"It's very, very, very overwhelming for a 9-year-old," admitted Willow Smith earlier this month in a radio interview with Ryan Seacrest. Then, somewhere between learning her multiplication tables and attending Milan Fashion Week, the fifth-grader found the time to become a pop sensation with her single "Whip My Hair." Jay-Z, who signed her with his label RocNation, compared Willow to a young Michael Jackson — an apt association that's hopefully more blessing than curse.
Like a lot of folks, when I first saw Willow punk-rocking the red carpet in leopard-print Hammer pants and a cheetah cropped jacket, my reaction was anything but mixed. What happened to that cute little girl in the beret and Brandi braids? Who's styling this kid? Why does a kid have a stylist? Where are her parents?
But Willow's parents are never far behind. Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith have morphed into a new species of Soccer Mom. Instead of cheering their mini-mes on from the sidelines, they're watching them sign major record deals. And who's to say that in their world, that doesn't make sense?
"My mom and me are very strong individuals," explained Willow when Seacrest asked where all her confidence came from. "You can't be afraid to be yourself, and you can't let anyone tell you that that's wrong … lots of people don't act like themselves, so they're not happy." Popping gum like it was the last piece on earth, Willow looked like the poster child for good parenting. She was poised, positive and at all times polite. Ryan called her "refreshing to be around," and I believe that's the biggest part of Willow's appeal.
So often the only affirming images of girlhood that little black girls get are wrapped in a very blond bow. From Pollyannas to Barbies to Taylor Swift, childlike innocence seems to be reserved for the select few. It's the same reason mothers were so happy to have Princess Tiana — the first African-American Disney princess — added to the lexicon of fairy tales. Dreams should get to come true for everybody. And Willow definitely seems to be living hers — while remaining as close to childlike as the starlet child of two stars can be.
Listening to the lyrics of "Whip My Hair," which the RocNation's Willow Smith Web site says is about "celebration of freedom, energy, expression and liberating yourself," you can't help smiling — a social concession that everyone with an online degree in therapy claims black women should do more of: "Pay no attention to them haters 'cause we whip 'em off. And we ain't doing nothing wrong so don't tell me nothing. I'm just tryna have fun so keep the party jumping." It sounds like something a 9-year-old wrote for 29-year-olds to live through vicariously.
"Did you ever worry she's too young?" Seacrest asked Jay-Z, who loved "Whip My Hair" before realizing its singer was in elementary school.
"I believe that you have to start somewhere, and when you have that sort of talent, and you have that sort of vision, there's no such thing as too young," answered Mr. Carter, who is, not incidentally, also responsible for the meteoric rise of another young singer with edgy hair: Rihanna.
Seacrest said that Jay-Z predicted Rihanna's success when she was just 16, and the same might be true for the young Miss Smith. But comparing Willow to the famous good-girl-gone-bad has its problems. So does kicking it with the queen of tantrum throwing, Naomi Campbell, as Willow and Jada did last week in Milan during Fashion Week.
Because as it stands now, Willow is still a child, no matter what kind of crazy cacophony of Karl Lagerfeld for Kids she's sporting. For me her allure is no allure — nothing's forced (seriously, I think she likes shaving stars into her head; what kid wouldn't?), and nothing's fake.
As every pop-culture vulture knows, getting grown before you've actually had time to grow is hazardous to your mental and physical health; just ask Drew, Britney, Nicole, Lindsay and Montana. The 9-year-old trendsetter's charm is rooted in the fact that she looks to be a little woman-in-training, not a woman trapped in a little girl's body. Although a lot of us "grown women" wish we could go back to that innocence, I think we should let whipping Willow keep it.