Willow Smith: ‘I was brainwashed into thinking, “You’re being a brat, suck it up”’

Willow Smith: ‘Even my parents tell me it’s hard for them to understand my issues' (Dana Trippe)
Willow Smith: ‘Even my parents tell me it’s hard for them to understand my issues' (Dana Trippe)

I didn’t realise what success would really take,” says Willow Smith, biting into a toasted jam bagel. “I didn’t realise it was hard work. Now, because I’m older and know how I want to live my life, I’m more organised in my mind… because this industry is not a fluffy place.” She gives a wry grin. “You need to have some wits about ya, some strength in the spine!”

We’re in a west London hotel bar her team has hired out for the afternoon. There’s not a publicist in sight, because the singer-songwriter – and scion of one of America’s most famous families – hates being eavesdropped on. Wearing grey sweats and a pair of oversized shades with orange lenses, she’s relaxed but forthright, in a strangely serene way. Sentences are succinct; the drawl is distinctly west coast.

At 21, Willow has already accomplished more than some people do in their entire lives: a few blockbuster films, five albums, an Emmy-nominated talk show, a place on Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. Of course, being born into one Hollywood royalty helps: not only has she appeared alongside her dad, Will, in I Am Legend, but also her mother, Jada, in Madagascar 2. Like her parents, she dabbles in a bit of everything showbiz: one minute she’s voicing an adorable cartoon animal; the next, she’s tearing up a festival stage with her band.

The scene-stealing started way back when she was five. In 2006, Willow crashed Oprah’s stage as pops and her older brother Jaden promoted their film, The Pursuit of Happyness. In an immaculate outfit, front teeth missing, she precociously declared that the film really “connected” to her, eliciting a burst of astonished laughter from the set. If videos had been going viral then, this clip would have rocketed off the charts.

“I was the worst!” says Willow now, grimacing, though I very much doubt it. “Come on, I was too much,” she insists. “I wanted to do everything – I wanted to do what they were doing. I would have kept me backstage!”

She has done everything since – or at least it seems that way. Aged nine, she achieved her first Top 10 single in the UK with “Whip My Hair”, an empowering, Rihanna-indebted pop jam, and became the youngest artist to sign to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. She was poised to be a huge child star, silver spoon in mouth. Yet it’s only recently that she’s really made a dent on the music scene, muscling up against fellow Gen-Z artists such as Billie Eilish, with whom she’s touring in February. In 2021, she showed real backbone, releasing a new album, lately I feel EVERYTHING (the title forms the acronym LIFE), which has been called one of the best of 2021. On it, she revisited the angsty Noughties pop-punk she loved in her early teens, including Avril Lavigne and Blink-182. If you’re on TikTok, you’ve almost certainly heard Willow’s viral, Paramore-influenced single “Transparent Soul”, a collaboration with Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker. Before that, in 2020, her song “Meet Me At Our Spot” with friend and fellow musician Tyler Cole spawned an entire dance routine on the social media platform. Thematically, it tackles generational anxieties but also Willow’s own, less relatable feelings about fame. On “Transparent Soul”, she sings: “I don’t f***ing know if it’s paradise or it’s a trap/ Yeah, they’re treating me like royalty, but is it kissin’ ass?”

Even my own parents tell me it’s hard for them to understand my issues

Willow Smith

“Even my own parents tell me it’s hard for them to understand my issues because my childhood was so different,” she says now. Willow’s parents’ upbringing couldn’t have been further from the golden LA kingdom she and Jaden were born into. Will Smith – a nuclear reactor of charisma from the first day he appeared on our screens as the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air – was born and raised in West Philadelphia (duh) by a US air force veteran who, Will wrote in his recent memoir, used to physically abuse his mother. Jada Pinkett-Smith grew up with her uncle outside of Jackson, Mississippi – her mum was a nurse who got pregnant in high school – and attended performing arts school with rapper Tupac Shakur.

But by the time Jaden and Willow were born, the Smiths were regarded as one of the most powerful couples in the US. “I used to get upset, like, ‘Why doesn’t anybody care about my feelings!’” Willow says, reflecting on what sounds like a distinctly typical period of teenage tantrums. “But I grew up and realised, the world is such a f***ing s****y place and people are in pain, and the fact I get to have these resources and this kind of life is an astronomical blessing. The only thing that makes it worth it is if I give something back that’s of value, whether that’s revolution or catharsis… it needs to have meaning.”

Hollywood royalty: Trey Smith, Jaden Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Willow Smith and Will Smith at the EMA Awards, 2016 (Getty)
Hollywood royalty: Trey Smith, Jaden Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Willow Smith and Will Smith at the EMA Awards, 2016 (Getty)

Willow struggled to be understood as a star in her early teens. One infamous interview she did with Jaden for T Magazine in 2014 drew vitriol for its perceived ridiculousness, in which they discussed subjects such as “prana energy” and their perception of time. “What are you reading?” Willow was asked at one point. “Quantum physics. Osho,” came the response. They were called “obnoxious” and “entitled”. Vulture dismissed their comments as “Zen gibberish”, while The Guardian called the conversation “utter nonsense”. One look at today’s social media wellness movement, however, and you could say that in actual fact, their New Age-y witterings were ahead of their time.

Both Willow and Jaden were homeschooled and encouraged to think for themselves. In the 2014 interview, they conveyed their pity for children who were forced to attend “normal” school. Does she still feel the same way? “How could I not when nothing has changed?” she responds. She went to high school for one year as a sort of experiment, believing there might be life lessons (“not regular lessons”) that she could learn there. “All my suspicions were proven,” she says. “The only [positive] thing I did see was the kids, who, even under such a stressful and oppressive environment, still found ways to have genuine connections with one another – in my little crew at least. And that’s what it’s about, being in a community and caring.”

Attending “normal school” may also have helped Willow get closer to the more universal feelings of her teen peers and that all-important “relatability”. Reviews of her early albums were relatively lukewarm – critics complained that she didn’t reveal much about herself – but LIFE received praise for her candid lyrics and authentic take on the pop-punk renaissance. She channels a similar high-octane energy and sense of fun on kiss-off songs about gaslighting exes, or else goes Nirvana-level grunge for songs about depression and police brutality. “I just wanna listen to the rain fall,” she sings on “Naive”. “While I sit up in my room, I get a phone call/ It’s my n****s saying, ‘Can you pick us up?’/ We got shot by rubber bullets at a protest in the Bronx, yeah.”

Round two of Willow’s music career has been a far more positive experience compared to the “Whip My Hair” aftermath. At the time, she didn’t realise she was suffering anxiety attacks caused by the frenzy around the song – she was too busy doing things like supporting Justin Bieber on tour. “That was crazy,” she says of experiencing mental health issues at such a young age. “I was brainwashed into thinking, ‘No, you’re being a brat, suck it up.’ Then I grew up, and I realised it was something that needed to be dealt with.” During lockdown in LA, she found exercise helped: “I became a little obsessive with physical exertion – I didn’t allow myself to feel [anxiety], I just wanted to run it out,” she says. “Sometimes the body is so intelligent.”

Her response to being super-famous, and all the trappings that go along with that, meanwhile, is to be “an open book”. “It’s too much work to try and hide,” she says. “I haven’t got that much energy.” It’s a mindset she’s presumably honed via Red Table Talk, the Facebook chat show hosted by Willow, her mum, and her grandmother, Adrienne Banfield-Norris (“Gammy”). Like an LA Loose Women, these three generations of women frankly discuss issues including sexuality, racism, addiction and mental illness, often with eye-popping reveals. It’s where Jada admitted to having a relationship with 27-year-old musician August Alsina, and where she and Will freely discuss their sex life.

Willow on Red Table Talk with her mum, Jada, and grandmother, Adrienne (Facebook)
Willow on Red Table Talk with her mum, Jada, and grandmother, Adrienne (Facebook)

Some of the best moments, though, stem from differences of opinion, when those generation gaps really show, such as when Willow said that she identified as polyamorous, as Gammy acted bemused. “Oh, don’t they!” Willow grins. “When that happens it’s exciting for me – when different perspectives start to come out and clash a little bit. So much of the time we just agree: ‘Go girl! 100 per cent! Mmhmm!’ So I like when that happens. That’s how you grow. If you’re always agreeing, you’re not creating a new idea.” She believes that society is restricted by cages of its own making. “Humans get so much comfort from all the structures we’ve created for ourselves,” she says now. “Everything is in its little box.”

It’s rare to see a family of this level of fame be so open in a public forum – though a recent petition to stop Jada and Will from oversharing (2,500 signatories and counting) suggests that sometimes it can go too far. But Willow defends Red Table Talk’s approach. “Everyone is going through something and the biggest disservice you could do [to yourself and others] is put up a facade and be like, that’s not the case [here]. That sounds wrong to me.” Are there ever moments where she feels her family are too open? “I feel I’ve always understood that my parents are their own people,” she says carefully. “A lot of kids think of their parents like… ‘Your whole identity is for me.’ [But] seeing them in this lifestyle we had, from a very young age it was clear to me they weren’t just my parents. They’re full, other people who have their own emotions.” She has yet to read her dad’s tell-all memoir, but he’s read passages to her. Certainly not your average bedtime story.

For all its perceived candidness, some critics have called Red Table Talk a canny way of controlling the narrative around the Smith family. And yet it remains a very different kind of celebrity panel show, where virtually no subject is off-limits. In that sense, and also when it comes to their work ethic and attitude towards critics, Willow continues to view her parents as role models. She’s full of praise for how Jada refused to be cowed by racist metal fans when she started her own band, Wicked Wisdom, in 2002. Willow has experienced some of that herself, being a Black woman who plays the guitar in a scene that still consistently fails to acknowledge Black artists outside of rap, hip-hop and R&B. Tom Morello told The Independent in a recent interview that, even today, fans don’t realise that he isn’t white, unfamiliar as they are with the idea of a Black rock guitarist.

Gen-Z icon: Willow during a live performance (Dana Trippe)
Gen-Z icon: Willow during a live performance (Dana Trippe)

Willow has had similar experiences and says that she usually gets negative reactions on social media when she posts herself playing a seven-string guitar. “When you start to move towards the heavier side [of music], the resistance gets stronger,” she says, adding that she encounters white men ranting “for pages and pages” about why she shouldn’t be playing the guitar. “At least it’s not like how it was when my mum was touring and people were throwing broken glass and shouting racial slurs at her,” she shrugs.

Perhaps the biggest lesson Willow has learnt from her parents is not to change just so others feel more comfortable. “I’ve always said what I wanted to say and not cared, even when people thought it was stupid,” she says. “More Black girls need to give no f***s. Be confident. Be loud. Say what you wanna say.”

‘lately I feel EVERYTHING’ is out now. Willow tours with Billie Eilish from 2 February; solo UK headline dates to be announced