I grew up in a small, racially tense town an hour outside of Atlanta, Georgia. I was a part of the early 2000s emo wave. I loved books, the color black, video games, anime and rock music. It was extremely hard for me to make friends—even with my Hershey's chocolate skin, I was still too “white” for the black kids. I didn’t feel a part of the culture because of my interests, which didn’t fit into the stereotypes I saw on TV, in magazines or heard on V-103 or Hot 107.9. In the same breath, I couldn’t hang with the white kids because to them, I was still black, no matter what my interests were.
This ongoing internal battle came to a boil in college. I had been confused about my identity for a long time, and in order to adapt to the HBCU environment, I stifled my true self to be accepted. But it was there that I discovered my true love for hip-hop, deciding to devote my career to writing about the music and culture.
Now, at 23 years old, I’m peeling back decades of socialization from both my own community and my counterparts to find the parts of me that have been buried out of self-hate. I set out on a mission to find my voice, and Willow Smith’s sophomore album has been my guiding light.
Rightfully titled, The 1st was released on the 17-year-old’s birthday (October 31) and is a tale of firsts—a by-product of the journey through self-discovery, self-love, observations of the world and the pains of growing wiser through it all—told by indie-esque acoustics and angsty existential lyrics. The 11-song album exemplifies Smith’s growth as both an artist and a woman, far surpassing her 2015 debut ARDIPITHECUS in content and sophistication.
At the time the album was released, I was in-between jobs with a Brooklyn apartment to pay for and ambitions to break into the media industry. Social media appeared to be a never-ending timeline of my friends’ and colleagues’ accomplishments, while I spent my days folding clothes at a retail store.
Envy often peaked its ugly, green energy in my aura. Why does it feel like everyone is passing me by?
It was Smith’s wisdom on “And Contentment” that reminded me to focus my eyes on my plate, and not on everyone else’s. The only way to maintain positive vibes was to stop comparing myself to others and to cherish my personal experiences, good or bad, because there’s a lesson in every single one of them.
There were many nights I spent a lot of time in my own head, wondering if music journalism, specifically about hip-hop, was something I was really put on this earth to do. Do I even have the authority, given my early distance from the culture?
During that time, aside from God, Smith seemed to be the only person who got it. On “A Reason,” listeners are given a look into the mind of Smith, who is desperately searching for her purpose in life, posing the question I’ve asked myself a million times: Why am I here?
Answering her own question, she wisely replies, “We create our own reason.”
Smith knows exactly who she is, or at least has a very clear outline. She doesn’t fit neatly in a genre, nor is she trying to. Her message of being comfortable with oneself is one that can’t be contained, permeating through everything she touches. She is more than wise; she’s a gem for black and brown girls who might be struggling with identity and self-love.
The 1st is a body of work that is vulnerable and stays true to Willow’s genre-bending sound, contributing to the music industry’s and this generation's paradigm shift.
Listening to Smith’s album I was reminded that it’s okay to be me. It’s normal not to have all the answers, and things will work out in time. I wish I had someone like Willow to look to when I was in my younger years, in that small town, to let me know me know I’m valued, weirdness and all.