Jaden Smith is no stranger to the internet’s various highways and byways. The 22-year-old rapper and activist has made a name for himself in recent years by dedicating his sizable Twitter platform to raising the visibility of social justice issues, and for his vocal climate activism. Not even a pandemic can slow him down. In the past four months alone, he released his breezy fifth album, Cool Tape Vol. 3, launched ‘The Solution Committee, a SnapChat miniseries spotlighting work by young activists, and initiated the next phase of his award-winning water security project: 501CTHREE.
This last milestone is one he’s particularly proud of, not least because it represents the culmination of more than a year’s worth of research and innovation. 501CTHREE is a non-profit dedicated to developing tech-driven solutions to climate change. As a co-founder, Smith helped distribute four Waterboxes—mobile water-filtration systems—to communities in Flint, Michigan, purifying more than 19,000 gallons of water and preventing waste from more than 300,000 plastic bottles. This spring, as COVID-19 exacerbated water safety issues impacting the residents of Newark, New Jersey, Smith and his organization joined forces with Newark Water Coalition to introduce Waterboxes into some of the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods.
501CTHREE’s latest efforts in Newark situate Smith among a rising tide of young celebrities cultivating a more honest discourse with their social media followers in order to mobilize young audiences. But, as Smith tells us, mobilization is useless without the trust of those on the front lines.
MARA VEITCH: What are you up to today?
JADEN SMITH: I actually woke up not too long ago. I’m just in my room right now, I’ve got the fireplace going, and later on I’m going to work out and then get in the studio until the sun goes down. I love to watch the sun set.
VEITCH: I’m glad you took the morning off—you’ve had a busy few months. How did this Waterbox project evolve?
SMITH: The non-profit that I co-founded, 501CTHREE, has been around for a while now. There are so many people across the world who die from lack of access to safe water every day, and they’re mostly young kids. We wanted to find a solution that was more sustainable than delivering bottled water to those communities, so we developed this filtration system that purifies ten gallons of water every minute. That’s very efficient. I really wanted to distribute these filtration systems internationally, but I realized that if we did that, we’d be flying them over parts of our very own country that are experiencing water problems right now. We installed our first four Waterboxes last year in Flint, Michigan, and we’ve managed to filter more than 19,000 gallons of water for people there. Now, we’re expanding into Newark in collaboration with the Newark Water Coalition. The city has issues with lead pipes.
VEITCH: Have there been moments when you realized there was a learning curve to these kinds of relief efforts?
SMITH: A lot of moments. With our first Waterbox in Flint, there were issues that we hadn’t anticipated, and we had to go back to the drawing board a few times to sort them out. But the community helped us do exactly what was needed. We were like “Well, okay. So as long as we’re doing right by everyone here, then everything’s fine.” We had to establish that communication and trust in order to get it done right.
VEITCH: What has been the most rewarding part of this project?
SMITH: Definitely knowing that what we’re doing is helping people. Also, watching this movement grow around 501CTHREE feels very exciting. I want people on the ground to keep paying attention and growing with us. If you’re having a water problem in your town, reach out to us. That’s how the Newark project started.
VEITCH: You’re someone who always has several irons in the fire at a time. How do you see all of your projects fitting together?
SMITH: I’m really happy about all of these initiatives, and I do feel like they work as an ecosystem together. I think I’m just very clear about what I care about. I’m very out there, and that’s just kind of like my vibe.
VEITCH: Tell me about your miniseries with Snapchat.
SMITH: I was talking with Snapchat for a while about what I wanted to do, and the impact that I wanted to have on the world. We decided to focus on voter turnout, and the results have been amazing. I’ve gotten to speak to so many incredible activists and artists, and young kids keep telling me that they are learning a lot. Plus, we’re seeing thousands of people registering to vote directly from the links we provide. So, that’s pretty amazing.
VEITCH: In the whirlwind of the last few months, is there a particular moment or two that stand out to you?
SMITH: Obviously there have been so many tragic things happening in the world lately, and they’ve all been huge in my life. These past months I’ve accomplished a lot, but I’ve also definitely changed the way that I look at the world so much. So yeah, it’s been absolutely insane but I’m just trying to find my way through it and find positivity in it somehow.
VEITCH: Has releasing Cool Tape Vol. 3 offered you any moments of relief from that feeling?
SMITH: The album is really about me letting go of some of the cruel relationships that I explored in Erys and Syre. CTV3 is me ending all of that to a nice close and answering fans’ unanswered questions about where I’m at. I was listening to a lot of old music when I was putting it together, a lot of Beach Boys and David Bowie. I’m always trying to surprise people, and bring something different to the table, you know? I keep it weird. I hope that can be an escape for people.
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