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Willow Smith: girl almighty

‘I need to give love and confidence to black girls’ – interviewed by her friend Amandla Stenberg, Willow Smith talks gender fluidity, Chanel and the beautiful chaos of her generation

Taken from the 25th anniversary issue of Dazed: 

I first met Willow Smith in 2012, at a birthday party chock full of insecure 14-year-olds. I was one of them. I noticed her immediately from across the room. She was wearing a long black coat, heavy black boots and had short, spiky blue hair. She looked pretty punk for a 12-year-old.

We locked eyes and she threw me a smile before striding towards me, jauntily extending her hand. “Hi, I’m Willow,” she said. “We should be friends.” A few years later, as we were sitting in her room giggling contagiously as we always do when we’re together, she told me through an abashed, wide, goofy smile that she had gone to the party as her badass alter ego.

Alter ego or not, I was immediately drawn to Willow’s magnetic and unapologetic energy. I recognised that she was confident in some way that I was struggling with in myself; she does not fit into the societally perpetuated construct of what it is to be a black kid in America. She is proud of her otherness, strikingly beautiful in her weirdness, and, through her very existence, deconstructs the acceptable mould that tells black kids to be less sensitive and more predictable.

Willow has grown up with so many projections placed on her by anonymous faces on the internet. The media has not afforded her the irreproachability of childhood. In fact, she has been held up to higher, more adult standards simply because she is black.

But Willow’s sense of self is stronger than most. She has an earnest, humble faith in herself that is unstoppable. She is an avid feminist and campaigner for the rights of people of colour. She dissects how the ego obscures our connection to each other and to the earth through her music, and challenges gender norms through her unique style.

And, mind you, she is 15 years old. While she is a leader, she is also just a kid navigating who she is on a public platform. Seeing her explore thus far has been beautiful and inspiring, and I am honoured to call her my friend.

Amandla Stenberg: Welcome to ‘Amandla and Willow write a Dazed magazine article’. Let’s get this party started!

Willow Smith: All right!

Amandla Stenberg: Something I’ve been thinking about recently is how we’ve both been positioned to be these leaders. How does it make you feel to be a leader?

Willow Smith: There’s a certain amount of pressure that comes with it, because you have so many eyes on you. Especially when you grow up and people are like, ‘Oh, you’re destined for greatness.’ It’s like, dang, can’t I make my own destiny? Just because everyone’s telling me I’m destined for this one thing, what if that’s not the truth? What if I can make something different happen? I’ve always known there is nothing more important than raising my intellect and my spiritual energy – just heightening my frequency. But sometimes you get caught up in, like, ‘Oh, I’m supposed to be something…’  

Amandla Stenberg: You’re supposed to be this certain image…

Willow Smith: Right. I’m being myself, but is that really myself? Sometimes I feel like I just want to sit in my room and be alone and not talk to anybody. But sometimes you really just need to bite the bullet and be like, ‘You know what, this isn’t about me.’ I know the world needs my voice and how far it goes, so I want to give it all out.

Amandla Stenberg: I feel the same. If I can in any way impact our communities just by being myself and posting on social media, then why not?

Willow Smith: Our generation is so abundant in creative energy, and we’re also abundant in (this feeling of), ‘Oh, let’s go find the answers.’ Most kids I meet are so interested in outer space, extra-terrestrials, the flower of life – they’re interested in things that are otherworldly. But when it comes to this world and strategising your life, for indigos, for people like us in this generation, I feel like we lack structure. We lack direction. This generation is very feminine in the sense that it’s very emotional and there’s so much chaos – but it’s a beautiful chaos, and everything goes in circles. Everything is confusing and crazy and yet beautiful. What’s really going to take us to the next level is when we start to be like, ‘Wait, we can channel this energy into certain places.’

Amandla Stenberg: I definitely feel that way. Our generation is so unique in that we’re so creative and so depressed. Most young people I know have some kind of mental illness or sadness that they’re dealing with. I think that has a lot to do with how our generation grew up, and the fact that we’re super-nostalgic because things are, like, ramping up really quickly within our lifetimes. Now we have all this creativity, and I think we are meant to change things. If we didn’t have those grievances, if we didn’t have those scars, what would we express to the world, you know? When I meet people who really identify with what I do, it’s mostly like, ‘You took me out of a sadness,’ or, ‘I understood what you were saying and I connected with that emotion.’ We crave human connection so badly.

Willow Smith: It’s crazy-real, though. There are so many people on Instagram who just have friends to look cool on their pages or hang out because they wanna take pictures together and it’s like, ‘Damn.’ They’re always searching for something. In all of these empty vessels of people it’s like everyone’s just sucking the life out of each other, when we really need to learn how to communicate and utilise human connection in the right way.

“We got love. And hate is like a rotting tomato. You throw a tomato, it splats, you can clean it up. Love, it’s like blood on marble, you can’t get it out, it stays” — Willow Smith

Amandla Stenberg: So people have this perception of you as being super – what’s the right word?

Willow Smith: (laughs) Super… Super-sick.

Amandla Stenberg: People have this perception of you as really out-there. They come at you and (your brother) Jaden for being weird, or being –

Willow Smith: Just speaking our minds, or saying random shit. The things that me and Jaden say, they’re pretty weird. And if it wasn’t us, I’d be like, ‘Ooh, I don’t know about that…’ (laughs) But because we were raised the way we were raised, and we’ve read the books we’ve read, we can say that. And we wanna say that, because it’s just bubbling up inside of us and we feel like it’s important. Even if other people think it’s not, it really doesn’t matter because, as long as we express what we need to express in the world and create what we need to create, people can throw hate at us. We got love. And hate is like a rotting tomato. You throw a tomato, it splats, you can clean it up. Love, it’s like blood on marble, you can’t get it out, it stays. You can clean up a rotten tomato.

Amandla Stenberg: That’s beautiful, that’s gorgeous. I feel like people fuck with you because you guys aren’t following a certain ideal of what black kids have to be.

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Willow Smith – Autumn/Winter 2016
All clothes and accessories Chanel Resort 2017, septum ring Willow’s ownPhotography Ben Toms, fashion Robbie Spencer

Willow Smith: I feel like people always think black kids are like, ‘Oh, we in the trap,’ like, ‘OK, I got my whip and my chains’ – like, cool, but it’s a whip and it’s a chain. It doesn’t sound like you’re happy with that, it doesn’t sound like that makes you feel good. Then when they see black kids who are the exact opposite of that, it’s like, ‘Woah. This is not what I’m used to seeing, what do I do about it?’

Amandla Stenberg: I think you challenge people a lot just by being yourself.

Willow Smith: Definitely, we challenge people! Seriously. It’s crazy, that’s why I want to keep in contact with people who I know are just trying to uplift themselves.

Amandla Stenberg: And trying to use whatever strength they have to uplift everyone else. I get that.

Willow Smith: I’ve talked about this a lot with the Chanel ambassadorship. I just feel like I need to give love and confidence to black girls who don’t feel like they’re beautiful, and (to tell them) that it doesn’t matter what society has pinned you as, because you are a being that can’t be pinned. Who you are as an individual – that can never be categorised, it’s always going to be infinitely beautiful and divine. I want to be able to spread unity, but it’s so important to target black girls because, more and more, they’re starting to feel like the only thing that they are is their bodies or their skin. I see it every day.

“I need to give love and confidence to black girls who don’t feel like they’re beautiful, because you are a being that can’t be pinned” — Willow Smith 

Amandla Stenberg: At the same time, I feel like there’s this crazy uprising of black girls who are taking ownership of their lives, who are not afraid to be themselves. And it’s happening at the same time that there’s this countercultural shift.

Willow Smith: It’s like two teams, the light and the dark. And right now they’re (makes roaring noise) fighting, and we’re at the front. It has to happen, but it’s tiring. But it definitely has to happen. I want to fight back, I wanna be active against the fucking crazy world, you know?

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Willow Smith – Autumn/Winter 2016
Photography Ben Toms, fashion Robbie Spencer

Amandla Stenberg: I love how you and Jaden challenge gender because I think it’s a construct that is ending, and once it does we can be more comfortable.

Willow Smith: People on my freaking Instagram  are like, ‘Oh, your parents did a terrible job with you, Jaden’s wearing skirts, you guys messed up.’ But it’s literally just expectations. Where I see subtle racism and sexism coming out the most is in people’s unconscious expectations, because that’s where you see how the media, little sayings (or) just everyone around you dig into your brain. You don’t even know that you’re doing it, you just expect certain things, because you think the world is a certain way. I was at the doctors with my mom, just sitting there bored. The doctor walks in and he’s this old white dude, who goes to my mom, ‘Ooh! Is that your son?’ I look at him. At this point I’m already kind of pissed. So I’m like, ‘I’m androgynous.’ And I looked at him like I was literally about to kick his shit or something. I guess his entire throat just filled up with mucus, he got so uncomfortable he couldn’t speak. And I was just like, ‘Damn, why does that make you so uncomfortable? That’s just the truth. Obviously you’d know it best, I look like a boy and a girl, that’s the meaning of androgynous.’

Amandla Stenberg: You digest these preconceived notions of what we’re supposed to do, how we’re supposed to dress. It’s uncomfortable to challenge it and even more uncomfortable sometimes for people to accept it. But it’s important. Even though you and Jay get shit for challenging gender norms, for being alternative kids, for being queer black kids, for inhabiting this space that doesn’t have enough representation in the media, you’re also inspiring so many young people to just be themselves and feel comfortable in their own skin.

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Willow Smith – Autumn/Winter 2016
Photography Ben Toms, fashion Robbie Spencer

Willow Smith: Yeah, man. Throughout my entire childhood everyone said, ‘You look like a boy,’ ‘You’re a lesbian’ and blah-blah-blah. You’re just like, ‘Well, I guess they’re more grown than me,’ and you start believing it. ‘Everything that everyone’s telling me must be true, because I haven’t made my own truth yet.’ It’s rough, especially for girls on social media, because we’re sexualised so much it’s like, ‘Wow, when are we – and other people – going to see ourselves as people and not objects?’

Amandla Stenberg: It’s so wild when you have that realisation, it really changes how you view people’s perceptions of you. When I choose not to have any kind of gender attached to myself – when I choose to just be, kind of like, a blob – that’s when people feel the most threatened. Because they can’t control you through your sexuality.

Willow Smith: It’s one of the biggest ways that men control women. And I see it all the time. Like, how women are painted in the media. That’s why it’s so amazing that Chanel picked me to be their ambassador, because it stretches the ideals of beauty. And it stretches what other people think that Chanel thinks is beauty, and what society as a whole thinks is beauty. I just feel like, because I’m the youngest black female with dreads to ever be a Chanel ambassador, that’s history.

“When I choose not to have any kind of gender attached to myself, that’s when people feel the most threatened. Because they can’t control you through your sexuality” — Amandla Stenberg 

Amandla Stenberg: Let’s talk about your novels!

Willow Smith: I’ve probably written about four and a half novels. But one of them got ruined because I poured water on my computer, it was really sad! It was about four kids who went on these adventures in the forest. All their families were, like, super-depressed and the kids found happiness and solace in the forest. I want to write novels because when I sit and read a book by myself, the entire world disappears. I want (people to) see inside of my head and see how I see the world.

Amandla Stenberg: Yeah, that’s tight. I feel like the themes you work with are, like, the capitalist world destroying human qualities, and kids fighting against it.

Willow Smith: That’s all that anything is. Look at The Hunger Games, look at all the books that are coming out right now, Divergent… Why are people making what they’re making? Because it’s relevant to what’s happening in the world today.

Amandla Stenberg: Absolutely.

Willow Smith: Craziness. Speaking of Divergent – Shailene Woodley, I love her. Did I tell you I saw her in Cafe Gratitude?

Amandla Stenberg: When you ate raw food together?

Willow Smith: Yeah. She got me a key lime pie, and she didn’t even have to do that.

Amandla Stenberg: Shailene Woodley is like, for real, bae. She makes her own toothpaste. It’s crazy.

Willow Smith: No fluoride in my toothpaste!

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Willow Smith – Autumn/Winter 2016
Photography Ben Toms, fashion Robbie Spencer

Amandla Stenberg: Let’s talk about growing up…

Willow Smith: I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. (laughter) Just because I’m a 15-year-old black girl in the world, and sometimes I’m actually afraid of the future. Like, one day, if the Dark Act (controversial GM food labelling bill) gets signed, or if certain art things get legally banned…

Amandla Stenberg: If certain people become president…

Willow Smith: (nervous laughter) Yeah… It’s like, ‘Am I going to walk down the street one day and someone can shoot me just because they don’t like me?’ And not just that, it’s like, ‘Who am I going to be? Do I have the strength to uplift this world and these people? Am I going to have strength to uplift myself?’ It’s a privilege and a curse to have so many eyes on you and so many people feeling your vibration.  

Amandla Stenberg: I’ve learned that if anyone is addressing me with hate, it’s just because they feel uncomfortable and it comes from a place of fear. Hate always comes from fear. And if they’re afraid, we must be pretty fucking powerful.

Willow Smith: Yeah, bro, seriously. And that’s why all of these shootings that have been happening, and all this crap that is so dark that’s been happening around the world, it’s really based in fear. Like the guy that was trying to help the autistic kid in the street – he just lay down and put his hands up, and the guy still shot him.

Amandla Stenberg: I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s happening in the world, about police brutality and how people are getting killed. And it feels like there’s no answer, there’s no one thing that’s going to fix this problem…

Willow Smith: …because it’s seven billion different things.

Amandla Stenberg: It’s seven billion different things. And it’s historical – it’s deeply rooted and it’s fear-driven. But I think that what we can do to combat it is just humanise ourselves and other black people as much as possible. Because at the root of the issue is the fact that we aren’t seen as human.

“Hate always comes from fear. And if they’re afraid, we must be pretty fucking powerful” — Amandla Stenberg

Willow Smith: I feel like I’ve lived so many lives on this earth. I feel like this is, if not my last life, my second-to-last life.

Amandla Stenberg: You really feel like that? That’s crazy.

Willow Smith: I feel like every single day I’ve been on this planet I’ve been with these same people and souls for eternity. It’s insane. I look around and feel a familiarity and nagging sense of, ‘I want more.’ I want more of life, I want more understanding, I want more of this feeling of connectedness. Then I’m like, ‘You know what, let me live this life out to the fullest so I can go to another dimension and have a completely new life cycle. That’s really my goals right now, that’s my goals.

Amandla Stenberg: But while you’re here you might as well try to change things a bit. Fuck shit up. Just a tad.

Willow Smith: Fearless, bro.

Amandla Stenberg: Fearless. I feel like that was the perfect ending.

Willow Smith: Thank you, Dazed. We love you!

Amandla Stenberg: Peace, love and happiness. XOXO Gossip Girl.

Hair Marcia Hamilton a FR8ME using KeraCare, make-up Sandrine Cano Bock at Marie-France Thavonekham using Chanel Les Beiges and Hydra Beauty Skincare, model Willow Smith at The Society Management, set design Polly Philp, photographic assistants Jack Symes, Mikael Bambi, fashion assistant Louise Ford, set design assistant Esther Theaker, digital operator Philippe Billemont, production Julia Hackel, Michael Lacomblez at Louis2, retouching Studio Private, executive talent consultant Greg Krelenstein at Starworks Group, associate talent consultant Alexia Elkaim at Starworks Group