Whether as a street-smart college student in the '90s sitcom A Different World or a tender-hearted bank robber in the 1996 action flick Set It Off, actress Jada Pinkett Smith in the past 15 years has brought a homegirl-up-the-block authenticity to her roles.
For about five of those years -- when the performer and her famed husband, Will Smith, weren't having babies or posing for paparazzi at Hollywood red-carpet events -- she's also been trying to win credibility in the music business. And given her sassy, tough, sexy persona, you'd figure the Baltimore native would venture into rap or hip-hop-laced R&B, right?
Not even close. The versatile, pint-sized performer, who used to hang tough with Tupac Shakur when they were students at the Baltimore School for the Arts, is a metal head, and her band, Wicked Wisdom, releases its self-titled debut album today. Lyrically intense, musically extreme, the album represents Pinkett Smith's serious foray into heavy metal, a genre that isn't exactly teeming with black female artists.
"I've always loved heavy metal and the freedom in it," says the artist, calling from a promotional stop in Denver. "My uncle introduced me to it when I was young: I'm talking Black Sabbath, I'm talking Pink Floyd, Queen. I've always been a lover of heavy music, heavy funk, like Chaka Khan, Prince, Graham Central Station. But I come from a musically eclectic background. My aunt introduced me to Bob Marley. There was jazz, Coltrane, everything."
Last summer, Wicked Wisdom received wide exposure at Ozzfest, where the group played on a secondary stage. Before that stint, in 2004, the quintet was the opening act on the European leg of Britney Spears' Onyx Hotel tour. For about two years, Pinkett Smith and her four band mates -- guitarist Pocket Honore, guitarist Cameron "Wirm" Graves, bassist Rio Lawrence and drummer Phillip "Fish" Fisher -- woodshedded their act in small clubs throughout the Midwest and along the West Coast before playing huge arenas and major festivals.
"The heavy-metal scene is a particular scene where people take the music very seriously," says the actress, who's 34. "It has its challenges."
Because the quintet is fronted by a pretty Hollywood actress and because the band toured with a pop tart like Spears, Wicked Wisdom is working hard to establish its credibility in the heavy-metal community. So far, the reception has been mixed.
"Ozzfest was a little shaky in the first week," says guitarist Honore. "There was this big hype. But we were getting a lot of hate messages -- people yelling [stuff] from the barricades, throwing stuff. I don't want to say that race or anything like that was an issue. I don't know. It's just music, man."
Pinkett Smith realizes her celebrity helps and hinders the group.
"With me being established already, it makes it easier to get the word out about the album," the artist says. "But the celebrity aspect of it -- changing perceptions of who I am has been hard. This is just one aspect of me."
Donald Hicken, head of the theater department at the Baltimore School for the Arts, was one of Pinkett Smith's instructors at the school. The two remain friends. And although he hasn't heard Wicked Wisdom, Hicken says it doesn't surprise him that the actress would seek out a musical challenge.
"I didn't think it would be heavy metal," he says with a chuckle. "When she was a student here, I didn't know where her musical tastes were running. She and Tupac used to write a lot of raps. And we're talking about the '80s, so rap was just beginning to be big. She did some choreography when she was here. ... She's always had an audacity about her that's part of her charisma. She's very candid; there's no artifice."
And that is reflected in the lyrics Pinkett Smith writes for the band. Sample a verse from "Something Inside of Me," written in response to the kidnapping and murder of a 5-year-old girl in California: "Darkness comes, his haunting eyes whisper her unworthy demise/His weakness peels away her skin/Consoles his illness deep within."
So she's no Patti Smith. But Pinkett Smith, though her vocals can be thin at times, manages to match the unrelenting energy of the music. She screams and chants the lyrics as the guitars and drums crash, burn and explode around her.
"I find that the music expresses a lot of different things, not just anger," Pinkett Smith says. "It's extreme. There's no gray area. Whatever emotion you choose to express in the music, it's gonna be intense."
In performance, the actress says she "gives it up." Stalking the stage, pumping her fist and screaming night after night is draining.
"It's like working out at the gym, working on your muscles," says the svelte artist, who grew up in Baltimore and Reisterstown. "The more you do it, the stronger you become."