How Willow Grew Into a Real Deal Rock Star

How Willow Grew Into a Real Deal Rock Star

I was just thinking to myself, ‘Jesus Christ, oh my goodness. I need to retire soon,’ ” says Willow. “This is crazy.”

Very few artists could credibly declare that at the age of 21, but it’s understandable why Willow would consider calling it a day. A handful of dates into her supporting role on Machine Gun Kelly’s Mainstream Sellout tour, she’s sprawled out on an old leather couch in Los Angeles, theorizing about when she’ll get a break — sometime after the 20 dates with MGK end in August, she figures, and certainly not until after she has promoted coping mechanism, her next album, due this fall on Roc Nation.

The last four years have been nonstop for Willow. In 2019, she released a self-titled psychedelic R&B album, followed six months later by a 10-track project with frequent collaborator Tyler Cole as The Anxiety that included everything from dreamy pop (the anthemic viral hit “Meet Me at Our Spot”) to rowdy punk (“Fight Club”). Then, amid the pandemic, Willow switched gears completely, releasing the devotional meditation EP RISE, and by spring 2021, she was promoting her first full-blown rock album, Lately I Feel Everything, and its Travis Barker-featuring lead single, “transparentsoul.”

And that’s just her solo output. Lately, Willow’s clear-eyed intensity has made her the artist to call when a track needs some added edge, which she lent to Camila Cabello’s “psychofreak” and PinkPantheress’ “Where you are.” Even artists who are already firmly working in rock know a feature from Willow — like on MGK’s “emo girl” and Yungblud’s “Memories” — can add a little something extra to take them over the top.

Roc Nation co-president Shari Bryant insists there’s “not one particular reason” that these artists seek out Willow. For some, it might be the wide audience she reaches with 30 million weekly streams; others just “like her point of view. Her aura is something you can’t get anywhere else.”

Regardless of whether she’s solo or on someone else’s track, the demand for Willow is holding strong — and her dreams of early retirement will almost certainly have to wait. “From working with artists for more than 20 years,” says Bryant, “when they have that level of excitement, they usually don’t slow down anytime soon.”

That momentum is leading up to what Willow enthusiastically calls “some of the best music I’ve ever made.” Her upcoming album, which she co-produced with Chris Greatti, is an adventurous step forward for an already-versatile young artist, as well as her deepest dive yet into rock music. There are “Radiohead vibes in there, some Deftones vibes in there, a smidge of Queen with the major harmonies,” she says.

“I wanted to go for rock. I didn’t want to go for pop punk. I didn’t want to go for what’s necessarily popular right now,” she continues. “I wanted to go for the heart of rock music, which to me is a deep outcry — maybe about pain, maybe about joy.”

willow smith

Alexander Wang bodysuit, shorts, and boots; Chrishabana septum piece; Cyb3rw3nch ear cuff.

Though she may have first gained fame as a 9-year-old, Willow’s current cavalcade of music firmly sets her apart from child stars who withered on the vine, burnt out by a demanding industry or left unable to nimbly evolve into compelling adult creators. She never resigned herself to becoming a novelty act or coasted on the credentials of her megastar parents, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith.

And despite the constant scrutiny of her family, Willow has stayed above the fray — even, most recently, this past March, when her father slapped Academy Awards host Chris Rock following a joke he made about her mother’s alopecia. The ensuing media firestorm, Willow says, didn’t derail her creativity or “rock me as much as my own internal demons.”

“I see my whole family as being human, and I love and accept them for all their humanness,” she says. “Because of the position that we’re in, our humanness sometimes isn’t accepted, and we’re expected to act in a way that isn’t conducive to a healthy human life and isn’t conducive to being honest.”

Perhaps because she knew this early on, Willow learned the power in a judicious “no” and steered her career in a direction that always felt true to her, even as it changed. Today, she’s in complete command of her musical fate. Perched on the couch, as she prepares for her Billboard photo shoot in a humid warehouse near her Los Angeles hometown, she doesn’t miss a beat discussing her art, speaking with her hands and disrupting her own train of thought to gush about her latest inspiration: “I think the monks have it right.” Witnessing her independence and authoritativeness, it’s easy to see why Willow’s team follows her lead, even if it means working on a new marketing plan every few months to keep up with her steady output.

“We want to make sure that we are supporting and we’re not manufacturing an artist,” says Bryant. “If an artist is telling us, ‘This is the state that I am in today, and this is where my passion lies,’ from a label standpoint, it’s up to us to support that.” Willow has always “shown nothing but pure authenticity,” Bryant continues. “She has been a self-starter. She has been involved in every project. Once that comes across, it’s like, how could you deny it?”

According to Willow, the kind of deference she now receives wasn’t always the default. After her debut single, “Whip My Hair,” peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 in November 2010, shortly after she turned 10, Willow released the songs “21st Century Girl” and “Fireball” the next year. She was slated to record a full album on Roc Nation and take on the titular role in a big-budget remake of Annie. Then she brought it all to a screeching halt.

First, Willow turned down Annie; then, once the adults in her life listened, she walked away from the debut album that she didn’t believe in. “It took a lot of courage for me to say ‘no’ because everyone was rooting for me and trying to support me and expected me to do it,” she says. “I was just going to dig myself a deeper and deeper hole if I didn’t advocate for myself as early as I did.”

Roc Nation co-president Omar Grant, who has worked with Willow since her debut single, says the label didn’t press the young artist on her need for a break. “We’re invested in the long-term career of artists,” he says. “Giving her that space and knowing how young she was and how long of a runway she has… it’s fine for her to take a break and to find herself.”

Between 2011 and 2014, the teenage Willow slipped into a dark, insecure place thinking she “was inherently not good enough,” which continues to leave her guarded over her creative output. When she returned in 2014 with the 3 EP, she was determined to make music on her terms. Now, “you see that she is in control of her creative, from writing to playing instruments to being part of the marketing,” says Roc Nation marketing manager Naydeen Rodriguez.

It’s no longer unusual for artists to take that kind of active role, but Rodriguez says Willow was ahead of the curve, presenting ideas on how to deliver her music to her audience through external platforms like TikTok, YouTube and Facebook that have been game-changers by increasing her reach while preserving a personal connection with fans.

“She certainly steers the ship, and we’re there just to help her execute,” says Carly Mann, who works on Willow’s management team at Three Six Zero. “She knows exactly what she wants.”

willow smith

R13 blazer and shirt; Martine Ali necklace; Chrishabana septum piece; Cyb3rw3nch ear cuff.

As the Roc Nation team pushed “transparentsoul” to radio and digital service providers for playlisting when it started to promote Lately I Feel Everything, the version of “Meet Me at Our Spot” from Willow’s July 2021 Facebook Live went viral on TikTok, soundtracking lip dub and dance trends. The song’s surprise success garnered Willow her highest placement on the Hot 100 since “Whip My Hair”; the Facebook Live version of the song now has more than 102 million YouTube views and the track boasts over 415 million Spotify plays.

“Over the last three years, the growth in followership and loyalty levels has been amazing to watch,” says Roc Nation senior vp of revenue Liberty Lucken, who adds that she has seen Willow’s social media profile numbers triple and quadruple thanks to “a mixture of TikTok, touring, constant algorithmic play” and the “focus [Willow] puts into these projects.”

It also helps that Willow’s hits are representative of her catalog. Raised on streaming platforms, her generation is less shackled by the idea of genre, with artists’ entire discographies at their fingertips — and Willow’s features a smorgasbord of styles. “When fans move with you the way they do between different genres and record types, it’s a true sign of belief in you as an artist,” says Mann. “Wouldn’t that give you the confidence to go and do what you are at your core?”

Experimentation has always come naturally for Willow, and she stands by all her work — old, new and whatever may come next. “Me being 9 and saying ‘I whip my hair back and forth’ as a symbol of internal freedom and self-love was so authentic for me,” she says. In 2021, she reintroduced the track into her live set as a punk song. Halfway through the rendition of the track in her Facebook Live performance, Cole shaved off all her hair onstage. “My message hasn’t changed,” Willow says. “I’m still saying in many ways, ‘Live loud, live freely, and be your most creative and potent self.’ ”

Willow was just 3 years old when she was first exposed to the rock music scene — and the unique challenges it presents for the Black women in it. In 2002, her mom formed the nu-metal band Wicked Wisdom, which opened for Britney Spears’ Onyx Hotel Tour and toured with Ozzfest, carving out a space for Black women in rock along the way. Willow remembers holding Pinkett Smith’s hand as they walked backstage at Wicked Wisdom gigs, where the band was sometimes met by hostile audiences.

“There were a lot of racist and sexist people that she had to deal with who were very vocal about the fact that they were racist and sexist,” Willow says matter-of-factly. “I got to see people get very rowdy and say some things that you should never hear somebody say to your own mother.”

Those crowds of mainly white men even hurled objects at Pinkett Smith, Willow recalls, adding that her mom’s lymph nodes got so inflamed from stress that a doctor encouraged her to take time off. “She was putting herself in the crossfire of hate… and she put her heart on the stage for people who didn’t deserve it.”

willow smith

Pinkett Smith’s perseverance — and the way Wicked Wisdom won over skeptical crowds — only further fueled Willow’s passion for rock music and its Black female lineage, which dates back to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a queer Black woman who pioneered the genre in the 1940s. When she looks back on it now, the scarier moments are overshadowed by her mother’s confidence: “She would just act like no one said a goddamn thing, and that’s activism. She never let that sh-t faze her.

“I don’t think I am ever going to experience anything as violent” as what Pinkett Smith experienced, Willow continues, though she adds she’s reluctant to compare herself to anyone. But “for this generation and for where we’re going, I definitely feel like my voice is an important voice.”

And when it comes to delivering her message, Willow says that any oft-repeated clichés about her current musical medium are beside the point. “People only say rock is dead because rock was so influential in a political way,” she says, punctuating her speech like a preacher on a pulpit. “Right now, it’s not serving the same purpose as it did in the past.” She sees a resurgence in people of color injecting it with purpose, like Kenny Hoopla and Nova Twins. And Willow’s own credibility in rock is increasingly undeniable: Lately I Feel Everything landed in the top 10 of Billboard’s Top Rock Albums chart, while her MGK collaboration “emo girl” did the same on Hot Rock & Alternative Songs. She has worked with rock stalwarts Travis Barker and Avril Lavigne, the latter of whom says she was “blown away by” Willow and her “clear vision of who she is and where she wants to go.”

Willow never imagined Lavigne would agree to collaborate (“I really didn’t think she was going to say ‘yes’ ”), but when they linked up in the studio, they bonded over the skepticism they both experienced as women in rock. “You’ll kill yourself trying to be perfect for the masses. Bunk that. That’s a losing game,” Willow says, tossing her hands up with indifference as she thinks about the people who called Lavigne a poser in the early 2000s. “If you don’t like me, I’m grateful for you, because it shows I’m authentic enough to not be for everyone.”

At any rate, she is interesting to plenty of musical contemporaries who matter much more than any passing naysayers — like, for instance, Camila Cabello, who met Willow when they meditated together with former Hindu monk and British author Jay Shetty. After, Cabello reached out to Willow to collaborate. “We had very beautiful spiritual experiences together and we had connected. That was the only reason I was down to do the song,” Willow says. That, and the track “goes hard.”

On tour with MGK, Willow has been closing her sets with “<maybe> it’s my fault,” the lead single off the forthcoming coping mechanism. On the track, Willow reckons again with feeling inadequate, musing about rewinding confusing moments in her head and unsuccessful attempts to assign blame. It’s fans’ first taste of her new album — which she didn’t actually intend to be an album in the first place.

In January, Willow set up a studio session with co-producer Greatti, who she first connected with while working with Yungblud. For Willow, trusting others enough to bring them into her creative process is tough, but the two had an immediate rapport. She wrote her vocal part in the car on the way to meet Greatti, who says he completed their first track, “Why,” within an hour. “We made three songs in four days, and they were easily some of the best music both of us had ever made,” says Greatti, “but we didn’t stop after that.”

The resulting 11-track collection is Willow’s most cohesive and complex work to date. Atop crashing cymbals and sultry bass riffs, Willow belts each song — rife with therapy speak and confessional lyricism — with an angst that can’t be authentically replicated past the age of 25.

“I’m going to use this [album] as a way to express myself and, hopefully, allow other people to feel the deepest parts of me,” says Willow. “I want my life to be driven by love and where my heart wants to take me. Not where it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re doing this well, this person does this, too. So, you guys should hook up.’ ”

That drive informs how Willow defines success. If success meant topping the Billboard charts, she would have doubled down on the pop sounds of her biggest hits, “Wait a Minute!” and “Whip My Hair.” If it looked like getting a New York Times bestseller, she would be writing a salacious tell-all memoir instead of Black Shield Maiden, the historical fiction novel about a young Ghanaian warrior that she has been working on for six years and arrives Oct. 4 through Penguin Random House. Instead, the star who walked away from unhealthy expectations of her childhood fame has found other ways to measure her achievements.

“Success is feeling like I have sufficiently done my best and I have raised to a different level of internal understanding,” she says. “Even just being able to play a riff that I couldn’t play before or being able to sing a really high note that I couldn’t sing before.”

By that definition, coping mechanism is already a triumph. She describes it as her most vulnerable work yet, detailing her personal struggles after her first romantic heartbreak. The specifics of who, Willow insists, aren’t important; she instead focuses on the betrayal of someone she never thought could hurt her and how it consumed her.

“I used to think, ‘Why are all these songs about heartbreak, and why does everyone care so much about this?’ ” she says. “Then I realized, when it happens, it really makes you feel like something is wrong with you.”

willow smith

R13 blazer and shirt, Martine Ali necklace, New Rock boots.

On coping mechanism, “everything is very authentic,” Rodriguez says. “For her, that was just the most important [thing], was to get her inner thoughts and her diary out.” And whatever musical aesthetic that diary takes on, Willow’s following — one that has organically grown alongside her — will no doubt listen. “It’s one thing for an artist to hop around because they’re chasing an audience,” Bryant says. “It’s another thing for an artist to hop around because that’s authentically where they are in their process.”

Moreover, Lucken predicts that as Willow’s sound gets heavier, her audience will expand even further, attracting more men to her predominantly young, female base. “She has had this continuous amount of content, in an age group that continues to evolve what they listen to,” says Lucken. The new project “is the next level from where she was just at.”

The proof of Willow’s growing profile stands shouting from pits across the country, as fans show up early to arenas to watch her set. With her shaved head tucked under a knit cap, she screams the lyrics to “<maybe> it’s my fault”: “I’m hurting inside/It’s your fault/Maybe it’s my fault/It’s all on my mind, it’s all on my mind.”

“It is such an experience. She’s ending with such emotion on that stage,” says Rodriguez. “Then just getting up and saying ‘thank you’ in this soft voice. All I could hear was the audience roar.”

It’s a bridge, Willow says, between the songs from her childhood that she still sings and what she has coming: “My mind and my heart are in this new world that people just haven’t heard yet.”

This story will appear in the Aug. 6, 2022, issue of Billboard.

How Willow Grew Into a Real Deal Rock Star I was just thinking to myself, ‘Jesus Christ, oh my goodness. I need to retire soon,’ ” says Willow. “This is crazy.” Very few artists could credibly declare that at the age of 21, but it’s understandable why Willow would consider calling it a day. A handful of…