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Willow Smith & Black Representation in Alternative Music Genres

Willow Smith, known professionally by the stylized mononym WILLOW, is an American singer-songwriter who has recently reinvented her sound. Having broken in to the musical scene at the age of 9 in 2009, with her global hit ‘Whip my Hair’, Smith’s music evolved quite a bit over the years and has recently taken an especially exciting new direction.

On April 27th, 2021, Smith released a new track entitled “Transparent Soul”.  With an eclectic style, she’s previously released experimental pop and Alternative R&B, but this single marks her debut into the pop-punk genre. This release hallmarks an important victory for black representation in the Alternative music industry.

Alternative music is a category of rock music that originated in the 1970s and became widely popular in the 1990s. The genre breaks away from the mainstream and commercial style of rock and pop music. It has many different iterations and subgenres, fusion genres, and derivative forms. The alternative music arena is thought to be significantly dominated by white artists and white listeners, however, interestingly enough, the origins of the rock & roll are contrary to this. Many of the late great pioneers of the genre such as Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (The Godmother of Rock & Roll) were black.

What makes Smith’s debut so impactful is that it represents a breaking away from stereotypes and typecasts that society sets for us based on our race. It serves as a reminder to us to stay true to ourselves and to explore what we genuinely have an interest in without reservations of keeping with what we ‘should’ like. It also serves as an encouragement to be accepting and open-minded of others, even where we might not enjoy or understand something ourselves. We should learn to give people room to simply be. Black people should be able to embrace alternative music taste and style without it resulting in the negative assumptions that they’re forsaking their identity as black people.

 Black people, just like any other people, are not monolithic. It is ridiculous and counterintuitive to honestly expect members of the same race to be carbon copies of each other. Race simply doesn’t prescribe personality traits, behaviours, exact appearances, or aptitude. Even now, we are still slowly coming to terms with that as we move away from the mentality of deeply entrenched and regimented thinking that is counter-productive for society. 

Representation in music is important because it shows people that even if it seems unconventional, it is okay for them to be themselves, despite an inundation of media trying to convince them otherwise. It helps to ease the pressure to conform and gives the listener the confidence they need to wear their brand of ‘different’ with pride. 

With this latest release, Smith became a part of a long legacy of black artists pushing boundaries and breaking cookie-cutter images inside and outside of the music industry. I am thrilled to see what she does next and who else will join the party alongside her in the years to come.

Lungile Humphrey is a Graduate-to-be at the University of Cape Town, studying Anthropology and Archaeology. She loves reading, writing, movies, music and video games among many other things. She also happens to despise soup, minions and drinking cold water but is otherwise a relatively reasonable person.
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