As the daughter of actors/musicians Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, it was perhaps inevitable that Willow Smith would forge a showbiz career. But by releasing her debut single aged just ten years old, she was thrown into the spotlight much younger than her A-list parents. Here’s a look at how the “Whip My Hair” singer has coped with being a child star.
Born in L.A. in 2000, Willow Smith comes from a star-studded family. Her father Will has achieved massive success as both a rapper and actor, winning four Grammys and receiving two Oscar nominations. Her mother Jada is also a double threat, having appeared in the likes of The Nutty Professor and Set It Off, and fronted metal outfit Wicked Wisdom.
Her older brother Jaden is a fellow child star, having appeared in The Pursuit of Happyness, The Karate Kid and After Earth. Like Willow, he’s forged a music career, too, releasing his debut album, Syre, earlier this year. Her half-brother Trey is also in the entertainment industry as an actor and DJ.
Smith first entered the limelight appearing alongside father Will in 2007’s I Am Legend. A year later she starred in Kit Kittredge: An American Girl and joined her mother Jada in the voice cast of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. Her last screen credit came in 2010 when she played Young True in an episode of True Jackson, VP.
After that, Smith decided to abandon her promising acting career to pursue her musical ambitions. In 2010 she became the youngest artist ever to sign to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label. She subsequently reached No.11 in the United States and No.2 in the U.K. charts with her debut single, “Whip My Hair.”
A year later she scored a second US Hot 100 hit with “21st Century Girl” and collaborated with Nicki Minaj on the track, “Fireball.” She went on to win Best New Artist at both the VirtualMagazine Awards and NAACP Image Awards. She also shared the YoungStar Award with her older brother Jaden at the 2012 BET Awards.
Smith’s debut LP, Knees and Elbows, was eventually scrapped. But undeterred she returned to the studio where she began to take her music in a new more mature direction. Fans first got to hear the new-sounding Willow Smith on 2014’s EP 3, which was followed a year later by full-length album ARDIPITHECUS.
ARDIPITHECUS was written entirely by Willow, who produced all but one of its 11 tracks too. The record also featured a guest appearance from Willow’s older brother Trey. Critics were divided on its experimental sound, with Consequence of Sound describing the album as “one that shows plenty of promise but also a personality abstruse to the point of mystification.”
In 2016, Smith released the Mellifluous EP and guested on Kid Cudi’s Passion, Pain & Demon Slayin’. Inspired by the R&B stars and alternative singer-songwriters of the 1990s, her second album, The 1st, was released on her 17th birthday. Pitchfork scored it a 6.7, describing it as “a huge leap in the right direction.”
Of course, growing up in the public eye isn’t always easy. And Smith recently revealed in an interview with zine Girl Gaze that she often struggled to cope. “Trying to figure out your life… while people feel like they have some sort of entitlement to know what’s going on, is absolutely, excruciatingly terrible.”
In the same interview, Smith added, “You can’t change your face. You can’t change your parents. You can’t change any of these things.” She also acknowledged that the advances in technology have made it much more difficult for today’s child stars.
“So I feel like most kids like me end up going down a spiral of depression,” Smith told Girl Gaze. She added, “And the world is sitting there looking at them through their phones; laughing and making jokes and memes at the crippling effect that this lifestyle has on the psyche.”
She went on to tell Girl Gaze the options she felt she had in dealing with things. “I’m either going to try to go into it completely and help from the inside, or… no one is going to know where I am… and I’m going to take myself completely out of the eye of society. There’s really no in-between.”
Smith had previously talked of feeling depressed during her one year of school time in a 2014 interview with T Magazine. “It was the best experience… because I was, like, ‘Oh, now I know why kids are so depressed.’ But it was the worst experience because I was depressed.”
In a promotional interview for Jay-Z’s 4:44, her father Will also revealed how touring her debut single caused her to completely shave her head. “I was like, ‘Oh, s-t.’ … I’m looking at that girl and I’m like, ‘Got it. I understand. You will not have this trouble out of me ever again. Let’s go, baby. We can go.’“
Smith recently told Vulture she had no choice but to follow in her parents’ footsteps. “I constantly felt as though there was something I had to do because of the resources that I was given. That personally shifted my perspective in all situations because I always felt like I had to take the high road and be the helper.”
But Smith learned early on she could still carve out her own path. The star told Billboard she once passed on starring in 2013’s Annie despite severe industry pressure. “That was scary, standing up to executives who were like, ‘What? We spent this amount of money. Mmm, you’re doing it.’ And I was like, ‘No, I’m not going to. Sorry.’”
Smith also believes that these opportunities have given her an important role in society. She told Vulture, “We need those people on Earth to do that. If the people with the resources don’t put all of their energy into uplifting, then what is gonna happen? That’s what we need to do. There’s really no choice. It’s an everyday communication with your destiny.”
However, Smith told Vulture that she did plan to take at least some time out from the spotlight to further her education. The 17-year-old intends to study physics and music at college once she’s released her next album. The star and her brother Jaden have become famous for putting forth their views on science and philosophy since rising to fame.
But for now Smith is fully concentrating on her musical career. As well as releasing her second album, the star recently made a guest appearance alongside Pia Mia on brother Jaden’s debut album, Syre. She also served as support on Jhene Aiko’s North American Trip tour.