Willow Smith’s latest album, Lately I Feel Everything, released in July, will have you looting through your grubby old band merch pile that’s been collecting dust in the attic, and convincing yourself that you can still land a kickflip after all those years. It’s a killer and classic array of songs that hark back to a time even before Willow’s, an adopted nostalgia that much of Gen Z is feeling right now. And that is to the benefit of pop-punk fans of all ages—especially those who have felt underrepresented in the fandom until now.
Smith, whose collaborators include genre veteran Travis Barker and the similarly frustrated, similarly female band Cherry Glazerr, is merely the latest addition in pop-punk’s roster of young, mainstream talents; Olivia Rodrigo and Machine Gun Kelly have been keeping those seats warm in the meantime on the Billboard charts. But the “Transparent Soul” singer’s pop-punk pivot is turning heads for reasons largely tangential to her sound, as many have appraised Smith as one of the first nonwhite, nonmale representatives of the notoriously homogeneous genre to gain widespread attention. It’s a feat both impressive and, to those less well read on the history of pop-punk, surprising.
While Willow’s acclaimed new release has created exciting buzz in a genre already bursting at the seams with innovation, a lot of that buzz has homed in on Smith’s race to insinuate that this—a Black woman with a genuine passion for the genre—is some sort of newfangled concept. But such a claim is far from true. Borrowing from its punk roots, pop-punk hides layers upon layers of discontent and rage within its underbelly, and who knows better about how it feels to be excluded and unwanted by mainstream society than Black teenagers?
Fans of Willow know that this is certainly nothing new for the 20-year-old, a woman raised by a metalhead for a mother, who briefly fronted a nu-metal group in the early aughts called Wicked Wisdom. It seemed inevitable that we’d see Willow follow her mother’s route of smeared eyeliner and fishnets at some point in her career, especially since she showed an interest in the alt-rock side of things on prior albums. Smith has also cited a huge admiration for metalcore band Straight Line Stitch, fronted by Alexis Brown, another Black woman in a genre considered to be lacking in them. Hell, even Smith’s “Whip My Hair” anthem is applicable to metalheads all around.
“People act like its novel to see Black folk making pop-punk, when they’re the blueprint,” explains Jer, a Black musician and online video creator and the face behind Skatune Network, one of several growing hubs for all things alternative knowledge on TikTok. “People of color pioneered this music and have always been involved in the music. They just never got any recognition.”
Perhaps partly to blame for Black fans’ and artists’ relative lack of visibility is the tiresome mob mentality that’s plagued rock, punk, and metal music communities for far too long. Perceived authenticity is crucial for fitting into the pop-punk community, as the genre is defined by its look as much as its sound. “Being brown and unable to do the things with my hair that were a requirement to be accepted, I was often treated with suspicion and as a fake,” explains Black British radio presenter Sophie K, a longtime rock and metal fan. Throughout her years spent in the emo and pop-punk online communities on places like MySpace, she faced skepticism from other fans for not matching their aesthetic of pin-straight black hair and fairer skin—a look that isn’t accessible to many people of color without compromising their own ethnic features. “It was a hard place to find an identity,” says Sophie K. “I never had anyone say anything outright racist personally, but I was constantly bombarded with images that said ‘you don’t look like us.’ ”
Even Black pop-punk artists who’ve found career success—like Gym Class Heroes frontman Travie McCoy, one of the most well-known Black faces from the genre’s late-aughts peak—have still struggled with finding acceptance within the community itself. As one of the few recognizable Black pop-punk stars among his peers, McCoy felt conspicuous for a long time. “I was definitely a sore thumb at a lot of shows in the early days,” he says. “As years progressed, I think the diversity of crowds at shows like Warped Tour began to show. When we started our band, we were bringing in kids that were from all walks of life, and I think that’s more prevalent in the punk scene now as well.”
But there is hope for change within Willow Smith’s own generation. The disaffected members of Gen Z have helped to fuel pop-punk’s 2020s rebirth, with big help from TikTok. Amassing over 817 million views on the hashtag #poppunk alone, the short-form video platform is the host of pop-punk’s return, finding new audiences for decade-old tracks by bands like Paramore and All Time Low while raising racially diverse pop-punk artists into the spotlight, long overdue. Teens are reconsidering what fandom “authenticity” even means, and they’ve also become more sensitive to racial, gender, and socioeconomic divides within these communities, constructed by the generations before them. “Gen Z simply doesn’t care [about who is ‘authentic’],” Jer explains. “Being on the tail end of millennials, I watched the era of ‘being mean to be cool’ be a thing. Gen Z just skipped over the ‘being mean/pretending I don’t like it’ part and just like what they like.”
A large part of Gen Z’s revival of pop-punk is prioritizing voices of color Hashtags such as #BlackAlt, #Altpoc, and #Blackgoth have each amassed millions of views, with videos consciously including a diverse array of bands and fans. This movement to celebrate current pop-punk bands like Meet Me at the Altar, Pinkshift, Action/Adventure, and Nightlife is an effort to reverse the gatekeeping and elitism that sidelined marginalized pop-punk artists in the first place.
“People have started thinking about these things more often, whereas before there was barely a discussion about it,” says Myron Houngbedji, the drummer of Pinkshift. “It’s pretty inspiring to see bands like Meet Me at the Altar and the Muslims get signed by labels like Fueled by Ramen and Epitaph.”
But Houngbedji notes that there is a possible complication for the rising tide of making more room for Black pop-punk artists: the potential for these musicians and their fans to be considered separately from the white artists who continue to dominate the genre. “It’s cool to have spaces dedicated for bands and artists of color, but it’s kind of discouraging to be labeled solely as a POC band or fem-fronted band, because you know damn well no one is calling Green Day a ‘white male–fronted band,’ ” says Houngbedji.
Yet it is still an undeniable win that artists like Willow Smith can find acceptance within, and even be representative of, the pop-punk scene without caveats. This was something that simply wouldn’t happen as recently as 15 years ago, when white fans of artists like Taking Back Sunday, My Chemical Romance, and New Found Glory determined who and what the genre looked like. The angst of Willow Smith’s new album is indeed for the Black teenagers who, just like her, grew up loving Avril Lavigne (another pop-punk pioneer who features on the album) and found something resonant within the genre’s melodrama and melancholy. They’re not the alternative to this alternative rock music; they are just as much a part of it as anyone else, and always will be. It’s just that now, the rest of the scene is catching up with reality.
“My hopes for the next generation of Black teenagers getting into alternative culture is that they feel welcome,” says Edith Johnson, frontwoman of Meet Me at the Altar. “I hope they feel included, I hope they feel loved, and of course, I hope they don’t feel alienated. I hope they know that this is their space too.”