On the cusp of the coronavirus pandemic in March, 20-year-old musician, actor, and model Willow Smith found a way to turn her own apprehensions into performance art. As one half of the music group the Anxiety, Smith, alongside Tyler Cole (who photographed this story for Marie Claire), cycled through eight different emotional states—from paranoia to rage to euphoria—acting out each in three-hour intervals over the course of 24 hours. All of it took place inside of a glass box on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. “I’m a young woman of color in America. What I express [in my art] is my dismay or my sadness at the reality that I’m seeing in front of me,” she says.
It’s a reality that isn’t rose tinted. “Times are going to get toughy nuffy—more tough than I think we ever expected it to get,” she says. Smith believes we live in a world that demands a lot of patience and emotional intelligence if the status quo is ever going to change. “At the end of the day, it always takes just one person to be like, ‘Eff it, I’m going to go and I’m going to say this,’ and then all of the people who feel the same way look at that person and go, ‘I’m going to stand with them.’ ”
Particularly people Smith’s age. “Youth has always been at the forefront of change in society. I feel what is becoming different is that people are going out of their way to ask themselves, ‘What can I do? How can I contribute to making this world a better place?’ ” she says. Often, that contribution can be as simple as spreading the word. With increasing frequency over the last few years, digital natives like Smith have turned to their hyperconnected audiences and their own social networks (her combined following across Instagram and Twitter is more than 10 million) to vocalize, organize, and mobilize in pursuit of meaningful change. “I speak out as much as I can on social media and give artists of color platforms to speak their mind, to be seen and have their work known,” she says.
A trusted voice among her cohort, Smith also sits alongside her mother, Jada Pinkett Smith, and her maternal grandmother, Adrienne Banfield-Norris, at the red table, the set of the trio’s web series, Red Table Talk. The show’s 9.8 million followers tune in each week to hear the perspectives of three generations of women on issues of paramount importance, like racial injustice and police violence. When I ask Smith about her own involvement in Black Lives Matter, she relays a disturbing incident to me in a way that proves it is all too commonplace: “One of my cousins actually got shot by a rubber bullet. I think it was multiple times in his ribs and in his back.”
Smith doesn’t take this lightly, and she recognizes that her unique position as a child of Hollywood superstars and now a celebrated artist in her own right comes with responsibility: “If you have a platform and you’re not using it for good and awareness and helping others, then what are you doing?”
In the fashion community, the youngest Smith’s unconventional ways of igniting change haven’t gone unnoticed: She’s been tapped as one of five new faces for Cartier’s Pasha de Cartier collection. The 1980s Pasha watch has been redesigned and relaunched with today’s fresh crop of artists in mind—all of whom owe their successes to their differences. Smith’s tenacious spirit is in keeping with the brand’s desire to celebrate creativity, nonconformity, versatility, and openness. “When someone has the courage to stand up and say, ‘I’m different and that’s okay,’ or when someone chooses to stand up and say whatever it is that’s true to them, without fear, that gives me hope,” she says. “Sometimes finding your voice means listening to other people express themselves. That’s why I make art in the first place, because that chain reaction is sacred.”
This story appears in the Winter 2020 issue of Marie Claire.