Growing Up Happy and Successful
Growing Up Happy and Successful
Will Smith had an unusual childhood for a rap star. Many of the most famous and successful performers in this musical genre have come from broken homes, have gotten into trouble with the police, or have used drugs. Tupac Shakur and 50 Cent are examples of rappers who had troubled childhoods. Shakur never knew his father, his mother was a crack addict for several years, and he was imprisoned for rape. Likewise, 50 Cent never knew his father, his mother was murdered when he was a young boy, and he once made his living selling drugs. By contrast, Smith came from a stable, loving family, and his parents taught him a different set of values than the ones that many rappers acquire while growing up. Smith once explained how his upbringing affected the choices he has made in his life:
I made a decision not to carry a gun. I made a decision not to do drugs and not to fight, you know. It's not that I lived in such a great neighborhood and that stuff wasn't there. No. I'm a better person than those people [who use violence and take drugs]. I have better parents, maybe, than those people have. It's not geographically where I was located. It's intellectually where I was someplace else.5
The intellectual development that shaped Smith took place in Wynnefield, a middle-class suburb of West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It began on September 25, 1968, when he was born in Children's Hospital in Philadelphia as Willard Christopher Smith II.
Will was the second of four children; he has an older sister, Pam, and a younger brother and sister, Ellen and Harry, who are twins. Will was named after his father, a U.S. Air Force veteran who owned a business that installed and repaired refrigeration units in grocery stores. His mother, Caroline, was a school administrator who worked for the Philadelphia School Board. When an interviewer once asked Smith who his idols were, he said the only people he had ever idolized were his parents. That was because his mother and father had loved him and taught him the most important lessons of his life.
The Smiths were not rich, but they had enough money to enroll Will and his siblings in Our Lady of Lourdes, a private school. Even though the family was Baptist, Will's mother wanted her children to attend the Roman Catholic school because it was the best one in the area. She did that because she believed deeply that they needed a good education to succeed in life.
Will attended Our Lady of Lourdes from kindergarten through eighth grade. He was a solid student and brought home B grades. Years later, as an adult, Smith admitted he should have gotten A's. The reason Will did not do better is because he spent too much time making jokes and goofing around with his friends. “I was the fun one who had trouble paying attention,”6 Smith once told an interviewer. The reality was that Will was so smart that he did not have to work hard to get decent grades.
His mother's choice of schools also proved invaluable in teaching the young boy how to socialize with white people. Until Will started school, most of the people he had come into contact with were black because he lived in an African American neighborhood. But almost all of Will's classmates and teachers at the Catholic school were white. Will encountered some racism from fellow students, and a Catholic nun who taught in the school once called him a “nigger.” Although other whites had already used that racial slur for African Americans to hurt the young boy, he was surprised a teacher would use the hateful word. For the most part, however, the whites Will encountered were friendly, and he learned how to get along with them.
When Will transferred to public Overbrook High School in the ninth grade, the racial balance switched again because the students were almost all African American. Smith once said that he learned important lessons by attending schools with both blacks and whites: “For my first nine years, I went to school with all white people. And then I went to school with all black people. So I have a really good sense of the bridge—the racial bridge.”7
That ability to span the racial divide and appeal to both blacks and whites would become a major part of Will's future success. So would lessons that he learned from his father. Will's dad was a hard worker who believed in doing a job to perfection. One summer when Will was about fifteen years old, his dad ordered him and his younger brother, Harry, to rebuild a brick wall that fronted his refrigeration business. The brothers worked through the summer and after school in the fall and winter to complete the job. The two boys had to tear down the wall brick by brick and then put it back up. Will hated the work because it was hard and the job seemed to be advancing only one brick at a time. But as an adult, Smith explained how proud he was when he finally finished the job and how it taught him about the need to persevere to achieve something he wanted: “Dad told me and my brother, ‘Now don't you all ever tell me you can't do something.’ I look back on that a lot of times in my life when I think I won't be able to do something, and I tell myself, ‘One brick at a time.’”8
The self-confidence Will gained from that experience and the loving support he always got from his family made him brave enough to tackle any challenge that faced him in the future. The first challenges came when his life changed drastically after his parents divorced.
Dr. Seuss Influenced Will Smith
Biographer Chris Nickson notes that one of the important early influences on Will Smith were books written by Dr. Seuss, the pen name of Theodor Geisel:
From the beginning, young Will was quite precocious. Unusually, as Caroline Smith remembered, “He could talk before he could walk,” and once he found his voice there was no shutting him up. Each night his parents would read to him, and the Dr. Seuss books became a firm favorite at bedtime, with their nonsense and clever rhymes. They might even have had a subconscious influence on what he'd end up doing as a teenager, as Will noted many years later. “If you listen to them a certain way, books like Green Eggs and Ham and Hop On Pop sound a lot like hip-hop.”
Chris Nickson, Will Smith. New York: St. Martin's, 1999, p. 11.
Will's parents divorced when he was thirteen. Although they had always showered their children with love, Will's mother and father had trouble loving each other. They argued a lot, and Will never felt his parents were happy together; when they split up, he was more relieved than saddened. Caroline Smith took her four children to live with her mother, Helen Bright, in a house not far from their old one. Despite the divorce, Will's dad continued to support his children and play an important role in their lives.
The divorce occurred in 1982, at about the same time that Will began going to Overbrook High School in West Philadelphia. Even though Will had been attending a white school, he had no trouble fitting in with his new African American classmates because he had lived in a black neighborhood. His ability to make people laugh helped make everyone like him. Even his teachers admired his joking ways, and some of them began calling him “Prince Charming,” which his friends shortened to “Prince.” Will later added “Fresh” to his high school nickname; fresh was a slang word that meant “new” or “very good.” Thus was born the name “Fresh Prince,” the name that Will would make famous as a rapper.
One reason why Will fit in at his new school was because he shared the passion other students had for a new type of music that was sweeping the nation. Rap, which is also called hip-hop, began in the 1970s. The first song that became a hit nationally was “Rapper's Delight” in 1979. That historic record made Will fall in love with the new style of music and fired a desire in the twelve-year-old to become a rapper.
Will began making up rap songs and practicing them in the basement of his family's home and with his friends. The lyrics that Will wrote for the songs, however, soon got him into trouble with his grandmother. When Helen Bright read some of the songs her grandson had written, she became angry because they were loaded with swear words, language that was common in rap music. Smith once explained how his grandmother changed his mind about the type of lyrics he would put in his songs:
When I first started writing rap, at twelve, I used expletives and four-letter words, because that's what rap was. My grandmother got ahold of my rap book, read it and wrote in the back: “Dear Willard, truly intelligent people do not have to use these types of words to express themselves.” We've never talked about it, but from that day on, I didn't use those words.9
Rap is one of the most popular forms of music in the United States, with people buying tens of millions of rap albums every year. It is also one of the newest forms of music to sweep the world. Rap, which is also referred to as hip-hop, was begun in the 1970s in New York City by African American inner-city youths. It combines an instrumental background, called the beat, with lyrics sung in an exaggerated rhythmic punctuation that sometimes includes rhyming phrases, alliteration, and words that sound alike. When this new form of music began, it was a way in which anyone who wanted to sing could try to entertain a crowd. As rap's popularity spread, people tried to make money out of it. The first commercially issued rap single was “Rapper's Delight” in 1979 by the Sugarhill Gang. The song became a hit nationally and helped popularize the term rapper for someone who made such music. In the 1980s gangsta rap became the most popular style of this new music. The lyrics of the songs focused on the delights of using drugs and having sex and glorified the lifestyles of drug dealers and other criminals. Although rap was based on black inner-city culture, it became popular with many young whites.
Will's grandmother's advice helped shape his performing future because the songs he would make popular were different from those of most rappers, who laced their tunes with profanities. Will started performing the songs at parties and in informal competitions with other would-be rappers, and he later liked to brag that he won every competition. It was at a party in 1985 that Will met someone who would help him achieve his goal of becoming a successful rapper.
Rappers sometimes have partners. Smith's first partner was Clarence Holmes, whose rap nickname was “Ready Rock C.” The two young friends began working together when Smith was fourteen. They soon became so good that people paid them to perform at parties. It was at a friend's party in 1985 that sixteen-year-old Smith met twenty-year-old Jeffrey Townes, who was playing records and singing rap songs so people could dance. Townes performed as “Jazzy Jeff.” He had earned that nickname by using jazz records as background music for his rap songs rather than more popular rhythm-and-blues tunes.
Smith liked the style Townes showed onstage. He was so impressed that he performed some songs with Townes at the party. The two young men were drawn together by their common musical interests and a deep friendship that developed instantly. They decided to develop a stage act and began performing at parties and church functions as “DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.” People liked them so much that local clubs began hiring them to play for their customers. Smith sang the lyrics to their rap songs and Townes handled the musical accompaniment, which included playing instruments and scratching records to make strange noises that accented their songs. Holmes sometimes joined the rap duo in the group's early years.
The older Townes had more experience than Smith. He had begun rapping at age ten and had performed with many other rappers before he finally hooked up with Smith. “I worked with 2,000 crews [music groups] before I found this maniac,” Townes once said of Smith. “There was a click when I worked with him that was missing before.”10
As their fame grew, the two young rappers began to dream about putting out a record. They approached Dana Goodman, who ran a small music company called Word Up Records. Goodman signed them to a contract for one song. Their choice for their recording debut was “Girls Ain't Nothing but Trouble,” a comical take on how difficult it is for young teenagers when they start dating. The lighthearted song began with this opening line: “Listen home boys don't mean to bust your bubble/But girls of the world ain't nothing but trouble.”11 The song went on to humorously recount the problems Fresh Prince had with several girls he dated.
The record was released during Smith's senior year in high school. Before Smith graduated, he would be a nationally known rapper.
“Girls Ain't Nothing but Trouble” was such a hit in 1986 that local radio stations began playing it. Eventually it became so popular that Jive Records, a much bigger recording company than Word Up, bought the song and released it nationally. The song was soon playing on radio stations across the country, and listeners bought thousands of copies.
The song's success created a problem for Smith. His parents wanted him to go to college, but he believed his future was in writing and performing rap songs. Even though Smith had not worked as hard as he could in school, he had still been a good student. He once jokingly commented on his high school academics: “I pretty much got good grades in everything. I was bad in certain segments of certain courses. I was bad at dissecting in biology. Touching little formaldehyde frogs, you know, I was really dead with that.”12 What made his choice for his future much harder was that he had been offered a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The success Smith was having—and the self-confidence he had that he could continue to make hit records—led him to choose a musical career over college. But when Smith told his parents what he wanted to do, they were unhappy because they thought it would be a big mistake not to go to college. His mother, who valued education, was especially upset. Smith explains their reaction: “I told my parents I wanted to rap. They said, ‘Rap?’ My mother graduated from Carnegie Mellon. She thought college was the only way. My father could kind of see doing something differently. We agreed that I would take a year making music, and if it did not work out, I would go to college.”13
Will Smith's Family
In an interview in 1998 with Rolling Stone magazine, Will Smith talked about how important his family was to him when he was growing up:
My mother was this type of woman: When you're learning to drive, you're excited. You hop in the driver's seat, start the car. But mom would stand patiently outside on the passenger's side. I'd say, “Mom, come on!” But she wouldn't move. Finally I'd get it—jump out, run around, open the door, apologizing: “My fault, mom, my fault.”… My father was the physical disciplinarian. Usually with boys there has to be a threat of physical violence [laughs]. My father made me a soldier, and my mother gave me the strength to be one…. I had two sisters and a brother—a team of people to support you. Like my older sister [Pam]: She was an athlete—All-City track—a real overachiever. One time some guys stole money from me and I came home crying. My older sister grabbed a bat and we walked around the neighborhood looking for these guys. I remember thinking, “Damn! This is the person you want in your corner.” My older sister always made me feel safe.
Quoted in Nancy Collins, “The Rolling Stone Interview: Will Smith,” Rolling Stone, December 10, 1998, p. 40.
His parents let him do what he wanted because they knew he would be unhappy if he did not. But even though Smith decided not to go to college, he still believed education was important. He even admitted once that graduating from high school on June 17, 1986, was one of the greatest achievements of his life. In a 1997 interview Smith was asked, “What's your proudest moment?” He responded by saying, “I have many proud moments. I guess the one that comes to mind most frequently is my high school graduation. I guess it was more a time of pride for my parents, but I felt that it made me feel good and it made me feel proud.”14
Because Smith was famous as a rapper and movie star by then, that comment reveals a lot about him. It shows that Smith knew his parents had sacrificed much so he could get a good education, and he realized how proud they were that he had finished high school. His feeling good about their happiness showed how much he appreciated what they had done for him. But the love and gratitude Smith has for his mom and dad also extends to other relatives who helped him become the man he is today.
In interviews, Smith has often explained that the members of his family helped him when he was growing up. His siblings always supported him, and he often comments on his grandmother, Helen Bright, for helping him. “Without the things [she] taught me, I would not have achieved my success,”15 he claims. Smith knows that the love, support, and guidance that his entire family gave him helped him become successful. This is how Smith once explained why that support was so important: “Being there and making me feel better. Telling me, ‘Yes, you can do what you want. Go ahead, give it a try, and if it doesn't work, we'll figure that out then; but as smart as you are, it's gonna work.’ Once you grow up with that, you can't function without it.”16