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Thoughts on smiling.

I wrote a song for my new album called SMILE. I have been thinking about it constantly for the past week or so and I am attempting to gather my thoughts. I don’t think I thought as much about it when making it, at least not consciously, and perhaps it was my subconscious that led me into an exchange with a friend who questioned my making of a song called SMILE, with all of the levels of war, oppression, and history that are unfolding in the current landscape and the fact that I misspoke when challenging Rakim’s famous phrase “nobody’s smiling” in relation to my song.

I have great reverence and respect for Rakim, he is the father of the modern rap style and I feel, as an outsider or guest, I was out of place for challenging his sincere and justified response of not smiling in the landscape that he inhabits in this country as a Black man, facing multiple levels of oppression, threat and dangerous coordination I can’t really fathom as a white man.

As a white man of privilege in America, I am aware I have cultural blind spots, and as apt as I may be to put my foot in my mouth, I appreciated how my friend challenged my ideas of smiling, in a way that let me know that I was out of line, but left room for contemplation of why I was out of line so I would consider it. I have thought long and hard.

Now that I have had time to think about it, I am going to try to articulate my thoughts on the act of smiling, when so many are facing so much injustice in this world at the hands of men who look like me and come from cultures that I come from. I believe that many of the problems in this world come from people living out of whack with the natural way of things, and my people, as white men, are the biggest perpetrators of the lines of thinking that have contributed to this disorder we are all collectively undergoing, resisting, trying to transform, dealing with and in some cases dying from.

I am not saying that humankind is only undergoing these experiences because of white men, there are complicit folks of all backgrounds involved, but in this current era, it is a lot to unpack, and I work with therapy to work on my own issues as a member of this group of people, someone who grew up indoctrinated by unhealthy things I am trying my best to unlearn, a life-long process.

Whether it is colonialism, patriarchy, capitalism, white supremacy, or ideologies that seek to exploit and reduce people to victims of these forces, I know I am not innocent and may be complicit in ways I don’t have control over or even realize, yet I sincerely aim to do things that are “positive” with my life, and I am on a quest to decolonize myself and my worldview that I was born into and am unlearning. I am still working this out in real-time, so bear with me. It is messy work, it is not simple and it requires patience, bravery, honesty, and grace. I will misstep, and I will struggle, but hopefully from that will emerge radical transformation.

I know women particularly hate being told to “smile”, especially when minding their business in public. I know a forced or contrived smile is not an act of happiness, and I do not aim to coerce anyone to smile or push an agenda of happiness on people who might be grieving or experiencing sorrow. I don’t want false happiness or corny, fake, cheesy smiling. I want authentic, brilliant, and sincere smiles. I don’t want anyone to sacrifice their truth, even if they disagree vehemently with me. Feel free to frown all you want.

I will now lay out the things that inspired the song.

The original Nat King Cole song, “Smile” inspired the song. The smile of Louis Armstrong inspired the song. The work of Brian Wilson, with his album titled SMiLE, inspired the song. And last but not least, the show Reservation Dogs inspired the song.

I will be the first to tell you, that I don’t smile much in pictures, which is ironic considering this song I made. I often try to make “positive” or “aspirational” music, some call it “conscious”. I will write about a love that I have never personally felt, in hopes that my ideals will inspire and give me a guiding point to focus on when I am hopeless, defeated, or depressed and hopefully this idealism will resonate with others, and give me strength when I need it. I know we live in a world of brutal systems and governances that challenge our spirits, this is the land “where spirits get eaten” as John Trudell famously said. Nothing about getting your spirit eaten makes you want to smile. It is very, heavy, intense stuff to be cognizant of, head on, no wonder so many people distract themselves from this knowledge with modern distractions.

Louis Armstrong, I think of with wonder. What he overcame, what he created. I have a separate song on the album that is a tribute to him. I reference a story told by Ozzie Davis that sent chills down my spine. Ozzie Davis said one day he was on set with Louis, and everyone else had gone to lunch. He looked over, and Louis was alone, and not aware that Ozzie was near him. He was sulking, and he looked dispirited, and Ozzie implied that he had only seen that defeated look of despair on men his father’s age who had undergone severe and humiliating racism and evil. He said something to the effect that it was the look of one of the saddest people he had ever laid eyes on.

Louis at the time was considered past his prime, and some considered him a relic of a bygone era. The movement of be-bop was challenging Louis’s more conservative views on race, music, and relations. He truly has a complicated history, and I won’t attempt to unpack it here, but when Louis looked up and saw Ozzie, immediately, he started to grin that trademark smile that made so many think of him as a person who was fake or phony, or even a sell-out. The smile may have served as a defense mechanism, a shield.

Ozzie concluded that while he may be able to put that wide grinning smile on his face, his true spirit was evident in his horn, which was a pristine, resolute, killer of giants. He meant business behind the horn, it was where he was able to exhibit his brilliance, gumption, and genius, and be his true authentic self. He wasn’t necessarily as free away from the horn, and he suffered multiple indignities. Look at a picture of him. There is evident pain visible in his eyes from smiling. Yet he still does. Is that a lesson, or a crime to his authentic self? I don’t purport to know.

This brings us to Nat King Coles's song SMILE. I have heard it said that it is Michael Jackson’s favorite song. Listening to it in 2023, it sounds almost abusive, the main message is to smile “even when your heart is breaking”. This is in direct counter to Rakim and his authentic “nobody’s smiling” honesty. “Smile” is kind of a dishonest or gloomy song if you read it one way, but I believe there is also a simple message that simply by smiling, you might be able to brighten the days of the people around you, and hopefully yourself. There is hope in a smile, and hope, to quote The Shawshank Redemption, is a “dangerous thing”.

Look at the scene in Shawshank where Red thinks that Andy has gone mad, or a villain like the Joker from Batman, or characters like the Cheshire Cat. Smiling is also a trait of untreated mental illness. Only people who are certainly psychotic would react to dire situations with smiles. Who could smile while undergoing intense horror?

Which brings me to Brian Wilson’s SMiLE. He spent nearly 40 years making this album, it literally drove him mad. It was so traumatic for him to make that decades later he had trouble processing it, but when you listen to it, almost 40 years later, it is full of whimsy and childhood delight, and perhaps a bit of naiveté. It is hard to protect yourself from the knowledge of being an adult while still trying to protect the knowledge of your inner child, a theme on Pet Sounds as well, and as to a child, smiling comes easy to, an adult not so much. Mental illness is no joke, it almost took my life. I didn’t smile in my mugshot or my hospital intake photo.

Last, but certainly not least, is the scene in an episode of Reservation Dogs, where a character is fleeing a residential school. Immense trauma, being taken from one’s family, divorced from one’s culture and language and spiritual practices, self-hatred and abuse, both physical and sexual. But a line stuck out that inspired my song. One character told another “They can’t keep you from smiling…” as she ran away from the horrible conditions of the residential school. This profoundly moved me to tears and inspired what may have been a not-so-thought-out or naive take on making the song I made.

The idea is, that I want to live in a world where Rakim can smile. Where he doesn’t have to put up the protective and necessary scowl to defend himself from the beings that will eat his soul in this country. We are not there. Will we ever be?

We are obviously not there yet, maybe I am a dreamer or idealist like John Lennon, and we never will be, but my intentions, which I believe were good, however misinformed, were to use the act of smiling, authentic, real, and genuine smiling, as a source or form of resistance.

If they can keep us from smiling, do they defeat us? If we walk around spiritually bereft of inspiration, hope, and idealism, can we ever combat the changes that will be necessary as humans move into this new era we are up against? How do people exist without hope?

There is extreme suffering going on in the world. War and injustice are evident everywhere. Buddhists believe this is the nature of existence. I don’t necessarily agree. Our time on this rock that is hurtling through space is so finite, so miniscule, and goes by so quickly. I want to smile. I want to be happy, I want to feel safe and loved and live with purpose in a community that cherishes my contributions and teaches me how to be. I want to smile.

I won’t always have reasons to, but I want to die fighting for the hope that we can live in a world and smile, and not have to take medications and face ridicule and injustice and be called “crazy” for doing so. I want to treat others with dignity and respect. I know humor is a source of resilience for many oppressed people. Hannah Gadsby brilliantly lampooned the relationship between trauma and laughter in her stand-up special. It connected a lot of dots for me. Sometimes we smile or even laugh to keep from crying.

I hope that even the most devasted people have had moments, even if they are brief or fleeting, where they have cracked a smile. Maybe it was just a grin at a dumb joke, but it broke the tension of not smiling. It’s a lot of weight to bear to never smile. I pray we can live in a world where we can all smile, and not in a kumbaya, new-age, pseudo-spiritual manner.

I pray we can all smile, although this world is full of reasons not to, I believe that is what makes it so revolutionary. But even if we can’t, I will respect your frown, your scowl, and your stone face. I know you are going through things I can’t fathom and I will hold space for you and treat you with love and kindness. I will try my best to smile, even when my heart is breaking, but I will not force or coerce anyone else to smile.

Those are my thoughts on smiling.

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