Jada Pinkett Smith on 'Worthy,' art, and love : It's Been a Minute Jada Pinkett Smith is the kind of celebrity that makes headlines just by breathing. But looking at those headlines — mostly about her marriage to fellow actor, Will Smith — made host Brittany Luse think that most people have gotten Jada all wrong. A graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts, Jada's best known for her acting, but she's also a producer, musician, and painter. After reading her memoir, Worthy, Brittany noticed the way Jada's artistic mind and process had been overlooked. So, she sat down with Jada to ask about it. They talked about what Jada's painting, what she got out of her time as a rock singer, why she looks at her relationship with Will as a masterpiece, and what she wants for her future.

Jada Pinkett Smith, the artist

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Hey, everybody. It's Brittany Luse. And thank you so much for tuning in to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. Before you dive into this episode, I have one small ask. If you have a spare 10 minutes, help us out by completing a short, anonymous survey about how we've been doing with the show. Tell us what you like and how we could improve at npr.org/ibamsurvey. You'll be doing all of us at IBAM a huge favor. That's npr.org/ibamsurvey. Thank you so much.

Hello, hello. I'm Brittany Luse, and you're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR - a show about what's going on in culture and why it doesn't happen by accident.


LUSE: Jada Pinkett Smith, welcome to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE.

JADA PINKETT SMITH: Ah, thank you. Thanks for having me.

LUSE: That's right. My guest today is the Jada Pinkett Smith - one of my bucket-list interviews. She's a Hollywood legend, a household name, and she's a woman who makes headlines just by breathing. And when "Worthy," her memoir, dropped last year, the headlines kept on coming.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Jada Pinkett Smith revealed that she and Will Smith have been separated for nearly seven years. The actress discussed the topic...

LUSE: I'm nosy, so I picked up a copy as soon as the book hit stores. And while I was riveted by the revelations about her marriage to Will Smith, the thing about Jada's memoir that really got my attention was how beautifully she wrote about her creative journey. Jada is so much more than one half of a Hollywood power couple. She's a true artist. And between all the hubbub about the slap and the separation, I think that part of her story has gotten lost. This is a woman who attended two of America's most prestigious art schools, whose work as an actress was as influenced by anime as it was experimental theater, and a woman who toured her heavy metal band across the country with Ozzfest.

PINKETT SMITH: What I love about the metal community is that you get to rage safely. Now, you can get in a mosh pit, and if you want to get your teeth knocked out, cool.

LUSE: From her book and our conversation, it's clear that Jada has the kind of irrepressible creativity that can't help but spill out on stage, on the page or even on a painter's canvas.

PINKETT SMITH: I love textures. So that's what I'm really playing with right now. And I love the juxtaposition of going from, like, beauty to like, rough - the balance of both.

LUSE: So today, we're getting into the creative life of Jada Pinkett Smith, starting with the beginning.

I want to go back to the roots for a second. In your book, "Worthy," you write about understanding yourself as an artist even from your early childhood? You were put into, you know, dance and theater programs as a result. But, you know, how did you know and see yourself clearly as an artist from such a young age?

PINKETT SMITH: I think it had a lot to do with my grandmother. My grandmother was an artist, and my mother is an artist. She used to make jewelry. She'd make sterling silver jewelry with turquoise.

LUSE: Ooh.

PINKETT SMITH: And she would, you know, sand paint. You know, like...

LUSE: Sand paint.

PINKETT SMITH: Yeah, sand paint. You know, back in the day...

LUSE: I was going to say, can remember the...

PINKETT SMITH: ...You had those jars - you know? - and...

LUSE: Yes.

PINKETT SMITH: ...You would sand paint, and then you put wax on top of it and make, like, a little candle.

LUSE: Yes.

PINKETT SMITH: She loved to sand paint. And then my grandmother was a visual artist as well. She - oil painting, pottery - and so it was considered something that was really important - to have artistic expression.

LUSE: Hmm. Hmm. Artistic expression as a principle of your home...


LUSE: That's huge. That's huge.

PINKETT SMITH: It is. And I'm just thinking about it now because I'm like - it was such a norm. I was really lucky because I had a lot of friends who were visual artists. It just became part of, like, my peer group get-down...

LUSE: (Laughter).

PINKETT SMITH: ...Because we went to school for art, you know? And so we would always get excited when - and wanted to share with each other when we found something new and were vibing on it.

LUSE: Something that I see in your art and in your book is that you are emblematic of Black Gen X women celebrities - like, women of the hip-hop generation. And, you know, we obviously see that through some of your most iconic roles - '90s classics like "A Different World," "Jason's Lyric," "Menace II Society," "Set It Off." But reading your book made me think about another book that I read last year. I talked with Donovan X. Ramsey, who is the author of "When Crack Was King," which is a great book.


LUSE: And he talked about how that era of Black Hollywood - that '90s era that you really came up in - was kind of the first time Black producers and directors could really reflect on the things that they survived during the '80s.


LUSE: And you were in the center of all that, both as a creative and also, as you wrote about in your book, as a teenage drug dealer back in Baltimore.


LUSE: But you didn't just survive those times - like, you thrived, and you lived well enough that you can now look back and write about it from the other side. How do you think being a part of that generation informed your desire to make art?

PINKETT SMITH: I mean, definitely, 'cause also being a child of an addict, as I got older, that emotional expression - you know? - and really wanting to connect to others who had experienced what I had experienced - because we were really invisible. There was this war on drugs, but nobody was talking about the devastation that was happening, right? And nobody was talking about the kids of that devastation, right? And so it was almost as if our trials, our horrors, our pain was just invisible. And so having an opportunity - coming to LA and, you know, being given somewhat of an outlet to start to, you know, express to the world what was happening within our communities - it was really an interesting time because it was a lot of worlds that we had to learn how to walk without any training. All of us had to learn just on the fly - you know what I mean? We had to learn on the fly (laughter). And so, you know, it was quite a firewalk.

LUSE: I mean, that's a form of creativity in and of itself, too...

PINKETT SMITH: Yeah, yeah.

LUSE: ...Trying to like, you know, build the plane as you're flying it.

PINKETT SMITH: Absolutely. And survival is creativity - you know what I mean? And a lot of us had a lot of creative ways in which we survived. And I think that's what makes our generation so durable, so unique.

LUSE: To turn away from your acting for a second - I mean, you're best known for your acting, but you also had a full-on nu metal band, Wicked Wisdom.



WICKED WISDOM: (Singing) And I love the way you bleed all over...

LUSE: I mean, some people were surprised to see this side of you, but you said that you always loved metal and hard rock. You said in your book you wanted to be the female Axl...


LUSE: ...Rose.


LUSE: Yes.


LUSE: And to a certain extent, you were able to have, like, a piece of that experience through...

PINKETT SMITH: Yeah, for sure.

LUSE: ...Wicked Wisdom. And, you know, you toured with Britney Spears in Europe. Y'all performed at Ozzfest and toured the country. You were able to bring your kids. And, you know, you talked about how amazing it was to be able to perform for these huge crowds and take your kids on tour and see America. But at the same time, you dealt with serious backlash from metal fans and the metal community...

PINKETT SMITH: Absolutely.

LUSE: ...I mean, including death threats...


LUSE: ...At the - just the announcement of your tour.

PINKETT SMITH: Absolutely.

LUSE: And, you know, you also talked about how neo-Nazis showed up at one of your shows...

PINKETT SMITH: Quite a few times.

LUSE: ...Quite a few times - throwing up the heil Hitler sign.

PINKETT SMITH: Yeah, quite a few times - I mean, it was really intense. I mean, at that particular time, I don't know of any other Black female that was in that particular genre except for Skunk Anansie.

LUSE: Right.

PINKETT SMITH: And I mean, listen - I had so many strikes against me. I mean, I was a woman, first of all - 'cause even as a white woman, you have a hard time in that genre, right?

LUSE: True, true.

PINKETT SMITH: So as a woman - then I'm a Black woman. And then I'm a woman from Hollywood, which is the antithesis...


LUSE: The antithesis of rock 'n' roll. Right.

PINKETT SMITH: ...Of rock 'n' roll - right? - and surely metal, right? I was the representation of, you know, the machine itself. Yeah, it's a lot of hate out there - for sure, no doubt about it. But there's also a lot of love and neutrality, you know? And I'll never forget going to this place - somewhere in Texas. Where we were performing was, like, in this shack, right?

LUSE: Right, right.

PINKETT SMITH: And these kids - I mean, these kids were from trailer communities all around, right?

LUSE: Yeah, yeah.

PINKETT SMITH: They didn't care. They were just happy we were there, seeing them and having a good [expletive] time.

LUSE: (Laughter) And you all were able to vibe off of each other that way, yeah.

PINKETT SMITH: You know what I mean? It was this Black band coming into this cornfield to rock out.

LUSE: (Laughter).

PINKETT SMITH: And once they saw that we were ready to rock out, they started moshing, and that was it.


WICKED WISDOM: (Singing) Strangled virtues, shallow holes - whisper this...

PINKETT SMITH: That's what I loved. It's like we got to meet there in our rage and really have a good time with it.

LUSE: Hmm. When you were talking about how, you know, there's a lot of hate out there...


LUSE: ...You also mentioned that there's a lot of love and neutrality there as well. It's interesting that you put those together - love and neutrality. Talk to me about what you mean when you say that.

PINKETT SMITH: Because, you know, there were people who would - you know, we first come out, and people just looking - like, all right, what the hell is this? I call that neutral because it would be - sometimes we'd come out. You'd get called names, people throwing bottles...

LUSE: Right.

PINKETT SMITH: ...People talking [expletive], right? And the neutral - you could win them over, and it turned into a whole nother thing. And then, as we started going, it was people who literally were Wicked Wisdom fans that you would never expect.

LUSE: What do you mean when you say that you would never expect? Like...

PINKETT SMITH: I'm talking about bald-headed, tatted dudes. They - you know what I mean?

LUSE: (Laughter).

PINKETT SMITH: I'm talking about the dudes with the long hair and the bandanas and the leather - the leather vests on the bikes, on the hogs - you know what I mean? All of it.

LUSE: And they were like, Wicked Wisdom - that was their band.

PINKETT SMITH: They were like, I ain't never seen a girl like you get down like that, you know?


LUSE: It's interesting. It's like, if you have neutrality, there's a space for love to grow.

PINKETT SMITH: There's a space for love to roll. I learned that a lot. And I don't judge a book by its cover anymore.

LUSE: It's amazing, too, that you had your kids with you. But, specifically, you know, 20 years later, your daughter - Willow's a rock princess, basically. I mean, I was bumping her stuff...


LUSE: I've been bumping her stuff since it came out - were some of my favorite songs of last year. But I want to know - like, she was able to grow up watching you, right?

PINKETT SMITH: Yep. I used to bring her into the club. I would have her on the shoulders of, like, one of my security guards.

LUSE: Wow. Yeah. Wow.

PINKETT SMITH: And I would have her in the clubs, watching me perform, and she just loved it. I mean, she would be, like, freaking, 5, 6 years old.

LUSE: That's so cool. I mean, but, you know, I wonder - like, you know, you got to have this experience where she grew up watching you. What has it been like for you to watch Willow, now, in the rock space?

PINKETT SMITH: Makes my heart light up because she does it so much better than me, first of all. Let's just start there.

LUSE: Aw (laughter).

PINKETT SMITH: She does it - she really does. You know, I got to give her her props 'cause she's - I'm a performer - you know what I mean? Willow's a musician. And there's a big difference, right?


WILLOW SMITH: (Singing) Transparent soul - I can see right through, just so you know.

PINKETT SMITH: And, I mean, she didn't even put out some of her heaviest stuff. She's got some really hardcore metal - like, metal - that is out of this world. And I just love it because, for a woman, I think a woman needs space to rage out. I think, too often, we're told as women that, no, no, no, you're not allowed to be intense in that way.

LUSE: You got to be small...

PINKETT SMITH: That's not a space for you - yeah.

LUSE: ...And nice.

PINKETT SMITH: That's not a space for you. You got to be nice. You got to be demure. You got to be sweet. You can't - you know. And as a mother, being able to see your daughter unapologetically express so many different sides of herself is - I don't think there's anything - a better gift that a mother could support her daughter around.

LUSE: That's so beautiful.


LUSE: I mean, I wonder - like, it's been about 20 years - right? - since you were touring with Wicked Wisdom. And I saw last year that she did a reunion for y'all on Mother's Day.

PINKETT SMITH: Yeah, she did.

LUSE: That was so sweet.


SMITH: (Singing) And I love the way you bleed all over...

LUSE: But I wonder - like, when you're looking at her and you're hearing from her about her experiences, have you seen real change in the industry towards - attitudes toward Black women in rock?

PINKETT SMITH: Absolutely. I won't say that Willow hadn't had her challenges - you know what I mean? - but it's still a very white-male-dominated space. But I will say that it's definitely a bit more open, and she's such a dope musician. There have been a lot of the old-school dudes who've really taken her under their wing.

LUSE: Yeah. I mean, I saw she had the song with Travis Barker and everything like that. I'm like, oh...

PINKETT SMITH: Yeah, absolutely. And so I think that says a lot. I'm not going to say that there's still not a lot to change, but what I will say is there's definitely allies there.


LUSE: Coming up - why Jada approaches her marriage like a work of art and what she wants to do next. Stick around.


LUSE: To kind of turn toward a different form of creativity, you were on Fresh Air last year to talk about your memoir with the incredible Tonya Mosley. We love Tonya.


LUSE: And something you said really caught my ear. You described a few times your relationship to Will Smith as a, quote, "masterpiece of connection," and I thought that that was such an interesting way to frame a relationship, especially - you know, y'all's relationship is so public...


LUSE: ...And there's all sorts of...

PINKETT SMITH: All sorts of (laughter).

LUSE: ...Stories, rumors, conversation, chatter. There's so much around it. Tell me more about why you think of your relationship that way - as a work of art or a masterpiece of some sort.

PINKETT SMITH: I think everybody's life is their own work of art, and then we have many pieces within it. I have a lot of ideas around marriage, and I think it can be one of the most powerful dynamics. But if you're looking to stay in a cycle of romanticism, if you're looking to stay in the honeymoon stage, if you're looking to never be betrayed, if you looking to never be hurt, if you're looking to not have to deal with your [expletive] and have to deal with the [expletive] of someone else, don't get married. Date.

LUSE: It's like, you can't have a work of art - like, when you were talking about your painting earlier - without the different - without the tension of the different colors or the different textures, it's not going to come together. Or even, like, if you're baking a cake - you can't make a cake with all sugar (laughter).

PINKETT SMITH: You cannot make a cake with all sugar.

LUSE: You can't make a cake with all sugar.

PINKETT SMITH: In one lifetime, we've lived about 20. And so it's quite a tapestry. If I had to say what kind of art piece our union is, I would say it is a tapestry.

LUSE: You know, if you don't mind, we want to make sure that we have our facts straight. What's going on with you and Will? Are you all back together, still together?

PINKETT SMITH: (Laughter) We are together. But we are together in a way that works for us, and that's really difficult to explain.

LUSE: Is that because it's something that veers from what many people think of when they first think, oh, marriage.


LUSE: You're in the same house. You're getting up every day, having eggs.

PINKETT SMITH: Yeah. We enjoy what we are.

LUSE: You all are the two people in the relationship...


LUSE: ...So if you enjoy what you are (laughter)...

PINKETT SMITH: Yeah, you know?

LUSE: ...What can you say?

PINKETT SMITH: And I'm like - I tell him all the time. I'm like, I don't know if anybody will ever understand, but it doesn't matter. We've tried to be apart - several times. It's a God thing.

LUSE: It's above you, is what you're saying.

PINKETT SMITH: It's above us both.

LUSE: I was going to say, you got your hands raised, like, it's above (laughter).

PINKETT SMITH: It's above us. It's above us - you know what I mean? And so at some point, you just go, all right, cool. We're together in a way that works for us. And hopefully, maybe at some point - you know, he and I have talked about, at some point, you know, maybe talking about that journey, but I think that it needs a little time. I think, you know, when people put your relationship in this kind of romantic - we want - you know, it needs to be relationship goals. It's like, no, that's not what being in a partnership is about.

LUSE: I read both your book and Will's book, and there are a lot of things that you talk about in your book that he already had mentioned or talked about in his book. And yet, I felt like there was a disproportionate reaction to how - I'm serious - to how, you know, people responded to you talking about your relationship...


LUSE: ...In your book versus how people responded to him talking about your relationship in his book. How do you think about that?

PINKETT SMITH: That has a lot to do with sexism - you know what I mean? And, you know, as women, I think it's why we're oftentimes so quiet - you know? - why it's oftentimes we feel like we can't tell our stories. We can't share our stories. Because if it's not in alignment with the patriarchal idea of how a woman should be - which is be quiet, be happy, smile, do not create any disruption - you know what I mean?

LUSE: Right.

PINKETT SMITH: And be grateful.

LUSE: Were you surprised by people's reaction to that aspect of the book, or were you expecting that?

PINKETT SMITH: I was expecting it.

LUSE: Really?

PINKETT SMITH: Oh, hell, yeah.

LUSE: And you still were like, I got to do this.

PINKETT SMITH: Hell, yeah. I know, for me, I would not be here if it weren't for some courageous women in my life to share their stories with me. And people can be upset, and they'll be OK.

LUSE: Speaking about that patriarchal lens, very often, we're used to seeing stories of men - maybe they're cheating or they're failing over and over again. They're letting other people in their lives down. But eventually they learn. And then they're on the other side, and then isn't that so great? But if you hear from, you know, the woman who got stepped on...


LUSE: Then people have a problem.

PINKETT SMITH: We're so used to seeing the hero's journey. How many stories of the heroine's journey have we heard that really are, like, thorough? And I know everybody's going to trip and be like, what? But for me, it was "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" - how she went from innocence into falling in love with this vampire, into losing the love of this vampire who was of the light. Then she goes, you know, into this dark space, where she falls into love with this dark vampire, and she goes into the underworld.

LUSE: But it's not linear. It's...

PINKETT SMITH: It's not linear. It's a spiral.

LUSE: Huh.

PINKETT SMITH: Right? And so I loved it so much. That was the first time I was like - because the way that they told her story and going into that feminine shadow - because that's what people get upset about. The feminine is something to deal with, OK?

LUSE: (Laughter).

PINKETT SMITH: And people are terrified of it. Having the courage to be with all that we are, even in the face of the disappointment and the anger and resentment that comes with the breaking of the romantic idea around the feminine - part of the freedom and part of the empowerment of women is being able to withstand that.

LUSE: That's such an interesting way to think about your book and the reaction to it.

So to switch gears a little bit - and thinking about journey makes me also think about career - I want to touch on a big conversation that has been happening lately - bubbling lately - all over Hollywood. In its most recent iteration, Taraji P. Henson kicked it off by talking about the pay disparity and just the general disrespect that even the most successful Black actresses in Hollywood have to deal with.


TARAJI P HENSON: You get tired. I hear people go, you work a lot.


HENSON: We'll, I have to. The math ain't mathing (ph).

LUSE: And as a Black Hollywood veteran, some of the stories that she's shared and others have piped up and shared over the past couple of months - does this ring true for you? And if so, how has that shaped your career?

PINKETT SMITH: Absolutely. My heart broke for Taraji, and I was also happy, you know, that her courage - how courageous she was to speak about it in the way that she did, you know? It's hard to speak about. One of the things with Taraji - she is the breadwinner of her family. Her pressures would be different than mine.

LUSE: Sure.

PINKETT SMITH: I have to put that out front because, you know, if it's time to walk away, you can't - you can't always - that's not always the solution - you know what I mean? You can't. 'Cause what people don't understand as well - with us, as Black entertainers, we carry a lot of people with us.

LUSE: Right. It could be parents, siblings.

PINKETT SMITH: Absolutely.

LUSE: You're paying for other people's lives and comfort.

PINKETT SMITH: I find that that's unique. There are peers from from other cultures that don't necessarily do it that way.

LUSE: As you explained, you, you know, being married to another hugely successful Hollywood megastar - it might make things financially eke out different for you as a Black actress than others. But there's still the matter of what Taraji was talking about with, like, you know, not having trailers or not having appropriate food or not having to drive themselves back and forth to set - people being cheap with...


LUSE: ...The things that you need to work every day. I mean, not being offered the same amount of money for the same work as...


LUSE: ...You know, maybe a white actress or something...


LUSE: I mean, those are still things that you've had to deal with - or it seems that you've had to deal with.

PINKETT SMITH: Oh, yes. People would literally say, well, you don't need it. You're married to Will.

LUSE: Wow.

PINKETT SMITH: Yeah. I've heard that several times.

LUSE: I noticed that you don't act as much or as frequently as you used to. Is that part of why - that kind of dynamic?

PINKETT SMITH: That has a lot to do with it - and also wanting to get on the other side to kind of help remedy that as a producer and then just wanting to bring more of my influence behind the scene. It's not to say that I won't get in front of the camera, but what it takes for me to get in front of the camera...

LUSE: It's more.

PINKETT SMITH: ...It's more just in regards to the kind of roles that I want to play or that interest me. And I'm thinking about directing. I am starting to think about doing that.

LUSE: Oh. Yeah, I was going to ask - you know, we've been talking about everything from music to acting, producing, painting. What are you working on now? And also - do you have any info - anything you want to share about a possible "Girls Trip 2"?

PINKETT SMITH: Yeah. I haven't heard anything about a "Girls Trip 2."

LUSE: IMDb is saying different, that's all (laughter).


LUSE: IMDb says y'all are in preproduction.

PINKETT SMITH: That's interesting. All right. Well, there it is.

So right now, I've just been decompressing from the book. The book, to me, is, like, one of the projects I'm most proud of in a long time.

LUSE: It sounds like you're working on Jada is what it sounds like.

PINKETT SMITH: Oh, well, I'm always working on Jada. That's always. That's just always.

LUSE: Makes me think about what you were saying earlier about a masterpiece - it's like, the greatest masterpiece could be yourself...


LUSE: ...The relationship you have with yourself.

PINKETT SMITH: You know, the relationship with yourself is the greatest masterpiece.


LUSE: Jada, thank you so much for coming on the show today and sharing your heroine's journey with all of us. I really appreciate it.

PINKETT SMITH: Thank you. Thank you for having me.


LUSE: Thanks again to Jada Pinkett Smith. Her memoir, "Worthy," is out now.

Hey everybody, Brittany Luse here. And thank you so much again for listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. Before you leave, I have one small ask. If you have a spare 10 minutes, you can help us out by completing a short, anonymous survey about how we've been doing with this show. Tell us what you like and how we can improve at npr.org/ibamsurvey. You'll be doing all of us here at IBAM a huge favor. That's npr.org/ibamsurvey. Thank you so much.


LUSE: This episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was produced by...


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LUSE: All right. That's all for this episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Brittany Luse. Talk soon.


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