Cover story: will.i.am’s path to global domination
December 1, 2016
will.i.am is out for interstellar domination, to suggest otherwise would be an understatement. will.i.am wants more than this world. After all, this is the artist, DJ, singer, writer and all-around talent who was the first human to hear their music beamed back to Earth from another planet. Reach for the Stars was transmitted from the surface of Mars by NASA’s Curiosity rover in 2012.
Back on Planet Earth, will.i.am might be better known as the front man for the Black Eyed Peas, one of the world’s biggest bands. They have sold 35-million-plus albums, moved more than 132 million singles and earned seven Grammy Awards. This is the man who was one of the founding fathers of Beats Electronics, the company that created Beats by Dre, the headphones brand sold to Apple in 2014.
This is the man whose philanthropic efforts to empower underprivileged high school students through sound education, particularly in the field of maths and sciences, earned him a Crystal Award at the World Economic Forum 2016 Annual Meeting.
will.i.am’s passion for education stems from his own humble upbringings. Born William Adams in Boyle Heights, one of Los Angeles’ oldest and most impoverished working-class immigrant communities, will.i.am was raised by a stern single mother whose discipline and watchful guidance steered him away from the perils and temptations that many of his friends encountered growing up. will.i.am has proudly said in an interview for The Telegraph that he is “the product of how my mom raised me, not my environment”.
In another interview with Los Angeles Confidential, will.i.am shared a childhood photograph that captured himself and three friends; one had just been released from prison, another had dropped off the radar and a third was dead. “Choose your friends wisely… surround yourself with people that reflect where you want to end up in life,” will.i.am advises youngsters who go through his charitable foundation’s programme.
The advice served will.i.am well as the musician grew up focused on music and founded a hip-hop group in the eighth grade with good friend Allan Pineda, a.k.a. aple.de.ap. After several years of bandmate musical chairs and name changes, the Black Eyed Peas signed to Jimmy Iovine’s Interscope Records in 1995 and released their debut record, Behind the Front. A few years later Taboo and Fergie rounded out the group, and the Black Eyed Peas landed their first massive hit Where is the Love. For the next decade, the Black Eyed Peas were synonymous with smash hits, dominating the charts with their unique brand of futuristic beats, bombastic costume aesthetics and catchy chorus lines.
Over time, the band began to undertake more solo projects and, although will.i.am continued to make music – collaborating with Michael Jackson, Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake and Nicki Minaj, to name just a few superstars – he became an increasingly hard act to pin down into just one category. For instance, will.i.am’s political music video Yes We Can was adopted by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and composed of lyrics almost entirely excerpted from an Obama speech and featured a roster of Hollywood heavyweights. The innovative video earned will.i.am an Emmy for Best New Approaches in Daytime Entertainment as well as a Clio marketing award in the interactive category.
will.i.am is also an executive producer and mentor alongside Gwyneth Paltrow and Gary Vaynerchuk on Planet of the Apps, a reality show that is like The Voice for the app developing world. Speaking of The Voice, will.i.am’s a piece of that too, with a returning role as a fan-favourite coach for The Voice UK over the past five years.
His role on Planet of the Apps is fitting because will.i.am is very much about the technology and looking ahead. His creative studio in Hollywood is even aptly named The Future. “I think I have a good ear and a good eye for what’s missing,” will.i.am told the BBC. “And if people can build it, people are going to want it. I’m a popthropologist. I use anthropology to go out and feel the temperature of popular culture and connect the dots.”
“He’s just a great guy,” Iovine, will.i.am’s mentor, friend and business partner, has said of him in LA Confidential. “He’s a real talent. He has extraordinary ideas. He’s always looking to tomorrow. There are times when he’s so in tomorrow that he’s not in today… but he’s incredible.”
“The number-one thing about will.i.am is that he is truly an innovator,” says Marc Benioff, an entrepreneur, philanthropist and chairman and chief executive of Salesforce.com. “You don’t see that many people who can innovate outside their own industry. He has an amazingly creative mind to see the big picture. He’s able to sit down with any of the world’s most important CEOs and bring immediate value to how they see the world.”
will.i.am’s pop thermometer accurately directed him to trek down the path of fashion consumer electronics entrepreneurship. In addition to investing in Beats, will.i.am also founded i.am+, a technology company that has developed stylish electronic accessories stamped with creativity and an innovative approach including the dial, a smart watch and band, and the latest offering of Buttons Bluetooth earphones.
“I never wanted to do fashion from a me-too perspective,” will.i.am has said previously. “I want to add to the conversation.” Buttons are eye-catching in more ways than one. The headset’s look is inspired by vinyl records and comes in a variety of glistening hues – black, grey, rose and gold. will.i.am can be seen rocking a pair in his song Boys and Girls that features Guam singer Pia Mia. Fashion queens Naomi Campbell and Kendall Jenner are stakeholders, and the face of the product, which will.i.am has claimed aren’t just “headphones that you buy and put in your pocket”.
will.i.am’s innovation philosophy isn’t monetary-driven. “We have to get out of the monetisation… a lot of time, people don’t try to come up with new concepts because you’ve got the CFO guy in the building talking about, ‘How are we going to make money doing that?’,” will.i.am said at a conference a few years back. “And that isn’t innovation when there’s somebody there looking over your shoulder asking how it’s going to make money. Imagine YouTube. Imagine if they thought about how they were going to make money at first. It was so powerful. It was adopted by culture and then they make money.”
One per cent of proceeds from Buttons go to the i.am.angel Foundation, which will.i.am founded in 2009 as a force to give back to the underserved community that he was raised in. The foundation funds several programmes, including i.am College Track, an after-school tutoring programme that prepares high school students for higher studies. This year, i.am College Track’s inaugural class graduated with 100 per cent of its 45 participants accepted into colleges. Take into consideration that statistically, only 5 per cent of Boyle Heights residents aged 25 and older had earned a four-year degree by 2000 and this makes the impact of the programme even greater. will.i.am is also a top advocate of STEAM, building young people’s enhancement in their studies of science, technology, engineering, arts and math. His foundation’s i.am STEAM initiative provides underserved students with learning and interaction opportunities beyond the classroom.
“In order to rebuild America, we need to rebuild communities like Boyle Heights by providing opportunities to those who dream big. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish,” he says.
The man’s good will has left an immense mark. One of the top graduates from i.am. College Track is Mexican immigrant Cynthia Erenas. Erenas has gone on to win numerous awards and recognition for her stellar academic record. She’s placed in the top 10 out of 32,000 applicants in a robotics competition, was featured in LA Weekly as Los Angeles “Smartest Girl” and was a Tedx speaker. “To see someone like will.i.am not as an artist but a mentor and someone who would call me and speak to other young kids like myself just to check in with us, has been incredible,” Erenas says. “He is willing to listen to your problems with no judgment and understands your point of view.” Earlier this year, Erenas entered the University of California, San Diego intending to major in either aerospace or computer science.
will.i.am is proud of the hundreds of students he has helped over the past few years and it has been something that has made him take a step back from starting a family of his own. “I have kids that I have kind of adopted in a roundabout way,” he explains to The Telegraph on his relationship with the foundation’s young beneficiaries. However, he doesn’t rule out on adoption or having kids of his own. A few years back, will.i.am had mentioned, “Eventually, I want to have four daughters… four girls. I think eventually, when the world is run by women, it will be a better place. I want to help.”
For a man who counts “dream big and turn your dreams into reality” as one of his mottos, will.i.am is definitely a one-in-a-million luminary.
He holds a special place on the pop culture podium but also a lonely spot.
“A lot of times you can feel like an alien because in my field, music, not a lot of people are doing this type of work,” he told USA Today earlier this year. As the imprint from will.i.am’s music, fashion, technology and charitable work indicates, it has been a welcome invasion.
Full interview transcript:
You’re very close to your mother. What has been the most important thing she has taught you in life?
My mom taught me to turn strangers into friends and friends into family.
How has she taken your success in this life?
My mom taught me to never let success define me, to stay the same person.
It’s no surprise that you are a big lover of technology, but if there is one pet peeve you may have about it, what would that be?
The pet peeve I have about technology is that sometimes people don’t know how to turn it off. It’s rude. There’s a new rude in society that I believe technology has caused. For example, we don’t take people into consideration when we want to take a selfie. Selfies have caused people to be really selfish with their time and space. Selfies cause us to be rude to other people. We’re not considerate to folks when we consider their social sphere.
What would you say is one piece of technology you cannot live without?
I can’t live without my phone. I think everyone feels that way. People work on the phone, they talk to their families, we do everything on the phone. To even call it a phone is the wrong definition for it. People live their lives on the phone. We do so much more than make phone calls.
What impact did you want Buttons to make on the consumer tech market?
For Buttons, we wanted to bring to the market Bluetooth headphones but with a different perspective. To design them the way people design glasses, scarves and jewellery. To be worn in a way that when you’re not using them, I can still wear them around my neck and they look interesting and beautiful. We just want to make sure that we mix fashion and tech together. To have people like André Leon Talley from Vogue as a part of the company and Naomi Campbell and Kendall Jenner validate the fashion sense to go alongside our designers in the tech world.
What made you decide to bring Kendall Jenner, Naomi Campbell and André Leon Talley into the company?
We’re so blessed to have Kendall, Naomi and André as a part of the company because I was a part of Beats and that success so when I started this company, I wanted to make sure I had other folks I can bounce ideas off and can consult and help make some noise. We’re so blessed to have them as a part of this.
What about each of these celeb personalities personifies the Buttons brand for you?
Naomi is the queen of fashion, the emperor of fashion editorial is André Leon Talley and the princess of fashion and the new female entrepreneur is Kendall Jenner. And I’m this dreamer, like this rolling dream factory.
I actually dreamt up this combination in Hong Kong. This time last year, I woke up and called Naomi on the phone and said, “Hey Naomi, I’d like you to be a part of my company.” And she said, “I’d love to.”
You’ve shared about how you wanted the products you sell to provide a sort of escape, much like a magazine. What is the best escape for you?
The best escape for me as a visionary and a dreamer is to dream new dreams. I escape by dreaming. I like to solve problems or dream up new things.
What has your role as a coach on The Voice UK shown you about the future of music?
I just saw a piece of technology today. Some people came up and showed me this piece of AI, and it composes music. I went, “lalala,” and it created music based on my “lalala.” I think the future of music will change drastically due to artificial intelligence.
What has been your impression of Asia/China the times you have visited?
I travel the world so much. Have you heard of the Silk Road? In history where everyone is trying to go East because of trade. I think there is a new Silk Road. This age, the Silk Road is technology, and we haven’t appreciated China as much as we should in this culture today. We don’t celebrate China globally. In movies, everyone that has worked on the movie gets acknowledged. In music, everyone gets acknowledged. I want to be one of those people that acknowledge all our products moving forward to all the folks that have had a hand in it. I couldn’t do it on this package but moving forward, we will start to celebrate every person that turns the wheel in making all the stuff that we love.
What was it like working with your Black Eyed Peas bandmates along with a slew of other artists for the #wheresthelove remake?
It’s one of those things that’s really needed in the world right now especially with all that is happening—with all the separation, fear and uncertainty on where we’re going globally. Everyone should be trying to tolerate differences and understanding, and education is so much more important right now. Everyone just needs to be a great global citizen.
Did it make you miss your bandmates? Any hopes for a reunion?
Yeah, we’re working on new Black Eyed Peas right now. You can expect some great technology to be infused into what we’re doing artistically.
You’ve said, “I never wanted to do fashion from a me-too perspective,” he said. “I want to add to the conversation.” What do you think you have been adding?
So right now everyone has a phone, and they have nice cases for it. But when it comes to our Bluetooth headphones, we have these headphones, and we don’t use them, and we just toss them in our bags. With headphones, it’s all about, “What’s the battery life?” At this time, the battery life should be awesome for every Bluetooth. Why are we even having a conversation on this? It should be awesome by now. What are you adding that’s adding value above the basics? That’s what we’re discovering at Buttons. Our basic is above everyone else’s basics. It’s 20 hours of battery life. You can have one nine-hour conversation. All is above par and we still make sure it looks amazing. The style is something you would want to wear even if you’re not using them.
If there is one word that can sum up the will.i.am brand, what would it be?
Photography / Philippe McClelland
Creative Direction / Paris Libby
Styling / Vivian Nwonka
Grooming / Liz Daxauer for Caren Agency London
Styling Assistant / Harry Clements
Production Coordinator / Gaby Gower