Written By | Alec Banks
The ilCaffè in Downtown Los Angeles has all the makings of a scene. A French bulldog nuzzles up at the foot of its owner, hoping to catch any pastry scraps that fall off the table. An entrepreneur delivers fresh-pressed juices through the sturdy door inside the Eastern Columbia Building and waits for her bounty like a gold miner keen for a reward for her hard work. Finally still, the shop itself is physically connected to the Swedish brand, Acne Studios, where thousand-dollar coats bearing men’s names like “Garret,” “Charlie” and “Matthew” waft in the caffeine aroma.
This is where multi-hyphenate, Jaden Smith, wants to meet. He calls it his “favorite coffee shop” and arrives right on time for our 3 p.m. conversation — whirling through the entrance and offering his hand for a friendly introduction.
“Hi. I’m Jaden.”
He’s fresh-faced and handsome, with a head full of closely-cropped, bleached blonde hair which gives the impression of butter on top of a pancake. He’s wearing an oversized MSFTSrep hoodie (his own brand of unisex clothing) and a pair of black Tripp NYC trousers with an abundance of tentacle-like straps nonchalantly dangling from them. As a total package, he looks like he just rolled out of bed — but in a cool way.
We settle at a small table near the bar. His manager has left us to it; Smith doesn’t need anyone to monitor anything controversial that he may or may not say.
If an “open book” is a metaphor to describe someone unafraid of voicing various traits and beliefs, Jaden Smith is new media — “Command P” — ready to print and create visual documentation of how he views the world.
“I love the fact that I can be on the cover because that means I can reach more people,” he says. “That’s my whole mission of what I’m trying to do.”
With 6.4 million followers on Twitter and another 6.3 million on Instagram (and growing), he certainly has an active digital audience. But Smith wants much more than retweets and likes. He wants to inspire his fans to create unabashedly, and on their own terms. To him, the Internet is a conduit to fulfill that duty.
“I hope to see more people start to love themselves and release music and products in general,” he says. “I hope to see people start to trust their vision more and to go full speed towards what they want in their life, and to really go and grasp what they want instead of just sitting back.”
Other entertainers might use their platform to provide aspirational examples of what being passionate and driven affords you in life. But Smith has a different outlook on social media. He sees himself as somewhat of a martyr, where he is willing to assume the burdens, hate, and vitriol associated with being different.
“I hope that people can see me and say, ‘Oh, so he’s under a bunch of fire for wearing a skirt or saying something that was really wild. Now that everybody’s talking about him, I can be behind the scenes and do what I need to do,’” he says. “Jaden’s taking the fire. So I can stand behind him and not be burned by the fire of the world.”
Even though it may be easier to simply say that harsh criticism doesn’t faze him, Smith is quite forthcoming with the backlash that comes with creative risk, like when he appeared in a skirt in Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2016 campaign alongside models Sarah Brannon, Jean Campbell and Rianne Van Rompaey. “It’s hard for me to bear it sometimes, you know?” he admits. “And I haven’t always been able to bear it in the way that I do.”
Despite his fearless attitude, there were voices in his ear questioning if it was the right career move.
“There were a lot of people after it happened that were like ‘yo, what are you doing?! That’s so freaking weird!’ And I was like, ‘Dude, I’m so weird, like what do you want me to tell you?’”But he found the resolve to rise above the criticism when he realized the value of questioning heteronormativity in fashion. There are plenty of street style stars and fashion acolytes who readily push the boundaries of clothing as self-expression, but when Smith does it, it packs a certain gravitas.
“It’s taking a separation that was there,
and then knocking it down and creating something completely new.”
“It’s like knocking down the Berlin Wall,” he says. “It’s taking a separation that was there, and then knocking it down and creating something completely new. That’s what I was doing with that.”
Smith represents a new kind of young fashion consumer. He once posted an Instagram from a Topshop fitting room where he was trying on women’s clothes, or as he called them, simply “clothes.” Rote categorizations between menswear and womenswear are obsolete; all that matters is whether or not these kids can see themselves in the pieces.
In describing Smith’s approach to fashion, designer Nicolas Ghesquière told The New York Times that “Wearing a skirt comes as naturally to him as it would to a woman who, long ago, granted herself permission to wear a man’s trench or a tuxedo.” Or as Smith puts it: “There’s no bigger flex than doing something no one else would do.”
He also represents a new approach to young celebrity. Instead of focusing on the privilege afforded to him as a youth born in the limelight, he prefers to focus on the relatable teenage angst that affects him as much as it does his peers. Instead of using Instagram to highlight life on a private yacht or the other extravagances he has access to, he uses it show he is just as vulnerable as any other kid trying to find her or his place in an increasingly complicated world.
When he was younger, he posted photos of himself crying on Instagram and Twitter to show that someone in his position doesn’t necessarily feel less negative emotions than the average teen. It’s a self-aware message that resonates with a younger audience. During our chat, a 20-something girl dressed in all black ventures over to compliment Smith on his unique pants. He thanks her. In that moment, she appears as if she’s simultaneously been hit by Cupid’s arrow, and also seen a ghost.
“This is the best day ever,” she states upon realizing who he is. “I was just watching you on YouTube all day yesterday.”
“Really, why?” Smith asks.
“This might be completely difficult for you to understand,” she answers, “but I’m really into dark shit. And you’re very nocturnal. And there’s probably like a 5% of the entire universe that understands that mentality. This is my favorite coffee shop in the entire world, because it’s Swedish. I’m really into black metal and shit. You have a really dark thing that you carry with you, that’s so fucking beautiful that the majority of the world can’t see. Don’t lose that. People don’t understand that. It sounds cheesy, but that’s my life.”
The whole exchange is over in less than a minute. She seems equally as enthusiastic about the chance encounter as he does about her assessment of his personality. Despite his willingness to engage with fans, Smith makes it clear that he isn’t much for being out in the public eye. It’s not so much that he fancies himself a recluse; it’s simply that he has bigger things on his mind than restaurant openings, parties, and other lavish things that might be afforded to someone who grew up the son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett.
“If I have nothing to do, I’ll just stay home and really think about life,” he says. “‘Because there’s enough in life for me to just sit and like ponder what it’s really about.”
Although he has been parodied in the media for his various existential musings, he’s often in on the joke. In a video for Vanity Fair titled “Jaden Smith Reads Mind-Blowing Facts About the Universe,” he plays up his astonishment over truths like human saliva containing opiorphin, a natural painkiller proven to be six times more powerful than morphine.
Whether it’s Doomsday prophesies, a broken educational system, or the Precision Equinox, he seems genuine in his pursuit for knowledge. Smith clearly wants a better understanding of why things are or aren’t happening.
“My job here is not to teach people — because that implies that you know something that other people don’t know,” he says. “Do I know things that other people don’t know? Absolutely. But that’s not my thing. I’m not here to teach people, I’m here to learn.”
Smith clearly knows his audience. And they find the way that he carries himself to be an honest reflection of what it’s like to be a 20-something.
“It’s just that I’m a witness to the world, and the world has a really dark side to it that I choose not to ignore,” he says. “Somewhere is always dark, somewhere is always light. You always have that duality, it’s just where do you choose to exist within your own mind.”
That idea of duality is reinforced in the days after we spoke with the unveiling of his music video, “Batman,” from his forthcoming album, Syre.
Smith’s intrigue with the Caped Crusader is certainly not a new phenomenon — having donned an all-white Batman costume to the nuptials of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. But after speaking to him, it seems less like a publicity stunt and more in tune with his worldview involving the duality of character within in his own life.
“I love Batman because in the daytime he’s Bruce Wayne, and in the nighttime he’s Batman,” Smith says. “And I feel the exact same way because in the daytime I’m Jaden Smith, but in the nighttime I’m Syre — which is my middle name and the name of my album. That’s where I pull a lot of inspiration from — reminiscing on the past, thinking about the future, the world, about how far we’ve come with MSFTSrep, and everything that we’ve done.”
“It’s my world. It’s everything I want to do. It’s all of my rules, and I totally don’t care, except for what feels right.”
In addition to his debut studio album and his clothing line, Smith’s also got a film, Life in a Year, which tackles cancer in young people — and was the major onus for cutting off his signature dreadlocks.
“With acting in a movie that someone else is producing — I’m going to be more serious, because it’s not my idea. I’m just the actor; I’m just the model; I’m just the muse,” he says.
Smith’s other major credit recently had been on Baz Luhrman’s hip-hop drama, The Get Down, which chronicled the rise of the genre in the Bronx in the early 1970s. Although the show was cancelled after only one season, it did allow Smith to reflect on his place in the contemporary world. His character, graffiti writer Dizzee, has an arc in which he explores his own sexuality in the context of the free-loving 1970s and fledgling hip-hop culture — a genre that’s only very recently started to feel more inclusive towards the LGBQT community. “I’m suited for right now,” he says. “I’m supposed to be here right now. If I would’ve come any earlier, people would’ve just tried to kill me.”
In a sense, Jaden Smith’s acting career is akin to Bruce Wayne’s persona as a billionaire playboy philanthropist. It’s the mask he puts on to fit into the world at large. But music is the force that drives his inner Batman. In the same way the fictional caped crusader’s endless battle against crime fuels his existence, Smith’s approach to music gives him a platform to create something bigger than himself.
“I created a new game,” he says. “It’s my world. It’s everything I want to do. It’s all of my rules, and I totally don’t care, except for what feels right.” He describes his style of music as “Pop Runk” — a hybrid of stylings inspired by the worlds of “rap, skate and punk.”
“Pop Runk is the future,” he says, eyes lighting up. “Kurt Cobain inspired me. Kid Cudi inspired me, Kanye. All of my homies inspired me. But the biggest inspiration in my life would be Kid Cudi and Tycho.”
The mention of Kurt Cobain seems rather apropos. Days prior, Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy told music publication NME: “When I talk to like my rock friends, they’re like, ‘The next Nirvana is coming, the next Nirvana is coming’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, but the next Nirvana probably is coming, but not in the form of Nirvana. It might be like Jaden Smith.’”
Smith takes it as a compliment, but doesn’t feel like he’s quite at that level yet. As he interprets it, Wentz means that when the next Nirvana comes, it’s going to come in a form that people won’t expect — perhaps someone like Jaden Smith. He admits there are probably other worthy successors in line to become the next Nirvana, but also admits there are people waiting in the wings waiting to become the next Will Smith.
Jaden Smith is nearly the same age as his father was when he and DJ Jazzy Jeff released their debut album, Rock the House, in 1987 which sent them both on a Hollywood trajectory. He doesn’t shy away from comparisons. Much in the same way he studies various topics that keep him up at night, he has also examined the path his father took.
“He started in music and transitioned to movies. I started with movies, and then I transitioned into making music,” he says. “I look at him and use it as a blueprint of how good of a person he is, but not necessarily the success that he reached.”
Jaden Smith may ultimately never solve any major world crisis or become the next Kurt Cobain or Will Smith, but he may do all three. And as savior, savant and Renaissance man, who’s to say he’s not already Batman?
IT'S A MOVEMENT