In honor of the reissue of the Black Eyed Peas' 2001 hit "Where's the Love?", ATTN: sat down with will.i.am to discuss how he hopes the song will spark conversation about what's happening in society today — especially when it comes to education.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.
will.i.am: In 2001, me and the Black Eyed Peas recorded a song called "Where's the Love?" And in 2016, we revisited that song and aimed it at the times. It's important that we pay attention to what's going on in society, and it's very important that we pay attention to what's not happening in communities. In particular, lack of education — a lack of investing in a child's education. One might think, "Why is that important?" Well, I come from one of those communities in Boyle Heights in Los Angeles.
ATTN: How did education shape you? I mean, you were lucky enough to go to a magnet school, and it seems like it had a huge impact on your life. And so do you think if you didn't get to go to that school, that, you know, you wouldn't be where you are today?
will.i.am: If I wasn’t bussed out across town to Brentwood Science Magnet School, I would still be in the projects. More importantly, the projects — not physically, but here. I wouldn't have known the difference. Poor is poor in the hood. You don't know what rich is until you go outside. When I say rich, I'm not talking rich, like money. I'm talking rich here. So education is — it's a broad — it's not just what they're teaching you to learn. School teaches you how to learn. Learn about yourself, learn about how you contribute, learn about what you mean in the world.
Thank God there was a magnet program when I was growing up. But guess what? The neighborhood that I came from? Those schools are still messed up. And guess what? Where I was able to go to school in Brentwood? That neighborhood is still awesome. So with the success of the Black Eyed Peas and my solo activities, I went out, gathered a bunch of good-doers — like Laurene Jobs, Dean Kamen, and Jack Dangermond — and I brought awesome tools to the ghetto that I'm from in Boyle Heights. We have an after-school program, i.am College Track, that teaches kids robotics, computer science, coding and map building. The high school kids in the program go to China every year to learn Mandarin, thanks in part to The California Endowment helped cover the cost.
With this new version of "Where's the Love?" every single dime that comes from this song goes to build more centers like the one in Boyle Heights in other areas around America. Our dream is to take that little after-school program, where we get inner-city involved in STEM skills, and spread it all across America. I want to see this program expand to Baton Rouge, have more robotics teams in Ferguson.
I want to also bring more College Track programs where kids are on the right path to go to college — but not just to graduate college with a diploma. The last thing I want is to give kids “double D's”, that’s “diploma with debt.” I want kids to graduate college with the ability to create companies and new jobs. And the way you do that is to give students the skills of today, and tomorrow. I think areas like Watts should be building the next Whatsapp. I think people in Compton should be building the next Facebook. Why not? The only way that's going to happen is if we pay attention to it, and contribute what little we can.
I know how powerful music is. I know what it can do — both from a heart level, from a social level, but also, financially. So that's the reason why this version of "Where's the Love?" isn't about making money. It's about making change. It's about bringing opportunities to folks that need it. It's about bringing, like, skill-sets to folks that can use something and do something with it. It's about leveling the playing field. It's about paying attention.
ATTN: So if you put money towards education, what's the outcome?
will.i.am: Right now, education isn't as important as it needs to be. In the same breadth, we go to the airport and we take off all our clothes because we're afraid of some type of terror attack — when there's terror in the hood every single day.
ATTN: What about education and crime rates?
will.i.am: Because we don't invest in education in the area, you have crime. When a person doesn't have the tools to survive, they have to tend to other means. That's selling drugs, that's hustling. Because they weren't given the tools to go out there and compete the way they were in Brentwood, Beverly Hills, and Calabasas. The hood is the hood because down to the core; the investment for education is poor. And everything else that is negative – poverty, unemployment, crime, murder, and deep distrust of the police is a result of that. Because the result of that lack of education on a child is a correctional facility. That's the result.
ATTN: You came from an area where there wasn't great education, and I was wondering if you saw kids or friends who were smart kids, who wanted to do something with their lives but didn't really have the guidance or structure or education to realize they could reach their dreams?
will.i.am: In the hood, you're dreaming about like two things: sports and music. Unfortunately, music isn't the healthiest place as far as a career in the way that Lionel Richie's career was. Lionel Richie said, "When we went platinum, we stayed home and bought houses." Nowadays, if you go platinum — if you do — you have to go on tour to pay off one house. Look, I'm not complaining. Because when you’re in the projects, having one house is the dream. So that's still healthy for us. But once you buy that house, you bought a house next to a dentist. Like I did all this dreaming and work, and you're the dentist? You're the manager of that one restaurant that your family started 20 years ago, and you live here, too? There are other ways of making it. And at the core of making it is education.
ATTN: Do you think if we spend more money we could change things? That we could help communities with a bigger investment in education?
will.i.am: Right now in America, we're not paying attention to education versus incarceration. Schools versus prisons. If your heart's in the right place, you would think that education should outweigh — by far — incarceration. The investment. You would think that schools should outweigh — by far — prisons. Because we want to show the world that America leads in knowledge. Right now, America leads with prisons. China leads in knowledge. Yeah, people come to America to come to our Ivy League schools, but then, we don't even have the configuration to keep them, we kick them out! Now, what sense is that? Where's the love in that? That don't make no sense at all. So where are we going as a nation if that's our configuration? Education is so important. You know what's wrong with this whole conversation? Is that you have to ask why is education so important. I have to say, it's kinda freaking backwards, isn't it?