willow smith: fluorescent adolescent
Willow Smith inhabits a world fueled by an imagination and inquisitiveness that extend far beyond her 14 years on Planet Earth. She’s one of the most interesting young minds making music today.
Willow wears all clothing Gucci.
Willow Smith doesn't release songs; she makes statements. "I want to make music so that I can raise the consciousness level on this planet. Let's all come together in light, love and harmony through oneness with ourselves and All That Is. Enjoy." This is the opening line on her Soundcloud page (95k followers). When talking to the teen in person, it's easy to forget that you're conversing with the youngest member of the Smith family. Sure, she has the unbridled enthusiasm and energy of any young person her age - when asked how Willow World is right now she exclaims, "It's really… just… amazing!" - but generally her chat is anything but childish. She is a highly articulate, insatiably curious and inherently inquisitive young mind who sees the world in her own particularly unique way. She's funny and open and thoughtful - not necessarily something you'd associate with someone who's grown up in the insidiously shady world of Hollywood. Yet Willow couldn't subvert such LA stereotypes any more that she does. Her conversation isn't cluttered with cute dogs, how to take the best selfie, who she fancies and how she's dealing with fame. She doesn't shop on Rodeo Drive, but wears Thugz Maison's The Goddesses t-shirt, emblazoned with the names of feminist radicals and queer theorists Audre Lorde, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Angela Y. Davis and bell hooks. She talks about the notion of time and feminism and the environment and her generation. She talks about climbing trees and challenging the perceived notions of all that we're taught from birth. "The best piece of advice I've ever been given was when my brother Jaden said, 'Albert Einstein said that time was relative, but he forgot to say that so is everything else,'" says Willow. "And that just made me think: good and bad is so relative. Moral and immoral is so relative. Everything in the world is just so relative. You could say, 'Oh, that girl is so mean to me', but really if you look at her life and how she was raised and her experiences that have brought her to this point, you really can't label her because it couldn't have been any other way. Putting a label on someone doesn't really work because everything is relative."
Such quotes have been used, often, to ridicule Willow. She and her brother Jaden have repeatedly been called "bizarre", "nuts" and "bonkers" by our illustrious press. Yet the criticism seems depressingly indicative of a media, and society, that is becoming both increasingly regressive and determinedly dogmatic. How dare a young person have an opinion on, well, anything? How dare she be so bold to express thoughts that aren't submerged in media training or self-conscious platitudes? Isn't it wonderfully wonderful that we have a Willow to offer young women as an alternative narrative to what's offered up by the charts, E! and the sidebar of shame? Willow isn't famous because her parents are (okay, she is a bit), but there's no reality TV show, no clothing line, no selfie-stuffed Instagram (@Gweelos, 660k). In 2010, when Oprah asked Will Smith how to raise gracious and giving offspring, he said, "I tell the kids all the time: 'Mommy and Daddy are rich, y'all are broke!'"
Whether it's Jaden wearing a dress or an 11-year-old Willow shaving her head, it's apparent that the Smith siblings are afforded the autonomy to be free thinkers and adventurers. "The only reason I carve my own path the way I do is because of the way I was raised," Willow points out. "My parents always said, 'If you don't carve your own path, someone's going to carve it for you. And that's not fun.'" From the wide-eyed innocence of Whip My Hair (121m) to the teen romance of Summer Fling (1.5m), 2014's Female Energy (500k) and the recent F Q-C #7 (4.8m), we're seeing Willow transform and mature before our eyes. Some of her music is intentionally inaccessible. She's not doing Miley or Rihanna numbers - not yet. And nor does she need to. "No one could ever tell me what to do with my music. No one could ever say, 'No, don't do that 'cause that's not what sells.' I couldn't care less what sells," she insists. "I care more about what can help people, and help them realize there lies an inner power."
And she does that not only with aplomb but with a strong sense of self, individuality and experimentation. Is it important for her to be individual? "The only thing that I ever want to do is to be on the next level because if you're not, then either you're staying in the same place you've always been or you're following somebody else. I don't care what anybody says, following everybody else or staying in the same place and not venturing out to try other things is not fun," she says, laughing. "It's all about finding the joy in life, and finding the dance and happiness of just being alive. Carving your own path is part of that."
What is particularly evident with Smith Jr is her strong sense of curiosity about the world in general. When talking about her recent visit to London she mentions, casually, that she explored the city by foot, alone. "I walked around the city by myself, just people-watching. And then I went to a park and lay by this tree, watching the sun go down. London is really an amazing place. It's almost like a calmer, more fashionable New York."
Like any teenager, Willow has her obsessions. A keen nature kid, she loves nothing more that camping and swimming and climbing trees. "I just love being outside, being with the Mother and communing with the animals and the trees and all the living beings, dancing and letting everything go wild." Anime is also a love, specifically Nana. "It's basically about these two girls that live in Asia and both of them are named Nana, but they're two completely different girls. They end up living together and creating a life with their friends." Another long-running love, which can be keenly felt in her Twitter avi (@OfficialWillow, 3.75m), is James Cameron's sci-fi epic Avatar. "Oh, my God, that's my life. I watch that movie and it hits me in places. I know that I lived it," she says. "I just know that I did. It reminds me of what this generation need to do to raise their own consciousness and to rise against the powers that be, because the strength that the tribe has to overthrow the Sky People, that's the kind of strength that we need to have. That's the strength that we need to cultivate."
You went to see Gloria Steinem and bell hooks talk last year at New York's New School. How and why do you identify with these women?
It was just an honor to be in the presence of such strong women - just feeling their energy and all that they've been through and all of the knowledge that they've cultivated. Just being with them opened my eyes so much. When I was little, my mom always used to tell me about Goddesses and the feminine powers of the universe, and I'd always be so confused because everyone said God was a man. I felt this strong feminine energy in my life but society is on this whole other polarity. It's always been so confusing to me. But just being around women like that and talking about that goddess energy more and more and cultivating it with other young girls… I feel that my song Female Energy inspires a lot of girls to reach for that Goddess entity.
You and your mom are also very outspoken about the issues surrounding sex trafficking.
They're very real issues. Nobody really thinks that human trafficking exists in the US, but it exists everywhere and it's happening every day. That's why I'm so saddened when the media is degrading women. This is happening to us; we're suppressed enough, us women, we need to come together and we need to be together. We shouldn't be demeaning each other. That's one thing that makes me so sad.
How's your new music sounding?
Well, I don't really have a genre. I just do what feels nice. That's what I was feeling in the moment. The music I'm doing now varies from native instruments to spacey percussion. It's really strange, but it's so me. For instance, not a lot of people use the Zheng harp from China with synthetic drums. Not a lot of people mix those two.
Drake called you his "young muse" on Instagram, and internet detectives placed you both at Abbey Road Studios in London recently. Are you working together?
[Laughs] I hope. That's all I can say. We'll see what happens.
Who's on the wish list to work with, from any medium?
I'd love to work with Hiatus Kaiyote. I'd love to work with Grimes. I'd love to work with Miley Cyrus, actually. I literally want to make music with her. I produce the beats, she literally just comes to the studio. Also, Wes Anderson and Tim Burton. I'd love to work with Pendleton Ward, the creator of [TV show] Adventure Time. Oh, and Lolawolf.
How do you discover new music?
I go on Soundcloud a lot. I usually get my music from friends. One of the people that really turns me on to such weird, awesome music is Amandla Stenberg [The Hunger Games's Rue]. I tell her all the time, "Girl, you put me on!" I have to give it to her, because if it wasn't for her, I wouldn't know the artists that I know now.
What are the themes that recur in your writing?
Specifically for F Q-C #7, I wanted to really portray what my everyday life is like and how I'm always in nature, climbing trees and jumping in creeks. Literally, that's my everyday. The only real pattern in my music that I speak about all the time is frequency and vibes and stuff. Other than that, nothing I talk about is very permanent. When I make my songs, there's no explanation for what I say because I don't even know where it comes from.
What do you think of your generation?
I feel that right now what our generation needs is to do the art that's in our hearts. Do it to the fullest and try to help other people find out that thing that makes them happy. The more people that are doing what's in their hearts, the more that heart vibration is going to start spreading around the world, and the more people will start thinking, "Wow, maybe McDonalds isn't what I should be eating, maybe the way they're teaching me in school is depressing me, maybe I should be climbing trees and meditating more than I should be listening to my teachers telling me that everything I'm doing is wrong." So it's taking those little steps towards awareness.
I feel you millennials are figuring out things faster than previous generations did.
I don't think it has to do with figuring it out. I feel like it has everything to do with realizing it. Once you realize that there's something more than what you've been given permission to believe, then a whole other dimension of life is opened up to you - a whole other dimension of creation, of laughter, of living, of everything.
How have you reached these conclusions? Through friends, school, your own study, your parents?
A hundred percent them, because if it wasn't for my parents I wouldn't even be on this earth. If it wasn't for my parents, I wouldn't have learned that becoming still and traveling within is the only thing that really matters. You can try and point the finger at everybody else as much as you want, but the only reason you're feeling the way you're feeling about something that somebody else is doing is because of the way that you're perceiving it, and that has everything to do with your conditioning and the way you've been raised. Everything is relative and you are the common denominator in everything in your life. Most people don't look at themselves as the potential cause of the problem that they're trying to solve.
What's the hardest part about growing up?
Making mistakes. I'm the kind of person who hates making mistakes, it's my pet peeve, but I do it very often, so that's very hard, especially when you're young and trying to learn things. You have to make mistakes in order to realize what you want and what you don't want for your life - and for everyone that's completely different.
What would Willow Smith's version of the world look like?
The whole world would be one big tribe, one big commune. It wouldn't be split up and divided, we wouldn't be fighting nearly as much, we wouldn't be using unnecessary sources of power. We'd be using free energy, we'd be eating from the trees, we'd be drinking from the natural stream. There wouldn't be traffic, and diapers and pollution in our rivers. It would all just be transcending into another dimension [laughs].
Text Hattie Collins
Photography Tyrone Lebon
Styling Julia Sarr-Jamois
Hair Marcia Hamilton at Fr8me using Mizani
Make-up Steven Aturo at The Only Agency using Laura Mercier
Nail technician Marisa Carmichael at streeters
Photography assistance William Mathieu, Steven Gabriel
Styling assistance Bojana Kozarevic, Roberta Hollis, Sophia Phonsavahn, Victoria Zengo
Tailor Brian Frank
Production Rosco Production
Production Holly Gore at Dobedo Productions