair, for instance, is a recurrent theme. Willow has shaved her head at other “monumental moments”, including once on stage during a livestreamed performance of last year’s album, Lately I Feel Everything. In 2017, Jaden – a rapper, musician and model – chopped off his dreadlocks for a film role and took them to that year’s Met Gala, carrying them on the red carpet like a clutch bag and prompting the late Vogue fashion editor André Leon Talley to pronounce, approvingly, “Now that is avant garde!” And of course, it was Jada’s alopecia that Chris Rock referenced in the joke that prompted her husband to hit him.
Willow has made it clear that she does not wish to comment on the Oscars incident. “I love my dad,” is her response when I bring it up, from which point she retreats into a non-specific sincerity. “I pretty much love every person I’ve ever met,” she says. “People are just humans, and humans are complex and beautiful creatures who deserve to be creative and to be respected and loved and … yeah, that’s pretty much it.”
But then she looks me in the eye and polishes the silver pendant stamped with their birthdays between her fingers absent-mindedly as she tells me that “my parents are my best friends. They are both wonderful people. I love them not just because they are my parents but because they are Will and Jada, who have their own beautiful, complex and amazing minds and hearts.” She is close with Jaden, too, and with her 29-year-old half-brother Trey, Will Smith’s son from his first marriage. At the Smith family dinner table, “my dad is definitely the one cracking the jokes,” she says. “The kids are a little more subdued, a little more chill. My dad is the most hyper of all of us. That’s why he’s amazing, because he has endless energy. My mom and me and my brothers are a lot more emo and thoughtful about things.”
Willow’s mum is her rock star muse. Jada Pinkett Smith formed the nu-metal band Wicked Wisdom when Willow and Jaden were two and four years old, taking both kids along while the band supported Britney Spears on her 2004 tour and played Ozzfest the following year. Pinkett Smith once told MTV that she started the band because she “would always look at Axl Rose and say, ‘Why aren’t there any chicks out doing this now?’” Willow, watching Wicked Wisdom from the side of the stage at six or seven years old, heard “people screaming slurs” at the sight of a black woman rocking out with a guitar. Did she understand what was happening? Willow looks world-weary beyond her years. “It’s not complicated, even for a kid. You hear it and you think, OK, so they hate my mom because she’s a woman, or they hate her because she’s Black.” Her mum “handled it like a champ”, she remembers. “It was crazy, it was intense, but she was so strong and focused. She was a beautiful trailblazer and I will always be in awe of her.”
Willow has long experience of rubbing up against society’s prejudices. There is an infamous 2014 interview in the New York Times with Willow and Jaden in which she talks about preferring quantum physics and sacred texts to young adult fiction, and how she knows time doesn’t exist, and Jaden tells the journalist that “you never learn anything in school”. It is an uncomfortable read – is it fair to put a pre-teen on record in answering questions such as “I’m curious about your experience of time”? To Willow, it is another example of the racism she witnessed as a child. “I studied physics intimately for three or four years,” she says solemnly. “What threw people for a loop was that we were Black kids being expressive. Society doesn’t see Black children in that way and it was shocking for people.”
Claiming space in the rock world is a political act, Willow says, which is “about stepping into places where marginalised communities haven’t been accepted and saying: I’m human, and I’m allowed here, too. One of my favourite musicians, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, was playing rock with an electric guitar in the 1940s. Blues was the birthplace of rock, but that history was put out of sight for social and political reasons. There are still many people who don’t want people of colour, women, people of the LGBTQ+ community to rise and know their history. All of us should be allowed freedom to express ourselves in all kinds of different ways, and one of those ways is rock music. Music is not just music, it is also activism. Throughout history, music has driven some of the most intense shifts in humanity’s thought processes.” She namechecks Nina Simone’s 1964 song Mississippi Goddam, which became an anthem of the civil rights movement. “That song illuminated the culture in such a powerful way.”
Is she enjoying the rock star lifestyle? She weighs the question for a moment and gives a more equivocal response than you might expect from a hot young artist with the world at her feet. “Um, yes ... but, you know, it’s a process, it’s a journey. Sometimes it’s rough. But that’s what makes life beautiful.” I ask about her home life when she’s not recording or performing, and she softens. “I live alone, with a few cats and a few dogs. I’m like an old lady, I love hiking with my dogs, being quiet.” She doesn’t cook – “pasta for the win every time, because that’s pretty much it” – but reads a lot. (On her bedside table right now: Nineteen Eighty-Four.) One day, she says, she might check out of celebrity altogether. “Someday, I want to go to college,” she says. “I heard about a guy who had a PhD in jazz guitar – I thought that was really cool. A PhD would be the coolest thing ever, definitely. I love physics and astronomy.” She is beginning to seem restless, to fidget like a teenager wanting to get down from the dinner table. We say our goodbyes and she slopes off to find her tobacco. “At some point in my life I guess I might just disappear,” she says. But not yet.”
• Willow’s new album <COPINGMECHANISM> is out on 7 October via Roc Nation/Polydor.