Use #thatPower: my love-hate relationship with will.i.am

Who can remember the year 2003? In politics, if you need a little reminder, it was the year the Bush-Blair bromance unseated Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. In sport, it was the year a drug-pumped Lance Armstrong claimed his fifth of seven consecutive Tour de France victories. And in music, it was the year that The Black Eyed Peas, now one of the world’s best-selling groups of all time, broke into the UK industry with their number one single: ‘Where Is The Love?’

Slouched at home on the living room sofa, I can remember hearing the song for the first time on MTV. By the end of the opening line – “What’s wrong with the world, Mama?” – I had already decided to buy the single that weekend at my local Borders. (Remember, with iTunes less than a year old, this was long before the days of Soundcloud and Spotify.) For the next six weeks, ‘Where Is The Love?’ remained unrivaled on the UK Billboard Chart. Over the same period, the band went on a non-stop publicity spree for their latest album, Elephunk, and I became familiar with all The Black Eyed Peas members – or their stage names at least.* As the group’s charismatic, side-cap-wearing frontman, I found it hard not to like will.i.am, who grew up in Boyle Heights – a housing project in eastern Los Angeles. As a white, middle-class, 11-year-old, however, it was hard for me back then to grasp how truly tough life had been for will.i.am before he found – finally – fame.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramona_Gardens#mediaviewer/File:Ramona_Gardens_Boyle_Heights_Los_Angeles_California_2.jpg

Ramona Gardens, Boyle Heights. Credit: tedder/Wikimedia.

Raised by his single-parent mother, Debra, having never met his father, life was often a struggle for will.i.am and his family during his childhood. In Boyle Heights, as he explained to the Sun in May 2012, “There were a lot of gangs. A lot of my friends are dead, were in prison, on drugs or were selling drugs.” In the song ‘Ghetto, Ghetto,’ taken from his first solo album #willpower (2013), you can get a fleeting sense of what his poverty-plagued community must have been like through the lyrics: “Little kids growing up without no education. / Mom’s on drugs, ‘cause that’s her only medication.” In the song’s chorus, sung by nine-year-old rapper Baby Kaely, will.i.am then provides a possible insight into sort of dreams he may have harboured at a similar age:

I wanna be what’s on TV,
And if that’s wrong, please don’t blame me,
Cause where I live we have nothing
In the ghetto, ghetto, ghetto.

Judging from the opening line, it almost feels like will.i.am obsessed over fame. It was his chosen path – perhaps his only real one – to escape his family’s poverty, which forced him to sleep on a floor-bound mattress during his adolescence. At the same time, as the second line shows, he feels guilty at having such high-aimed ambitions for himself. Understandably, although it would surely have cost him his career, a part of will.i.am may have wanted to remain forever in Boyle Heights. However, as aple.de.ap (real name Alan Lindo) says about his boyhood friend: “He almost had no choice but to make it [in the music industry]. That drive of providing for your family kept us going [when we started The Black Eyed Peas].” Paradoxically, then, one of the reasons for why will.i.am may have wanted to stay in Boyle Heights is one of the very same for why he first left.

Now living in a Spanish-style villa in Los Feliz, an affluent area of Los Angeles, will.i.am has certainly ‘made it.’ From its back garden, complete with basketball court and outdoor projector screen, the villa looks down towards the Boyle Heights housing projects: a constant reminder of just how far he has come since he and aple.de.ap formed The Black Eyed Peas in 1995. But while he has moved to the other side of the city, that is not to suggest that will.i.am now distances himself from Boyle Heights – quite the opposite, in fact. As Joanna Lumley observes in the BBC One documentary: “Will stays connected to where he grew up.” Last year, for example, he donated computers to one of the local libraries to develop its young users’ technological skills. Through his i.am.angel foundation, he has also established i.am College Track, a philanthropic scheme that helps a number of Boyle Heights students to gain a much-coveted college education. Giving back to his old community, as Lumley notes, is will.i.am’s way of showing his gratitude. At the same time, though, as the chorus to ‘Ghetto, Ghetto’ seems to suggest, it may also be an effort to rid himself of the guilt he felt – and may still feel today – for originally wanting to leave Boyle Heights.

Outside of Boyle Heights, music is arguably will.i.am’s most far-reaching means of influencing people’s lives in a similarly positive way. Take ‘Where Is The Love?’. If it wasn’t for that song, I doubt I would be as interested in politics as I am today. Together with the events of September 11, the event that actually inspired the song, ‘Where Is The Love? was the catalyst for my socio-political curiosity. In 2008, on top of that, will.i.am ventured into pop-politics again to support Barack Obama’s Democractic leadership campaign with ‘Yes We Can.’ Recorded, edited and released just five days after will.i.am thought of the idea, the music video sets to music Obama’s post-defeat speech at the New Hampshire primaries. In total, at the time of writing, it now has 25 million-plus YouTube views. More importantly, though, is the decisive influence it had on Obama’s campaign, helping him to steal the lead from Hilary Clinton. To will.i.am, as he told Joanna Lumley, the public’s response to ‘Yes We Can’ was a total revelation: “When it comes to issues that help shape communities and society as a whole,” he said, “I really took that whole experience to heart. To me, it goes far beyond politics. It was like a social awakening on how I can help.”

For a musician with a patent passion for helping others, however, will.i.am spends an awful lot of time making a lot of awful music that – except anyone profiting directly off his music, of course – fails to help anyone with anything. Contrasting with ‘Where Is The Love?’ and ‘Yes We Can,’ for example, is the likes of ‘Check It Out,’ a nauseatingly repetitive song in which will.i.am says the title 40 times in just four minutes. To emphasise the point, each chorus reads: “Check it out, check it out, check it out, check it out, check it out, check it out, check it out, check it out, check it out. Yeah, yeah, I’m feeling it now.” And then, if that wasn’t enough, we have three more: “Check it out, check it out, check it out.” (He doesn’t once explain what the ‘it’ actually is, either.) In the opening verse of ‘#thatPower,’ meanwhile, will.i.am raps: “They call me will-A, / Stay so cool, I’m chilli, / I done made that maley.” Despite the media never referring to him by such a name, the first line does make some sense. The other two, though, are almost imbecilic. Firstly, as we all know (except will.i.am, it seems), chilli is not cool at all; it’s hot, it’s spicy, it makes you gasp, if you’re like me, and frantically flap one hand in front of your mouth. Secondly, unless will.i.am is referring to Willy Maley, the Scottish literary critic from University of Glasgow, the word ‘maley’ has—literally—no meaning.  On one hand, ‘maley’ could be will.i.am’s attempt to coin a ‘fresh’ or ‘dope’ phrase, as he would say. On the other hand, it is a poor choice of words for someone who wrote and rapped: “But if you only have love for your own race, / Then you only leave space to discriminate.”

Of course, in will.i.am’s defense, there are modern-day musicians who make far worse pop music than him. (Nicky Minaj’s ‘Anaconda,’ to name one, may well be the worst pop songs ever made.) Equally, like most money-lovers, there are some musicians who only seem to care about building up a property portfolio of ten-bedroomed mansions. (Miss Minaj springs to mind again, actually.) But will.i.am is different – or at least he seems to be so. He may be materialistic, evident through his fashion interests, but he is also conscious of such issues as poverty, education and global warming. As ‘Yes We Can’ demonstrates, he is a musician who can instigate change, both in our society and in our own outlooks on it. As I said, though I know it sounds cliché, ‘Where Is the Love?’ had a genuine impact on my life. After hearing the song, I wanted to ask my own mother: ‘What’s wrong with the world, Mama?’ (That song, interestingly, is still his most commercially and critically successful song.) Whether to Barack Obama, the United States of America or to people like me elsewhere, ‘Where Is The Love?’ and ‘Yes We Can’ made a difference: they communicated an idea – a message – that subsequently instigated an ‘awakening,’ to borrow will.i.am’s own phrase. If I were will.i.am, I would certainly want to be remembered for that sort of music. At the same time, I would also want the likes of ‘Check It Out’ to be quickly, and forever, forgotten.

P.S. This song, written by apple.de.ap about his native Indonesia, should never be forgotten.

*The Black Eyed Peas’ stage names: will.i.am, Fergie, aple.de.ap and Taboo.

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