LOS ANGELES – Will Smith (search) has one big introduction to make at Tuesday night's BET Awards: Gangster rappers, meet the rest of the world. Smith told The Associated Press he hopes to impress the global significance of U.S. black culture on the show's audience and artists.
"The kids that are making these trends, making these songs, don't understand the level of effect that black Americans have around the world," he said in an interview. " ... Black Americans are so elevated, it's almost worship."
Smith, co-host of the show (8 p.m. EDT) at Hollywood's Kodak Theater with wife Jada Pinkett-Smith (search), said he witnessed the phenomenon recently while in Africa. Touring a village in Mozambique, he came across a shack on which someone had scrawled the name of slain rapper Tupac Shakur (search).
"I was asking the kids: What is it about Tupac? Why is that there? I kept asking why. They were saying we want to dress like you dress, wear all the things you wear, talk how you talk."
"The impression is that black Americans are the dragon slayers. Here we are 13 percent minority in a foreign land, and yet we can make laws, change laws. If Jesse Jackson shows up at Coca-Cola, something changes."
Smith, who won the first rap Grammy in 1988 for his squeaky-clean "Parents Just Don't Understand," said he wants hip-hop artists to recognize their importance and shift away from thuggish themes.
"It's real important to have balance of the imagery. Yes, there are people who fire guns in the street, but there's also doctors who go to work in those areas to feed their children."
The gangster lifestyle is celebrated in black communities for its strength, Smith said. "That's the image of survivors. The dude that sells the drugs or has the guns or is most willing to kill somebody is the dude that has the greatest potential for survival, or at least that's the perception. So that's what people strive for.
"What I'm trying to present and what a lot of other artists are presenting is a different approach to survival and a more sound approach to survival. It's a more long-term approach based on intellect and skills that can't be taken away from you: The smartest dude survives the best."
Smith picks out Common and Mos Def as other artists "that really have something to say that don't necessarily fit on the `106th & Park' top 10."
Now more well-known as a movie star ("Men in Black," "Bad Boys," "Independence Day") than rapper, the 36-year-old Smith maintains on his latest album "Lost And Found" that his nice guy image has worked against him.
"Black radio, they won't play me though," he raps in one song. "Guess they think that Will ain't hard enough. Maybe I should just have a shootout ... just ignorant, attacking, acting rough. I mean then, will I be black enough?"
Though his current single "Switch" is a top 40 hit, the man once known as the Fresh Prince said he no longer worries about album sales.
"I'm an entertainer. I make it and close my eyes," he said. "Sometimes it sells 14 million, sometimes it sells 300,000. For me it's about just doing what I do, and hoping that my artistry makes a difference."