In the summer of 1985, the king of Philadelphia’s DJ scene threw down at a house party. That night, his hype man was missing. You know, the dude shouting around, getting folks excited, and prompting chants. Luckily, a local MC lived just down the street and offered to fill in.
The name of that MC was Will Smith. He and DJ Jazzy Jeff instantly hit it off. So much, in fact, that Jeff sent his former sidekick packing and the two joined forces. Less than a year later, they dropped their debut single “Girls Ain’t Nothing but Trouble” just in time to take the 1986 prom season by storm and allow Will to graduate high school as a rap star. Jeff recalls:
“Once Will and I made a record, we killed Philly’s hip-hop and ballroom scene. Nobody wanted two turntables. Now they wanted one turntable, a drum machine and some guy rapping. It wasn’t about Philly anymore. It was about conquering the world.”
And conquer the world they did.
Changing the Game
As sudden megastars often do, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince broke through because they reinvented the game they were playing. First, they redefined what makes a cool party. Then, they updated the meaning of the word ‘rap.’
With their light-hearted, comedic, curse-free songs like “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “Summertime,” the duo took rap to an upper middle class, even prep school level and made it fashionable. So fashionable, in fact, that Will and Jeff received not one, but two Grammys for ‘Best Rap Performance’ in 1989 and 1991 — a category that didn’t exist before they first won it.
And even though the two eventually split up and went their separate ways, none of these developments are entirely accidental. This tendency to reimagine things is part of Will Smith’s identity. It’s who he is. He may have started as an MC juggling words, but, as it turns out, it’s not just his music career that’s built on semantics.
A Dedication to Linguistics
What’s the one thing all rappers love? Language. And while it’s right at the intersection of what both they and actors need to succeed, almost no one seems able to make the jump. There is no shortage of rap stars attempting to act, but next to Will, only Mark Wahlberg made it to the majors.
Maybe it’s because no actor other than Will makes it as clear that he is a man of words. His characters are often outspoken, almost blubbering, and they’re always full of clever lines. Like Alex Hitchens, Will’s character in Hitch.
“Never lie, steal, cheat, or drink. But if you must lie, lie in the arms of the one you love. If you must steal, steal away from bad company. If you must cheat, cheat death. And if you must drink, drink in the moments that take your breath away.”
In his own life, he loves to learn new words…
“In this film, I read an interesting quote. Siddhartha Gautama — the Buddha — he said that ‘good people have to get out of the bed every day and try to empty the ocean with a ladle.’ I knew that was profound and I paused for a second and I said ‘alright, what the hell is a ladle?’ So then I touched it on my iPad and ‘oh, it’s like a big spoon.’ A big spoon, okay. So like a soup spoon. So trying to empty the ocean with a soup spoon, you know, as the the mentality of how you wake up every day to try to do good in the world.”
…connect existing ones…
“Loss is bound to joy. Pain and suffering are bound to joy. Being able to survive something is actually a big part of being able to find that next wave of joy.”
…and writes a mission statement every year. Basically, whenever he’s in front of an audience — live or on screen — he plays jumprope with semantic lines.
“Confucius said one time: ‘He who says he can and he who says he can’t are both usually right.’”
— In his NAACP Image Award acceptance speech
But Will Smith’s dedication to linguistics goes even beyond all that. If you look at his chronology of films, you’ll see that almost every single one is an attempt to reformulate either its own genre or a fundamental aspect of human life.
Independence Day took the scale of the word ‘disaster’ to a new level. I, Robot made us question what it means to be ‘human.’ Hancock broke the mold of the ‘superhero’ genre. Sometimes, the word at the heart of the movie is obvious, even makes the title, like in The Pursuit of Happyness or Focus. Sometimes, it’s a little harder to find. I Am Legend, for example, wasn’t as much about ‘death’ as it was about ‘loneliness.’ The word for Seven Pounds was ‘sacrifice.’ But even when it’s hidden, it’s always there.
And while this is representative of the insane work ethic he openly claims to have, Will Smith’s commitment to connotation runs deeper still.
Words to Mend Our Mental Health
Besides giving new meaning to old words and using them to wow audiences, Will also draws linguistic lines to sort out the biggest mess we all face: the one in our own head. For example, while he realized very early that he had a lot of talent, he also knew it would not get him anywhere without skill.
“The separation of talent and skill is one of the greatest misunderstood concepts for people who are trying to excel, who have dreams, that want to do things. Talent you have naturally. Skill is only developed by hours and hours and hours of beating on your craft.”
What’s more, clear distinctions allow him to deal with even the strongest of headwinds in the industry.
“My wife and I were just having this conversation and we were going to the dictionary for prejudice versus racism. Everybody’s prejudiced. Everybody’s prejudiced. Everybody has their life experiences that make them prefer one thing over another. But there’s a connotation in racism of superiority. That you feel that your race, generally, just based on your race, is superior. And I have to say, I live with constant prejudice, but racism is actually rare.”
Beyond picking better sides, such demarcation lines also give you the freedom to pick no side.
“I was just having a debate with a friend of mine and we got stuck on the difference between fault and responsibility. She kept talking about how something was somebody’s fault. It somebody’s fault! And I was like, it really don’t matter whose fault it is that something is broken if it’s your responsibility to fix it. Fault and responsibility do not go together. It sucks, but they don’t.
Taking responsibility, accepting responsibility is not an admission of guilt. You’re not admitting that you’re at fault. Taking responsibility is a recognition of the power that you seize when you stop blaming people. It’s not like you’re letting somebody who wronged you off the hook. Taking responsibility is an act of emotional self-defense. Taking responsibility is taking your power back.”
If you put fault on one side and guilt on another, responsibility ends up in the middle. This allows you to stay in your lane, the lane that’s not just the most useful to deal with the situation, but that even leads to feeling peaceful, rather than powerless and angry.
But the most fascinating word Will Smith gets real granular about is fear.
A Safe Space in Language
If anyone’s ever taken Franklin D. Roosevelt’s quote about the only thing worth fearing being fear itself to heart, it’s Will Smith. It’s easily the word he’s built the most synonym-fences around. There’s fear as motivation…
“I live in complete terror. Everything about this business and what I’ve been trying to build and what I’ve been trying to do with my life keeps me in terror. I am deeply motivated by fear.”
…fear vs. failure…
“It’s always a little bit frustrating to me when people have a negative relationship with failure. Failure is a massive part of being able to be successful. You have to get comfortable with failure. You have to actually seek failure. Failure is where all of the lessons are.”
…and even the fear of his own power. On the first day of ninth grade, he provoked a kid into knocking him out with a combination lock, which led to said kid being arrested and expelled.
“I was laying in my bed that night and I was just feeling like sh*t, and I had the recognition that I had caused this kid to throw his life away. He was kicked out of school and I never knew what happened to him, but I have a sense that it didn’t go well beyond there. And I felt a deep sense of regret and a deep sense that I had caused an emotion in a person that made them do that. And that feeling of regret turned into a sort of a fear of how much power I had. I was like ‘everything I say and do has that kind of effect on other human beings?’ And in that moment I decided that I would never walk into a room and do anything other than inspire and uplift and enlighten people.”
In addition to motivation, failure, power, and regret, Will has contrasted fear with danger, humility, loss, and even death. What he’s done here is build a safe space in language, with pillars holding off fear on all sides. Whenever he’s afraid, he can withdraw to that space, look around, and figure out which of the pillars fear is hiding behind this time. Is he afraid the movie will flop? That the next success might go to his head? That he might die? Whatever the reason, he can then replace the word ‘fear’ with another one and attack the problem from a new angle, one from which it may be easier to pass.
For all the benefits of mastering language, mastering your fears may be the most important one. But even that pales in comparison to one other thing.
Your Entry in the Dictionary
One of the few patterns Will Smith didn’t break is that of the unexpected, 21-year-old, millionaire rapper being an expected, 22-year old, broke rapper. But even after the IRS took all his stuff, he remembered that the words ‘rich’ and ‘famous’ usually go together. So he leveraged one into getting the other back. That’s why the show was called The ‘Fresh Prince’ of Bel-Air. It made use of the name he’d already established for himself. Semantics.
From 2008 to 2012, he had a rough patch and didn’t star in any movies. Eventually, he realized he needed a new definition of the word ‘acting.’
“I’ve always been really product-oriented. I want to win. When I do something, I want to win. I have a daughter and she really shifted my focus from product to people. It took a couple of years, but as soon as I’d gotten knocked off product and started shifting to people, the whole world opened up for me again. And acting opened up in a whole new way. To not go into day one of a movie, trying to figure out what everybody has to do so we win. I fell in love and then I couldn’t imagine what else I could do that could add so much to my life, other than acting.”
There’s one last, big lesson in that: all the definitions in the world don’t help if you don’t know who you are.
The Semantics of Success
When I look at Will Smith’s progression throughout the years, it seems to me his attention spotlight really has shifted inward. His mission statement has remained the same for the last few years. It’s ‘Improve Lives.’ And what better person to start with than oneself?
“In retrospect I’ve realized I had hit a ceiling in my talent. I had a great run that I thought was fantastic and I realized that I had done everything that I could do with the ‘me’ that I had. I really dived into me and then all of a sudden it was like ‘oh!’ and I found the connection. Your work can never really be better than you are. Your work can’t be deeper than you are.”
I think the work he’s done post-2012 reflects that. He seems happier, much less focused on outcomes, like box office numbers, and more fearless than ever. The themes of the movies he chooses are even more powerful. Themes like ‘truth’ in Concussion and ‘home’ in Bright. As with words, not every film has to hit its mark perfectly to mean something.
Lately, he also started a Youtube channel, posts Instagram stories, and documents his life in the occasional vlog. Finally, there’s new music on the horizon. I think it’s no coincidence that after 30 years, Will Smith is coming full circle, right back to rapping. Because he never really stopped. He’s on the same journey he started way back when. My guess is it’ll remain his true purpose to the day he dies. A mission to redefine himself.
A mission to reinvent the meaning behind the words ‘Will Smith.’