It’s Women’s History Month, and this month, we’re talking about women who have made, or are making history in music. Our first entry into this series is someone I’m particularly excited about, 100% because she deserves her flowers.
If you didn’t know, recently, Willow Smith (stage name: WILLOW) has ventured into the pop-punk and punk space with her music. No longer is she whipping her hair in the middle of lunch with her elementary school friends in front of a dubstep beat. Now, she uses her talent, amongst classic guitar riffs and explosive drums, to become one of my favorite new pop-punk artists.
WILLOW’s record is a banger
2021 saw her first LP into this genre, Lately I Feel Everything. Y’all, it slams. I’m not one of those people who thinks people younger than me (she’s 21) can’t make awesome tunes. After all, though 18-year-old Olivia Rodrigo’s SOUR isn’t for me, “brutal,” and “jealousy, jealousy,” (admittedly, the most punk-y tracks) definitely are.
But back to Willow. With Kid Cudi, the Blink-182 guy (Travis Barker), Tierra Whack, Cherry Glazerr, and Avril Lavinge having excellent features, this album was set to be one for the ages, went out, and did just that.
One thing I love about this record is the care that went into it. Not only is it a sort of an ode to classic pop-punk, from the features to its ’90s sound, but it’s so vulnerable. There’s not a single song that makes you doubt that this body of work is entirely Smith’s. She doesn’t get lost in the many moving elements—she created them. Her experiences make this record.
Like, she sampled “Power” by Kanye “Ye” West in sound and lyricism—and turned it into an electric, power chord-driven, hardcore punk declaration: I’m fucking awesome, and I can do whatever I want. Just like the original, no?
“No woman should have all that power/Hate people I just talk to flowers/Ain’t nothing to me I just kill the hours,”—it’s a little bit iconic to me.
So let’s talk about why WILLOW’s venture into pop-punk, while heavily criticized by gatekeepers, racists, and misogynists, is important.
It always matters
Story time: When I was a pre-teen, I had an embarrassingly huge side bang, too much black eyeliner at my disposal, and fingerless gloves I “borrowed” from Zumiez when no one was looking. Obviously, I was a pop-punk kid, and wanted to go to Vans Warped Tour so badly. However, my mom, always looking out, was hesitant. Would there be people “like us” there? When I was young, I didn’t see why that would matter.
But, now that I’ve put some time into being in the punk scene, let me be the first to say that it totally matters. I’m not blind to what it looks like to enjoy music in a space that’s largely dominated by cis white dudes. I wasn’t then—as a person of color, you are always aware. But I know a little more now.
Representation, a sense of belonging, a celebration of culture through music, seeing people who look like you inspire you—it all matters. The fact that WILLOW, a young Black woman, is unapologetically taking up space in the scene is inspiring—not only to young fans, but to older people like me. The act of taking up space—no matter what—is timeless.
And for young Black women everywhere, there’s a certain intersectionality that can’t be ignored in the scene.
The state of the scene
Intersectionality is what happens when different groups that are usually discriminated against overlap and an entirely new set of systemic discrimination issues emerge. For instance, at punk shows, women often have their personal space violated by creeps. At punk shows, Black people are often jeered at by racist creeps.
At punk shows, women who are Black experience effects of both of these issues at the same time, and a completely different layer of experiences that come from being both Black and a woman. Because she is a Black woman, her experience is different, and matters. Her impact is different, and matters. And this all matters in a way only other Black people who identify as female can understand. They deserve to be heard of in the scene, not silenced.
And yes, there have been attempts at silencing. I’ve experienced it. Smith received horrible comments under a video of her playing a System of a Down song on IG. Jada Pinkett-Smith, Willow’s mom, received death threats when she was in her punk band. Just for being a Black woman in the scene.
This article explains why well: “For a long time, rock was a space that some white men felt they owned – and they didn’t like it when their dominance felt threatened.”
And when some white men feel threatened, they attack who they feel threatened by and feel entitled to do so. That’s why my mom had questions. That’s why I’ve had the experiences I’ve had at shows. And trust me, I’m proud of my beautiful skin. But sometimes, I’m not always safe at shows because of it. Cis white dudes, though? They’re embraced. They can travel to shows alone at night without a care. They can jump around and scream and feel seen, while others, try as they might, just can’t. And that’s simply not fair. Especially not within a genre that prides itself on embracing differences.
A genre, mind you, created by Black people. But we knew that. And yes, Smith has acknowledged this, saying: “Black people created rock music, But we have been so indoctrinated, so conditioned to believe that we only thrive in certain categories of creativity and entertainment. And that’s just not OK.”
It’s not. Black people have the right to exist in the spaces they want to, especially in the ones they create. WILLOW is just one example of Black women who have begun to dominate the scene in recent years. Big Joanie, Rico Nasty, and Meet Me @ The Altar are alternative/punk acts with Black, female-identifying members. And to see them cover AltPress… young me would’ve loved to show that to her mom. There have never been this many Black women dominating the scene before.
And we need these musicians for representation, for perspective, for safety, for damn good music.
Smith recognizes her space in the scene and what it means to be there. She’s her fully Black self and that comes through in her music, regardless of what old weird white men and naysayers in-between have to say. That’s why she’s important, and why she is making history. I’m just glad I can see it happen in my lifetime. Don’t forget to check out our New Music Friday column too.
Photo via Dana Trippe