Willie Greene has been running at full speed for a very long time — and he’s still only just beginning.
by Joanne Xu
When Willie Greene was 16, he stumbled into the world of Tumblr just as the platform was on the precipice of its eventual and utter dot-com domination. No one — Willie, me, and a few million other pre-teens and teenagers alike — had ever seen anything like it. By instinct, or perhaps inference, or maybe even both, Willie latched on. Over the following half-decade, he would spend the days and nights of his adolescence building WE THE URBAN, an online community and magazine that would celebrate fashion and art, in an era when such high-brow forms were still closely kept by the creative powers above (read: industry elites). Back then, the magazine, though open to everyone, was one of the few online spaces whose mission explicitly spoke to the promotion and representation of Black creativity.
To illustrate how impressively rare this caliber of digital prowess was (in a time when computer literacy was still measured by Microsoft proficiency and words typed per minute no less): When I was 16, I was also on Tumblr. Though I was on the opposite side of the realm, where my highest honors involved uncovering fan-made One Direction gifs before they went viral.
At the height of his WE THE URBAN Tumblr, Willie was accepting sponsored trips to New York Fashion Week, speaking to millions through his screen, and navigating teenagedom as a Black kid entrepreneur — all from his bedroom in suburban North Carolina. It’s not the same Willie (or WE THE URBAN) that exists today, though neither are total departures from their previous selves.
Scroll through Willie’s Instagram alias now, and you’ll find self-affirmations and tempered doses of social advocacy that, on a good day, garner upward of 200,000 likes alone. Over a decade after Willie’s first viral post, the now twenty-something is also making his first moves into the physical market — expect products, special content, and new communities this year. After many long-overdue periods of reflection and self-work, Willie Greene’s battery is fully recharged — and dedicated to charging everyone else’s too.
I sat down with Willie at the beginning of 2021 — him from his L.A. residence and me from Austin — and reflected on his humble beginnings, Nicki Minaj (as she pertains to personal philosophies), and just what exactly caused him to flip WE THE URBAN on its head.
On Willie the Entrepreneur
The Recreationalist: Back in 2013, you were already on Tumblr. So when the platform took off, your site WE THE URBAN went right with it. Did you know what this was all going to become?
Willie Greene: I had no idea. I grew up in Washington, D.C. and then North Carolina for middle and high school. I was a theatre kid who loved music and performing. And I created WE THE URBAN in a very small town because I wanted a way out.
The Recreationalist: You said in an interview back then, “If you don’t have some sort of internet project already than you’re missing out.” How did you know?
Willie: Wow, did I say that? You know what, that’s crazy. For me, I just wanted to do something and make a company and contribute to culture and express myself and [figure out] what that looked like. Once things started gaining traction, I realized that you can literally create a life for yourself on the internet. So my thought process was, why isn’t everyone doing that? Start something.
The Recreationalist: Do you remember the moment where you realized WE THE URBAN was really onto something?
Willie: It wasn’t until Tumblr noticed and put WE THE URBAN in their first directory. I remember that day so vividly. I was getting 6,000 followers a day and thought it was the craziest thing.
That’s when I decided to try out a magazine. And it was just divine order how a designer who specialized in magazines, and was very new to the scene, hit me up. And a slew of photographers and guidance came that I wasn’t expecting so immediately. We put together the first digital issue, commissioned the shoots, did interviews — I found out that was how I could get close to artists that I loved — and the first issue got over a million impressions online. Eventually, Tumblr flew me to New York Fashion Week when I was a senior in high school. For me at the time living in North Carolina, just going to New York period sounded like Narnia. It definitely solidified that this WE THE URBAN thing I was building was going to be something that I’d want to see through.
I just wanted to do something and make a company and contribute to culture and express myself and [figure out] what that looked like. Once things started gaining traction, I realized that you can literally create a life for yourself on the internet. So my thought process was, why isn’t everyone doing that? Start something.
Willie at peace, taking in golden hour in Los Angeles. He wears the Weekender Longsleeve, Rectrek Pant in Bone, and Outdoor Voices + HOKA Clifton. Photo by Elys Thoms.
On Willie the Activist
The Recreationalist: When you scroll through your feed, there’s a clear break where you switched from mostly fashion to mostly inspirational content. What happened there?
Willie: In 2016, I turned 21 and I had been doing the magazine since I was 15. For most people their late teens is a figuring-out stage, and I had a huge moment of “What am I doing?” Over the years, I had put myself in a lot of adult situations and grew up quickly in a lot of senses. Being that age and in conference rooms with a bunch of old white men trying to get advertising dollars, spearheading a whole magazine and having a team rely on me, producing fashion week events of upwards of 3,000 people sometimes … all these were not normal things to do and I hit a plateau. 2016 pulled the lid off of everything.
The Recreationalist: I’d be remiss not to note that 2016 created seismic shifts in our political and social culture as well.
Willie: The 2016 election. That’s when I started to go really, really hard on Instagram, because the audience was more activated. It just got to a place where everyone couldn’t ignore what was going on, and the whole ‘I’m not into politics’ thing didn’t fly anymore. I started dabbling in positive messages and quotes and content that was intentionally socially aware, but still through the lens of great photography and art, which is what made WE THE URBAN special.
The Recreationalist: In hindsight, that was a bold risk to take. Were you ever scared your audience wouldn’t take well to the shift?
Willie: When I started really posting blatantly political things, I was a little worried. I was in that weird limbo stage myself, doing my best and interrogating my own mental health and trying to figure out my own journey. It got to a place of, you know what? I don’t care anymore. I need to do what I need to do to stay sane. If that means switching to work on things that actually matter in the world, then I’m going to do it. And if that means the company crumbles or not as many people are interested, then so be it.
But interestingly enough, it filtered out the people that I could live without and it helped bring in the right people. So to my surprise, it worked.
The Recreationalist: Well, the payoff was massive: 2.3 million followers.
Willie: I think people are just really hungry to feel better and to heal, and I think it’s taught me that all of us are really more alike than we are different. And it’s also shown me that it is okay to care. A lot of white people are opening their eyes. The spectrum is wide and far-reaching now.
IT GOT TO A PLACE OF, YOU KNOW WHAT? I DON’T CARE ANYMORE. I NEED TO DO WHAT I NEED TO DO TO STAY SANE. IF THAT MEANS SWITCHING TO WORK ON THINGS THAT ACTUALLY MATTER IN THE WORLD, THEN I’M GOING TO DO IT. AND IF THAT MEANS THE COMPANY CRUMBLES OR NOT AS MANY PEOPLE ARE INTERESTED, THEN SO BE IT.
On Willie the Caretaker
The Recreationalist: What you’re doing for the community, it’s a lot.
Willie: It is a lot. I talk about Instagram in my therapy sessions a lot. It’s kind of sad.
The Recreationalist: Do you have a team helping you?
Willie: I’m the one that comes up with the words and the post themes, and a lot of times I’m just speaking to myself.
The Recreationalist: What does speaking to yourself through your platform look like?
Willie: People wouldn’t know, but last September I went through a horrible breakup that left me feeling like a shell of myself. And people don’t understand that I kind of healed myself through helping heal other people. So running this platform is more than making a brand — it’s totally an emotionally immersive experience.
The Recreationalist: That’s so powerful. Do you ever get people telling you how your platform healed them?
Willie: When things started to really move in 2020, I would get so many DMs of anecdotes about how my very simple words were affecting people and guiding their lives. I’ve gotten stories from people who have gotten the strength to leave abusive relationships, doctors in India at the height of the crisis dealing with seeing death every single day, and [my] posts being the one single thing to keep them moving.
The Recreationalist: Wow. That’s a lot to carry, even if it is good emotion.
Willie: Yeah. It’s a lot. I was talking to my therapist like, am I crazy for feeling that I can’t handle this, even the good messages? And she was like, no. It’s not normal for anyone to process so much of people’s trauma everyday. Obviously people are coming from a good place, and it is so affirming, and it’s helped me really accept what I think is my purpose in this world. But I don’t know, we gotta take care of ourselves. That’s been my lesson for the past year.
The Recreationalist: When you’re just Willie, what are the small things that make you happy?
Willie: God, I love music. Anyone who knows me knows that I am the music junkie. Give me the aux, give me the Bluetooth. I just think it’s the most therapeutic thing in the world. I just bought a keyboard, I’m trying to teach myself piano. There’s this Snoh Aalegra song called “Want You Around” and I’m so determined to figure out all the chords.
The Recreationalist: Okay, what about outside?
Willie: I try and get outside once a day, just clear my mind. Sometimes I’ll just process my day out loud and speak to myself in nature.
The Recreationalist: Do you do that?!
Willie: Totally. I’m sure it’s weird.
Anything I worked on, I didn’t want it to be normal. I wanted it to affect and reach the highest, highest people. I guess I still have a little of that in me.
The Recreationalist: I wrote down something else you said in 2012. You said “I want to be the Nicki Minaj of magazines.”
Willie: Oh my god, I said that?
The Recreationalist: It’s in print, Willie.
Willie: Woooow. It’s funny because it’s so me. Anyone who knows me knows my love for that woman. Yeah. The Nicki Minaj of magazines. I guess for me at that time, anything I worked on, I didn’t want it to be normal. I wanted it to affect and reach the highest, highest people. I guess I still have a little of that in me. I want to do things at the highest caliber that I can. It’s so funny to hear that.
The Recreationalist: You’re now the Nicki Minaj of self-affirmations.
Willie: Oh my god. I love this. Wow. Manifestation is crazy. [Laughs.]
What would you like to see Willie do next? Follow him on Instagram and let us know below.