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Will.i.am: social activist, pop star and tech evangelist

by Carole Cadwalladr

How smart is will.i.am? Pretty damned smart, I’d say. He might have the trappings of a rap star with an entourage that includes a film crew, but that’s only a small part of it. He’s also one of the most sought-after producers in the music industry and one of its shrewdest business brains.

“Music is cool, but I’m so much more excited about technology. It’s like I’m 13, 14 all over again. When I was 12, 13, 14 all I wanted to do was music. Now I’m a little older, all I think about is technology and consumer electronic products. I still make music. But it’s just like breathing now.”

Music has been the launch pad for will.i.am’s success, but it’s now just one strand of his burgeoning empire. He’s become a technology evangelist, a speaker at the most prestigious gatherings of the world’s elite — the Clinton Global Initiative, Google events — he’s developed and launched his own range of iPhone accessories, he has his own charitable foundations paying for kids to go through college and bailing out people’s mortgages.

In August he became the first musician to broadcast a piece of music on Mars: NASA’s Curiosity rover beamed a song that he’d written especially for the occasion, “Reach for the Stars,” back to the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena.

And that’s just this year. On top of which, he played the Queen Elizabeth II’s jubilee, and carried the Olympic torch (tweeting as he went). And donated £500,000 to the Prince’s Trust to help develop disadvantaged young people’s skills in London, with the focus on technology. He went on the talk show “The Graham Norton Show” shortly after the Prince’s Trust donation was announced and found himself next to the actress, Miriam Margolyes, who looked astonished. “It’s just so unusual for a rapper!” she said.

But then, will.i.am is not just unusual for a rapper. He’s unusual by pretty much anyone’s standards. Born William James Adams to a poor, single mother in East Los Angeles, he began his music career at high school and later formed the Black Eyed Peas. Right from the start, they had a clear strategy, ignoring the gangsta rap ghetto, and concentrating on college campuses “until every single college kid” knew them, and then they got a record deal.

There has always been a strategy. When file-sharing torpedoed album sales, and the music industry started panicking, will.i.am was exploring other sources of revenue and taking a relentlessly commercial and ultimately highly successful approach to the music business. He started to look at the Black Eyed Peas “as a brand not a band” and began approaching companies with ideas about how they could work together.

On the surface, it’s about a million miles away from rock’s countercultural roots and its antipathy to The Man. But they’ve been so smart about it, retaining their artistic freedom, and forging their own path, and will.i.am’s now applying the same strategy to technology.

The i.am camera device for the iPhone that he launched in November is not some celebrity branding exercise. It was devised and developed by will.i.am and that was part of the point: he wants kids to become technology entrepreneurs (he’s currently in talks with producer Simon Cowell for a music competition style show he hopes will uncover the next Mark Zuckerberg). And showing that it’s possible to do things, rather than just talk about them, is part of what seems to be his grand plan.

“First you have to build capital, and you do that by building a brand, a brand around substance, and things that are valued, and then you start doing things around philanthropy and teaching.”

And that’s the endgame? “The endgame? There’s no endgame! The point is to keep moving. That’s an endgame right there, the language that you use. That’s the endgame. There is no endgame, it’s called momentum.”

That’s me told. But then I’ve witnessed him telling a roomful of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs where they’ve gone wrong too, so I don’t take it personally. Earlier this year, I attended a weekend organized by the Singularity University, a sort of Silicon Valley think tank cofounded by the futurist Ray Kurzweil and the founder of the X prize, Pete Diamandis. After presentations by Craig Venter, who sequenced the human genome, and Vint Cerf, the “father of the Internet,” a voice in the front asked a question: “I’ve been sitting here listening to how in 20 years’ time my niece is going to be dumber than my cellphone. But how are you going to take this into the ghetto?” (It was will.i.am.) “That’s what I want to know.”

Knowledge is useless if it’s exclusive, he says, when I ask him about this. “If you really want change, you really want it to be inclusive, where everyone’s included, otherwise you’re just going to have more of the same in the future.”

There’s a degree of contradiction to some of his statements. He treats me to a 10-minute critique of global capitalism and built-in obsolescence and the iniquity of global labor markets. But it’s difficult, isn’t it, I say. “It’s not difficult at all.”

But, as a manufacturer these days, how do you build equality into the supply chain? He looks troubled for a moment and says: “We would need capital to build our own factories in America.” And as shiny and modern as his i.am camera is, it has built-in obsolescence written all over it. “Hell, yes, this is obsolete the moment they don’t make the iPhone 4 no more.”

But it’s part of his “momentum.” And I’m quibbling for the sake of it really, because, what is most exceptional about will.i.am is that there’s no doubting his commitment to social change, and he really does put his money where his mouth is. Most celebrities raise money for celebrity causes: they ask people poorer than them to give their money to them.

“I will not start an initiative until I’ve spent my own money. Because if I spend my own money, people who want to get on board afterwards know that I am serious about it.”

And he is passionate about improving access to education, about the need for young people to engage with science and technology, and about how damaging it will be for us all if they do not. He has always attributed his own success to the strong values that his mother instilled in him, and the emphasis that she placed on education.

Growing up in a rough neighborhood, his mother got him into something called the “magnet” program, a scheme originally devised to encourage racial integration, which enabled him to go to school in the wealthy suburb of Brentwood. “And that’s where I learned to love science,” he says. “We had a computer lab, we had oceanography, we had anatomy, we had physics, that’s where it started.”

Music introduced him to new technology, and then, a couple of years back, he bought a Segway, and decided he wanted to hack it. “So I called Dean Kamen [who invented the Segway]. I rang him and said, ‘I want to take the governor off and make it go faster.’

“And he said, ‘I’ll help you out with that, if you help me out with US First. And I said, ‘What’s US First?’ [It's a nonprofit group teaching young people about science and technology.] And he said, ‘Well, you see that’s why I need your help.’ ” He ended up making a TV show with Kamen with the help of his friends: Bono, Justin Bieber, Jason Timberlake, Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, the Peas, Jack Black, President Barack Obama. “We all did a testimony on why Stem [science, technology, engineering and math] is important.”

Stem education has become one of his great passions, to such an extent that he’s said that he wants to do a college course himself next year. He wants to learn how to write code. “We all rely on technology to communicate, to survive, to do our banking, to shop, to get informed, but none of us knows how to read and write the code.” It’s like the middle ages, he says, when only the clergy could read and write.

So, you’re going to do a course? “Yeah! I want to learn to read and write code! I want to be one of the clergy. I want to be one of the folks who contribute. Everyone should want to be.” I did an introductory course on coding, I tell him. And it made my brain ache. “I want brain ache!”

He used to go to nightclubs, but now he goes to conferences “which are better than clubs because they still have music and after-parties but you get knowledged-up before the party.”

It’s all about getting knowledged-up. “I remember going to Brazil in 2005 and Brazil is totally different now. And I can’t say the same for Brixton [southwest London] Brixton is probably the same as when I came in 2006. That’s something we should all be concerned about.”

And he’s particularly concerned about girls. “When you think about the guys who started Twitter, and the Google guys, and the Facebook guys and the Napster guys, and the Microsoft guys, and the Dell guys and the Instagram guys, it’s all guys. The girls they’re being left behind.”

Though he likes what Angela Ahrendts has done at Burberry. “I like her. She’s dope. She’s fresh.”

But then will.i.am is pretty dope too. Pretty fresh. I tell him about a technology event we want to hold next year, and he grabs my iPhone from me and starts punching in his email address. “I want to be part of that. Can I be part of that?”

The future, he thinks, is not going to be made in Silicon Valley. It’s going to be down to “some kid” in Ghana, or the Philippines or Cambodia. “When the iPhone 8 comes out and you chuck your iPhone 7, when the iPhone 6 is pretty f*****g dope, some kid is going to take the iPhone 5 and do something totally different with it. Is going to steam-punk the new big thing. That’s the future right there.”