Will Smith said his “middle-class upbringing” was a factor in the criticism he faced as a rapper.
He said his grandmother was why his songs were clean after she left him a note when he was 12.
Smith said that people called him “corny” and “soft” because his tracks didn’t include expletives.
Will Smith said that his socioeconomic status played a part in the criticism he faced when he entered the hip-hop world as a teen.
“My middle-class upbringing contributed to the constant criticism I took early in my rap career,” Smith, 53, said in his self-titled memoir, released on Tuesday. “I was not a gangster, and I wasn’t selling drugs.”
“I grew up on a nice street in a two-parent household,” the musician continued. “I went to a Catholic school with mostly white kids until I was 14. My mom was college-educated. And for all of his faults, my father always put food on the table and would die before he abandoned his kids.”
Smith was born and raised in West Philadelphia. His father, Willard Smith Sr., was a “hustler” and US Air Force veteran who utilized a military style when parenting. The actor’s mother, Carolyn Bright, “was one of the first Black women to ever study at Carnegie Mellon University,” Smith wrote in his memoir.
“My story was very different from the ones being told by the young Black men who were launching the global phenomenon that would later become hip-hop,” he said. “In their minds, I was somehow an illegitimate artist; they would call me ‘soft,’ ‘whack,’ ‘corny,’ a ‘bubblegum rapper,’ criticisms that violently infuriated me.”
In his book, Smith said that “the chorus of criticism that I was ‘corny’ and ‘soft'” increased as he became popular in the music industry as part of the duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.
“I didn’t curse; I rapped about my high school experiences; I used a lot of humor,” he said. “The shit-talking was that I wasn’t a ‘real MC’ or – the words – that I wasn’t ‘Black enough’ and my music wasn’t ‘real hip-hop.'”
In chapter four of his memoir, the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” alum explained why his music never included expletives.
Smith said that he felt a sense of shame at 12 years old after his grandmother, named Gigi, found his first rap notebook in which he crafted “verses full of curse words and slick, slangy vulgarities,” similar to his hip-hop idols at the time.
His grandmother never verbally confronted him about his writing, but left a note inside the book and told her grandson to use his gift to “uplift others.”
“I decided that night that I wanted to use my words to empower others, to help rather than to hurt,” he said.
“I never cursed again in my rhymes,” Smith added. “And I got criticized and smashed for years for that choice. But there was no peer pressure that even came close to overriding Gigi pressure.”
The actor shared the same story during a conversation with Spike Lee during his book tour event “Will Smith: An Evening of Stories with Friends” at Kings Theatre in Brooklyn on Tuesday, which Insider attended.
During the interview, he elaborated on how his grandmother’s advice shaped his rap career and the way he approached his art.
Smith said that Gigi “missionized” him and made him aware that other people would be “consuming” his material and therefore he had a responsibility.
“That was something that was difficult to hold on to at some times, but I felt confident that it was the right road to struggle down, to care about others, and to make sure that everything I’m putting in the world had the intention of being helpful to others,” he said.
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