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Will Smith Took A Lot Of Heat For His Clean Style Of Rapping, But Explains Why It Didn’t Matter

Will Smith and his co-stars in King Richard
(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

The influence of family can never be understated, especially when it comes to art. Will Smith, one of the most recent nominees for 2022’s Academy Awards, knows this several times over. Not only has he experienced this through the lessons taught to him by his family, but the award-winning entertainer has used them to help raise children that have also become more conscious artists in their own right. Though the actor/rapper took a lot of heat for his clean style of music back in the day, it never really mattered to him. As it turns out, he might not have landed on that sort of music if it wasn’t for a special message his grandmother once sent him. 

Back in November 2021, Smith was on tour with his autobiography Will (opens in new tab), which saw him making select stops to promote his life story. In conversation with filmmaker Spike Lee during his Brooklyn show date, many stories ranging through the entertainer’s personal and professional development were shared. One such tale involved a very different Will, younger and writing raps with profanities we certainly don’t hear in his current music. That was until his grandmother Gigi caught a hold of his lyrics, which led to the following story which CinemaBlend was present to hear first hand:

I had the black and white speckled school book, and I was putting all my rhymes in there. And, you know, I was 12 years old, so I was letting it rip a little bit. My Gigi found my rappin’ book, and she's never said nothing. She wrote me a letter, in the front of my book. I opened the front cover and it said, ‘Dear Willard: truly intelligent people do not have to use words like this to express themselves. Please show the world that you are as smart as we think you are. Love, Gigi.’ And that was why in my early rap career, I didn't curse in any of my records … I got bashed for that. They’d go ‘soft’, and, ‘corny’, ‘wack’, and ‘not black enough.’ But the thing was, there was no peer pressure that was more powerful than Gigi was.

Coming up as both a young rapper and the star of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, the Will Smith brand would be built through insane popularity, but with a family friendly approach. It wasn’t what he’d always be known for, as he was only a few years away from the surprise success of Independence Day and the Bad Boys films, which would show off Smith’s credentials as an action hero with more of an edge. But throughout his musical endeavors, that edge would remain absent, opting instead for a mostly lighthearted and carefree approach.

That choice may have made things harder for his music to take off in some respects, but it was a choice worth making in the eyes of Mr. Smith. Reinforcing that path was Gigi’s message in his rappin’ book, which meant so much more than just the “peer pressure” of a loved one. As Will Smith further explained that night, he took his grandmother’s words as a call to be his best self not only for his family, but for others as well:

She really, she missionized me in the world in a way, where I knew when I was going into the world, I wasn't going just for me. That I knew other people's families, and other people's kids, and other people's grandmothers would be consuming my material. And she made me clear about my responsibility to contribute to the human family. And that was something that was, you know, difficult to hold on to sometimes. But you know I felt confident that it was the right road to struggle down. To care about others and to make sure everything I'm putting in the world has an intention of being helpful to others.

Keeping it clean wasn’t just a matter of personal pride to Will Smith, but it was also something he felt he had to do in order to better serve the world. That sort of consciousness doesn’t always find itself into an artist’s career, especially when you’re someone who had a meteoric rise to fame like he did. Even in recent years, Smith’s reflection on why he’d previously avoided roles in slavery based films, and ultimately what drove him to accept his upcoming role in Emancipation, links straight back to those deeply held beliefs. 

Entertaining has always been a joy for Will Smith throughout his career, and now we know a little more about why he’s as selective as he is about his projects. Decisions like turning down the lead role in Django Unchained are much clearer, and even more admirable when measured by Smith’s own code. It’s a brand that has been established and firmed up over time, and we can all thank Gigi for being part of why the Will we know and love exists today. 

Emancipation currently does not have a release date, but will debut on Apple TV+ as an original film. You can see Will Smith’s current Academy Award-nominated performance in King Richard, which is available for purchase or rental. For the rest of the upcoming movies, you can look forward to throughout the year, head to the full rundown of 2022 movie releases and prepare for your next night out at the movies. 

CinemaBlend's James Bond (expert). Also versed in Large Scale Aggressors, time travel, and Guillermo del Toro. He fights for The User.