Jaden Smith Wants to Talk to You About Clean Water

Jaden Smith wants to change the world, and he's bringing clean water to communities in need. He speaks with Complex about his water boxes and new music.

Jaden Smith

Image via Jaden Smith

Jaden Smith

You’d be forgiven for thinking Jaden Smith is spreading himself too thin. He just released the latest iteration of his Cool Tape series, Vol. 3, at the end of August, and he also spends his days as an actor, an inventor, a full-time celebrity (somewhat begrudgingly, it seems), and a burgeoning philanthropist. 

While fans are still learning the subtle intricacies of recent hits like “Cabin Fever,” though, Jaden has shifted his attention again, putting his full effort into his non-profit, 501cTHREE, which he runs with Drew FitzGerald. Jaden excels at so many different roles, it seems, because he has an ability to turn his attention on a dime, diving headfirst into passion projects with the vigor and attitude he brings to every one of his practices. 

“I just have to take the time to remind myself of what I’m focusing on,” he explains to Complex. “I have to take each of my projects seriously and give them equal value.” His latest? The Water Box: a filtration system to provide water for communities with a lack of access.

Though Jaden’s name is synonymous with celebrity (it’s kind of hard to avoid when your parents are Will and Jada and your sister is Willow), his new endeavor is as far from a vanity project as one can get. After becoming despondent following the media’s coverage of the Flint water crisis, Jaden sprung into action, investing in a filtered water box company called The Water Box, that he brought to the community in Michigan. Residents are given 10-gallon storage containers and encouraged to head to the Box to receive free, filtered water. At publication time, his project has already supplied the equivalent of 300,000 bottles of water.

The Water Box

While the four systems in Flint continue to run, Jaden and his team at 501cThree are expanding their efforts, most recently partnering with the Newark Water Coalition to bring their first Waterbox to Newark, New Jersey. In a press release, Newark Water Coalition's Anthony Diaz spelled out just how constantly his city is reminded of its lack of clean water. "You have this inherent trust that you turn the faucet on the water's clean and the water safe to drink," he says. But in Newark, it’s not. 

Jaden has used his goodwill as a musician, actor, and entrepreneur to inspire change in these communities, and while he’s the face of the brand, he knows the issues will only be solved when more systemic action occurs. His plan is just the beginning, but water filtration systems across U.S. cities should be adopted universally, not because a 22-year-old celebrity is making the problem a passion project. Jaden readily admits this. As such, his aim is to bring focus and attention to a vastly concerning problem, and hopefully infuse it with enough hope to get civilians and governments to build upon his plan. It’s another unexpected move from a cultural chameleon, an artist in pure pursuit of making the world a better place.

“At any moment, we can create a new version of the world,” he points out. “I have a belief that the next thing that changes everything for everyone can be around the corner.”

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Where did the idea to improve water conditions in impoverished cities come from?
I want to give back and I want to help, but I want to help in a way that's more direct and straight to the point. I want to find somebody out in the world who needs help. I had the idea of wanting to go all over the world. I want to deploy filtration systems all over the world. There are so many people in the world that die from not having clean water, whether they don't have enough clean water inside their body for their diet, or even just on the outside of their body, in terms of infections. There are so many terrible diseases in the world that are killing people—mostly small children—and it's just terrible. I really wanted to get out there and help those places, and help people with water access needs.

We realized that we have water problems right here in our backyard in America. And, at that point in time, the main water crisis that we were looking at was in Flint, Michigan. That's when we put our first water box in Flint, Michigan. That was over a year ago, almost two years ago at this point.

How does the water box work?
You go up to it and it gives you 10 gallons of water in 15 seconds, and it's free. We just wanted to give people access to water in Michigan in a way where they weren't having to rely on donations from out of state. They were getting like two million bottles of water the first year, but the next year, the numbers were dwindling. We thought it’d be better to help give access to pure water right then and there, that was in the city. Especially with COVID, everybody needs bottles, so people aren’t donating much anymore.

This all started for us in Flint and we just wanted to expand it even further, because people are getting more involved in what we're doing. We're trying to deploy technologies that can help people impact the world and we're starting with our water box product, but eventually we'll evolve into more practical ways of helping people.

“There are billions of us here on this Earth and any of us could come up with that next thing.”

With looming climate change, trying to move away from water bottles is important. Obviously donations are crucial, but finding a better way is also important. Is that something that factored into shifting away from water bottles into a more sustainable system?
100%, especially when we're in disaster situations over and over. Since early 2019, with the four water boxes that we have planted, we've given out the equivalent of 300,000 bottles of water for free. That's what we've done so far with just the four water boxes, a tray, and 10-ounce containers at a time. We're hoping that one day, we'll be able to get that number to double, triple, quadruple, and just keep giving out more water. This issue is all over the world.

I saw Anthony Diaz from the Newark Water Coalition, say, “You have this inherent trust that you turn that faucet on, that water is clean and that water is safe to drink. And in the city of Newark they can’t say that right now.” That shocked me and I found it staggering.
It's so sad to see these people—young kids, specifically—who are here listening to these adults, talk about why the water isn’t good to drink. The fact that they're like seven years old, and they're even asking that question, is so sad. It's just unbelievable. I just feel like we need to do something, and I don't see people doing it. That's why we're going to get in there and we're going to talk to the community and we're going to see what the community needs. We're going to try to offer things that will help the community run a little bit smoother so that people can at least get clean water without worrying about it. Eventually, we're going to set up more stations, which is what our plan is right now in Newark. We just want to get people's eyes on it so we can all be talking about it.

There are people who will be attracted to the fact that it is your program and it's Jaden Smith's company. How do you keep the mission focused on helping communities when people may be distracted by the fact that it is your business?
I'm not present at all times, and this issue is ongoing. We don’t want to attract people because I’m involved. This is an issue that exists without me, and will continue to exist. If you're a person that's just interacting with the water box, you might not know my involvement because it’s not like the boxes have our names on it. You can't really focus on my involvement because it's about the community and how it feels. As long as the community isn't bothered by it, or doesn't trust it because of media attention or something, then we're fine. As long as we're good within that specific community, then we're fine. That's all we care about at the end of the day.

The Water Box

A lot of celebrities have the opportunity to use platforms to make the world a better place, but not everyone does. Where did this desire to be a philanthropist come from?
I think it's from my family, and also from the fact that I live such a blessed and honored life. I just want to give back because I love the world so much and I care about the world, and I care about the people in the world. I just want to give back because it's the right thing to do. I also have ideas on how to do it. I knew that we could create a filtration system that would send potable water to underserved communities.

What do you say to someone who is inspired by your vision, but doesn't necessarily have the resources to implement something this big? 
I think that it's important to find a team of people who are like-minded and that will affect the world in the same way that you want to affect it. The first step is to have other people that are on the same page with you. You also have to be serious, no matter how small the task. The more that you know, the more that people are going to be like, "Oh man, this is serious," and actually get behind you and become a part of your team. When I started working with Drew [FitzGerald], my partner at 501cTHREE, everything changed. We both took it seriously. We have a long history of making things together, but when we started working on this, that really took things to the next level.

Shifting to music, how cathartic has it been to have songwriting as an outlet during this time? Did working on CTV3 offer you some relief?
I always love having music as an outlet. It's helpful to me. It helps me get through a lot of things. During this time, having music as an outlet has been a really beautiful experience.

Why did you feel like now is a good time to get the Cool Tape series back up and running? 
I felt like I had to put an end to the whole thing. I had to end it because I want a really big evolution and a big leap forward. I want people to continue to expect things to change and change with me as I move forward. When I was making The Cool Tape, I didn't know that the world was going to be in a state that it's in right now. I feel like people are hurting so much during this terrible time that I'm happy I was able to release something so that people who care can have it. If you don’t have the capacity for it right now, that’s totally fine, but for those few people out there who I might've made smile one time, that's really great. That's why I'm glad that it was able to come out.

Because your music is so unpredictable, have you figured out where you want to go next? Or are you still in the gestation period?No, everything I release is related to how I’m feeling, so I know where I’m headed. With everything that we do, we are already a bunch of steps ahead and I’ve been thinking past the latest Cool Tape for a long time.

How do you stay grounded in the moment when you're always looking ahead?
Right now it's different, because I don't have to present myself to people. It makes it a lot easier just because I don't have to go on tour and present myself to anybody.

How do you manage to stay positive and looking forward when it can be so easy to fall into the chaos around us?
I just believe in people. I believe in the power of creativity and that something new can exist. That keeps me going. There are billions of us here on this Earth and any of us could come up with that next thing. It might be tomorrow. It might be right now. That’s how I stay so positive, I believe.

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