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The Tears behind the Smile in "Tupac's Smile for Me"




Joseph Thompson 

"Smile for Me" written by the late rapper, Tupac Shakur, gives listeners a peek into the life of a young black male.  Specifically, the song illustrates some of the tribulations of ghetto life and almost has a gloomy feel to it. The song explains that life can be rough, but according to Tupac, you have to smile through it all.  As the song takes us through life's ups and downs in the ghetto, one cannot help but wonder why so many young black men go through such distress, all while attempting to hide that distress behind the falsity of "having swagger."  Tupac's lyrics seem to glorify a "ghetto lifestyle," but is growing up in the ghetto all that glorious?  Or is it traumatic?  I believe many young men in urban neighborhoods suffer from traumas that began in childhood that they are then forced to repress in order to cope with the hardships of their realities.  As they go through life, these repressed traumas resurface in a variety of ways such as violence, sex, and drugs.  I would like to delve into that lifestyle and see if we can unpack the message behind the smile.



DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.
DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

In the introduction to "Smile for Me," Tupac explains that "there's gon be some stuff you gon see that gon make it hard to smile in the future." It appears that he is speaking to someone younger, maybe a son, daughter, nephew, or niece, because he's speaking from an experienced standpoint.  He already knows what lies ahead for this young person.  In the verse, Tupac is expressing that even when the "chips are stacked against you," no matter what the odds, "you gotta be able to smile through all this bulls**t." To me, the smile is actually symbolic of crying. I say this because many black fathers have experienced social inequalities on a daily basis and after going through life's struggles, they do not want the same for their children.  Many youth from impoverished neighborhoods are told not to worry, to just work hard and "walk with your head up" in order to be "alright."  These principals have been particularly instilled in black children for generations who witness events that people in privileged environments may deem shocking, yet it doesn't seem to bother them.  This dynamic is similar to that of a war-torn country where children play in the streets as if nothing is wrong.


The traumas that the children of ghettos suffer can sometimes shape their character and have an adverse affect on their behaviors as well.  In Twelve Theories of Human Nature, Stevenson, Haberman, and Wright present Freud's theory: "the first years are the time in which the basis of each individual personality is laid down, so one cannot fully understand a person until one comes to know the psychologically crucial facts about their early childhood" (p. 213). Thus, it is safe to assume that traumatic childhood experiences which have been repressed into the unconscious mind play a major role in the psyche of young black men. Though many have been taught to walk around with a sense of bravado, their repressed experiences come out in hidden ways such as violent behavior, selling and use of drugs, sexual promiscuity, and misogyny.


The lyrics of "Tupac's Smile for Me" appear to have a false sense of pride attached to them.  Clearly, it is not a tranquil or hopeful lifestyle so why would there be so much to smile about?  Why all the false bravado and swagger?  In the first verse, Tupac proclaims: "why shed tears? Save your sympathy/my childhood years were spent burying my peers in the cemetery."  In these lyrics, Tupac provides a glimpse of his traumatic childhood.  It appears that the trauma of burying childhood friends should be repressed in the unconscious and replaced with a fake smile and bravado. By stating, "save your sympathy," Tupac is implying he does not want it and does not need it.  He will be alright. In stark contrast, the pain accompanied with the death of family members and close friends is undeniably traumatic for most humans, but the message of this verse is to have no compassion for people.  The obvious lack of emotions insinuates that there may be some repressed issues at work. These phenomena appear to be the kind of "defense mechanism theorized by Freud as argued by Stevenson, Haberman, and Wright:

Repression is the basic 'defense mechanism' by which people attempt to avoid inner conflict. What is repressed does not really cease to exist; it remains in the unconscious portion of the mind with all its emotional energy, and exerting its influence by sending into consciousness a disguised substitute in the form of a dream, a neurotic symptom or a faulty action (p. 214).

Apparently, the emotions accompanied with death appear to be absent for Tupac.  The sense of loss, however, is repressed into the unconscious; it isn't absent at all. Thus, Tupac's song is expressing pain that is buried deep within. The experience hurts too much to deal with, so the mind establishes a "defense mechanism" to avoid it.  However, the trauma can resurface in an array of obscure ways related to violence and addiction.


Watch this interview below with Michael Eric Dyson and his book, Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur, to hear more about Tupac's charismatic--- while also tragic--- life.  The interview examines the cultural and intellectual impact of rap music and hip-hop culture and specifically Shakur’s influence. He also talks about the relation between culture and politics.

Another way people establish "defense mechanisms" from painful experiences is through the use of drugs and alcohol, which can be very popular amongst youth.  I believe there's a connection between drug use and people with traumatic pasts. The way drugs affect the brain makes it the perfect vehicle of pleasure and escape from reality for countless individuals under anxiety.  When Tupac rhymes, "Learning, ducking stray shots/ bullets be hot/ they burning/ inhaling sherm smoke/visualize the flames/Will I be smothered in my own pain?," the message that exudes here exemplifies the use of drugs as a prescription for the pain one experiences in the ghetto. The drug, "sherm," is also known as "angel dust," a powerful hallucinogenic drug; many users recall the effects of the high as equal to that of an outer body experience. The people around Tupac may be unconsciously defending themselves against pain by smoking the powerful drug and escaping the trauma.  However, it is evident that Tupac is aware of the pain because he questions "being smothered in his own pain."


Another thing I find very interesting that continues to support my belief about traumatic experiences and repression is how Tupac's song connects sex and violence.  Tupac gives a symbolic example of this in the verse where he raps, "Our lifestyles be closed caption/ addicted to fatal attractions/ pictures of action played back/ in the midst of mashing."  Here Tupac is saying he's having flashbacks of presumably violent "actions" during "mashing," street terminology for sex.  Why would someone have visions of violence during sex? Conceivably, as the individual is having sex, they're escaping reality.  However, the sexual act brings repressed trauma back to the surface in random flashbacks.

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Coincidentally, these random visions of violence during sex can be viewed from a Freudian lens. In Twelve Theories of Human Nature, Stevenson, Haberman, and Wright explain this phenomenon as a "Freudian slip," where in "dreams, loss of memory, faulty actions, and neurotic symptoms," Freud assumed there were "hidden mental causes, which could thereby be revealed in disguised form: hence the well-known concept of the 'Freudian slip'" (p. 210).  In Tupac's case, the "disguised form" is the set of pictures of the "actions" being played back in his mind while "mashing." The memories of these actions are too disturbing for the individual to handle, so the mind deposits memories into the unconscious. Thus, I believe sex plays a significant role for the individual trying to escape their pains.  Tupac used his sex partners as vessels to avoid the harshness of traumatic realities; but instead of escaping reality, the sex partner becomes a portal for the buried trauma.  This can be associated with another Freudian theory called "transference," the notion that a patient often manifests a degree of emotion that parallels "love or hatred" and is projected toward the analyst (Stevenson, Haberman, and Wright, p. 217).  In this case, the patient would be Tupac and his sexual partner would the analyst.  He is transferring his emotional energy onto the analyst.


Kendrick Lamar Discusses "Mortal Man" and His Connection to Tupac

Ultimately, rap songs are a way for artists to vent their pain and passion through lyrical expression and whether it pertains to violence, sex, drugs, or love, these expressions are a mirror of the artists' reality.  The childhood traumas experienced by individuals from urban communities should be examined deeper because the trauma appears to resurface in hidden ways and is overlooked by society.  Therefore, instead of looking as these people like "social villains" or as "ghetto superstars," perhaps we should take an analytical approach to urban youths' psyches.  Then we can prescribe an antidote for the pain and suffering at such a young age.  This way we may get to the essence of these repressed issues and stop the endless cycle.  "Smile for Me" is a song that seems to perpetuate a lifestyle of violence, sex, and drugs.  Conversely, when you unpack the hidden message behind the smile, you will see that there's actually nothing but tears behind that smile.

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

How to Cite this:

Thompson, J. (Spring 2015). "The Tears behind the Smile in 'Tupac's Smile for Me.' " by JOSEPH THOMPSON Digital Spectrum: First Year Digital Essays, Stories, and Projects, 2, 1. Retrieved from https://johnjay.digication.com/digital_spectrum/JOSEPH-THOMPSON


 Edited by Stephanie Velasquez and Carmen Kynard

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.