Nine-Year-Old 'Whips' Up Internet Sensation

The daughter of actors Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith, nine-year-old Willow, hopped into the spotlight this week with the debut of her first music video. Willow Smith's song, "Whip My Hair," has caused a stir on the Internet. Some love it, but others wonder if the little performer is too young to be drawing so much attention. Host Michel Martin talks with Danielle Belton, author of the politics and pop culture blog BlackSnob.com, about Willow Smith's moment in the spotlight.

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(Soundbite of music)

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And we want to tell you about one more thing that's burning up the Internet. It's Willow Smith, the nine-year-old daughter of megastars Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith.

Willow Smith made a splash this week with the premiere of a music video for a song called "Whip My Hair."

(Soundbite of song, "Whip My Hair")

Ms. WILLOW SMITH (Singer): (Singing) I whip my hair back and forth. I whip my hair back and forth. Just whip it. I whip my hair back and forth I whip my hair back and forth. Whip it real good. I whip my hair back and forth. I whip my hair back and forth. I whip my hair back and forth. Hop up out the bed turn my swag on.

MARTIN:: Well, you really have to see it. But the video is colorful, kinetic, it features a sassy Willow Smith dancing with dozens of other kids who are whipping their hair too. The video went viral almost immediately after it premiered on Monday and won Willow a lot of fans. But some people are asking whether a nine year old should be drawing this kind of attention and whether her famous parents are making a misstep by putting her in the spotlight.

We wanted to talk more about this so we've called Danielle Belton, author of the politics and pop culture blog BlackSnob.com, and she's with us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. And she's whipping her hair too, I should mention that. So, welcome.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DANIELLE BELTON (Author, BlackSnob.com): Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Why do you think that video caused such a frenzy? Just how big of a hit is it?

Ms. BELTON: Well, I think it was seductive for people because of the fact that the song is edgy enough and pop enough and hip-hop enough where if it had been performed by Rihanna or an older artist it would be very - it would be received really, really well. But the fact that it's a nine-year-old girl with like this totally head-banging like, slamming, driven beat it's, you know, it's just weird. Like how should I feel about this as an adult? Can I play this at the club and dance to this as an adult like even the...

MARTIN: A club that a nine year old shouldn't be in.

Ms. BELTON: Exactly, that she can't get into, you know. And so I think that some of the unease comes from that - from people who just can't reconcile the two, the fact that there's some mature music coming from a nine year old that they would actually like to get out and dance to. But at the same token, it is a kids' song. There's nothing really beyond the pail in the song or the video. She's obviously, you know, nine.

MARTIN: Well, what is the criticism? Is it - because there have been kid stars since forever. I mean the Disney Channel is filled with kids dancing. I mean there are shows about little kids dancing so what's so terrible?

Ms. BELTON: I think the fact that she's being marketed and promoted as an actual artist - a serious artist. A lot of times with kid singers often they get put in like the little kiddie ghetto. Like okay, you're on Disney, okay you're on Nickelodeon, the only people who know who you are are people watch Disney and Nickelodeon. Like I could not tell you a Selena Gomez song. I don't know any. I don't know a Demi Lotavo(ph) song. Like those are all...

MARTIN: Lovato. Huge. I do.

Ms. BELTON: Yeah. That's it.

MARTIN: I do.

Ms. BELTON: They're huge. Huge with kids but...

MARTIN: But then there have been other young stars. I need the Jackson 5 for heaven sakes.

Ms. BELTON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Well, is that part - I mean is that part of it, is that the Jackson legacy is that people think nothing good will come of this? Is that part of that concern?

Ms. BELTON: Well, there's some that too. Although I think what Willow has an advantage in her corner is that both her parents are already celebrities. Her parents aren't depending on her to, you know, pay the rent. You know, with the Jackson 5, those kids, if they didnt work the family didn't eat so that's a lot of pressure.

MARTIN: Which is not just the fact for them but other child stars have been also the engine that lifted their families out of poverty.

Ms. BELTON: Well, there's the Lindsay Lohan problems. I mean, you know, they are the primary breadwinner and that's a precarious position to put a developing child in, to say okay, you know, the whole family is going to fail if you don't get this together and go do the show, like most kids don't have the maturity to pull that off.

She doesn't have to worry about that. Willow does not have that worry at all. Mommy and Daddy have plenty of money, they are completely supportive and they can essentially protect her in ways that poor parents couldn't.

MARTIN: Well, is the issue here that they feel, what, that they are exposing her to too much attention and that they look at other child stars are - seem to be having some very difficult times when they grow up like Lindsay Lohan, like Gary Coleman and say that the whole child star phenomenon needs to be tamped down? Is that part of the issue?

Ms. BELTON: I think there's a concern about taking a kid that young and opening her up for criticism. When you put a child out there like that with a song and you're promoting them as they mature artist you're going to invite criticism from people. And the fact that youre only nine, youre still developing your own identity some of that criticism can be devastating. You'll have people who criticize your looks, theyll criticize how you dress, how you talk, how you sound, whether you can actually sing or not. People might accuse you of, you know, of all sorts of things, of it not being really you, it's really your mom who's pushing this whole thing.

MARTIN: Right.

Ms. BELTON: So it's all about, to me it's all about how well the Pinkett-Smiths will protect Willow from, you know, what she is going to hear versus what, you know, they don't want her to hear.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting because kids have always worked with their parents. I mean they worked with their parents on the farm.

Ms. BELTON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: I mean, you know, any, you know, kids who's parents had small business...

Ms. BELTON: And my mother has been working since she was like nine.

MARTIN: ...have always, you know, worked with them so this is kind of their family business. The only question I have for you is the whole hair thing - the whole whip my hair thing. You know, there always this debate in many ethnic communities particularly African-American communities where hair is such a sensitive issue. I wonder if there's anything about the whole whip your hair thing, the fact that you need to have hair to whip, is that something that's bothering, is that kind of pushing anybody's buttons.

Ms. BELTON: Well, you know, hair is a political issue in the black community. There are so many things about blackness that our political that aren't political for other people that become a whole deep, angry, debated issue so there is a hint of that because hair is such a huge identity issue especially for black women. When you think of the millions and millions of dollars that black women spend on their hair trying to get it to do whatever they desire for it to do.

MARTIN: Or that other people's hair does. Let's just be honest about it. So there's that piece of it.

Ms. BELTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: So there's that piece of it. So finally, just very briefly, are you a fan, you like it? Thumbs up, thumbs down?

Ms. BELTON: I like this song. I think it's a good song.

MARTIN: Okay, even though you're not nine.

Ms. BELTON: Even though I am not nine. Yeah.

MARTIN: All right. Well, whip your hair Danielle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Danielle Belton is author of the blog BlackSnob.com and she joined us in our studio in Washington.

Thank you.

Ms. BELTON: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And you can read more about Willow Smith and the "Whip My Hair" video. TELL ME MORE producer Veronica Miller shares her thoughts on our blog, go to npr.org, click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE. Feel free to add your own comments. In other words, blog it out.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African American Public radio Consortium.

Lets talk more tomorrow.

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