Since the popular hip-hop group Black Eyed Peas stepped onto the world stage in 2003, the group’s front man, will.i.am, has garnered a lot of visibility on the political front. This past February, will.i.am released a wildly popular video on YouTube inspired by Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama’s speech following the 2008 New Hampshire primary. It’s an artful, black-and-white video clip called “Yes We Can,” where an all-star cast of musicians and actors sing lyrics taken from portions of Obama’s speech. (Obama’s campaign reportedly had no involvement in its production.)
Shortly before will.i.am flew to Australia to begin shooting for his acting debut in the upcoming film X-Men Origins: Wolverine, he sat down with Ed Gordon, host of Our World with Black Enterprise, to discuss his music and his politics (or social consciousness as he puts it).
How has the positive feedback from the “Yes We Can” video made you feel?
I remember two days after it got up on the Net, I was in Phoenix at the Super Bowl, and a friend of mine was sending me responses from people talking about the video and it choked me up. I got all teary-eyed that people were moved by it. It’s overwhelming. It’s a beautiful thing, “Yes We Can” — the speech and the song.
Were you always politically active?
I wouldn’t call it political. I’m socially conscious to things that are happening in our society. Four years ago we supported Kerry and did our thing up and down the East Coast, from Miami to Boston and New York — and we raised a lot of money for him. We were really enthused thinking that America would wake up from the nightmare of the ‘Bush Tornado,’ but some people don’t know how to let go of their fears. But that’s understandable. We were in tough times, thinking that it couldn’t get any worse, but it didn’t get any better. So there’s a lot of people who lost hope… They didn’t believe in the American system because four years in a row — eight years when you add them all up — you felt like you got slapped around. And people felt that way: the youth, adults, poor people, rich people, black and white, Asian, Latinos, Democrats, and Republicans. But this time, it’s different because there is a movement; it’s not an agenda, it’s a movement. People are united… There’s somebody who represents “us” in the U.S. People forget that in U.S.A. there is “us” right before the “a.”
How important is it that your work is an inspiration to the youth?
If someone in Soweto, in Africa, or Philippines, or Brazil, or Indonesia, Bangkok, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana… all the poverty-stricken areas, or right here at home — Watts, Harlem — if they’ve been inspired by me, then that’s awesome. It’s medicine for me. It’s more or less how my mom raised me: to respect people and to treat people the way you want to be treated and don’t make a fool out of yourself.
What were your dreams when you helped start Black Eyed Peas?
My dream at the time was to move my mom out of the projects. I remember I had the thought, ‘What happens when I finally move my mom out ? What’s going to be my drive then?’ Then, I moved her out and I realized then that my drive was to continue paying the mortgage. Now I have my aunt, and I want to move my aunt out of the projects.
What was your main challenge in the music industry?
Even though I’m in the Peas, I personally have had my challenges, as far as my music, of being accepted in our community. And it isn’t that the black community doesn’t accept it; it’s politics [from the record executives]. They feel black people want to see certain things on TV from black artists. I’ve had my challenges in that because our stuff is progressive and positive, and a lot of the stuff you hear on the radio is gangsta. A lot of us come from the projects; we just have a different way of talking about it.
This story originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.