How Willow Smith is Reclaiming Black Identity in Rock
And why it's so important
( Willow Smith // Instagram )
If you asked the modern-day white American dad in his late sixties what he thought the embodiment of America is, he might say rock’n’roll and maybe, just maybe, burgers on the grill. And while rock’n’roll is often characterized by its whiteness, its origins are inherently rooted in Black musicianship and the blues. Public neglect of such influences is disrespectful to both the pioneers of the genre and as an extension, rock itself. That’s just one reason why Willow is so important as a rockstar idol to the new generation. But we’ll get into it.
A little history lesson - Rock’n’roll emerged in the 1950s as a mixture of rhythm and blues, rockabilly, and swing; all genres popularized in the century before. Structurally, the songs were based on the blues, having 48 beats on loop and characterized by chords that start with the first note in the key and chords going to the fourth note in the key, and often concluding in the infamous 2-5-1 chord progression (2nd note chord to fifth note chord to first note chord). A perfect sonic representation of this is found so simply in Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” which is often credited with beginning the era of rock’n’roll. Vocally, the singing style was similar to the blues in being hoarse and expressive, using improvisations and scats. The songs of rock’n’roll are all in upbeat 4/4 (meaning there are four counts per measure that each get one beat) with a strong emphasis on the second and fourth beat, and the rhythmic intensity of jazz.
It is not an exaggeration to claim that rock’n’roll (as we know it) would not exist without the musical influences of Black Americans - and yet they are rarely associated with the genre in the public’s eye.
And there is one idea we have to acknowledge in explaining why Black musicians didn’t get the credit they deserve in this genre. The very qualities that white rock and roll icons (sorry Elvis) were praised for - such as being a womanizer, slightly aggressive in both song and sexual behavior, representative of danger and rebellion and seen as an underdog because of lower class roots, are some of the same qualities that Black people had been villainized for before, during and after the rock and roll era. It is in this sentiment, that rock and roll was “popularized by white artists,” that we can see a clear example of cultural appropriation. White musicians and producers immensely profited off music made and originating from Black musicians, while simultaneously creating an environment that made it impossible for them to reach the same level of success without confirming racial stereotypes held by the public.
Now can we please talk about Willow? (yes!)
Through her breakthrough releases into the rock genre (notably and famously the single “Transparent Soul”) as well as her new album “Lately I Feel EVERYTHING,” Willow has garnered a ton of popularity, success and respect from the punk rock community. One commenter on YouTube noted that Willow is serving as an icon for girls of color to look up to.
With Willow in the spotlight, young girls can see themselves, and they can realize that they too can flourish as a part of the rock community without their peers thinking of them as any less Black, or any more white, for doing so.
And I don’t have to prove to you that Willow’s current sound is punk rock, but in case you’re oh-so-curious, her style has all the characteristics specific to punk rock: shouted vocals, distorted guitar and power chords. Her new album “Lately I Feel EVERYTHING” dives even more into the grunge, grit and grime, featuring none other than Avril Lavigne, whose high and nasally voice compliments Willow's harsher sound. And speaking of Willow’s sound, her effortless transition from delicate and angelic vocals, to full-on belts in the song “Gaslight,” reminds the public of her range as an artist (which is super expansive, she is literally capable of singing soothing mantras in her “Rise” EP and now, punk rock). Conceptually, the album explores Willow’s relationship with image and anxiety and the optimism in healing - something extremely relevant to today’s youth.
And so now you understand that Willow reclaiming and exploring a multitude of genres with Black roots is important for current representation and recognition of the Black influences (shoutout Chuck Berry and Fats Domino) who pioneered rock and roll in the first place.