Will.i.am Makes Music Education a Priority
by kathryn romeyn
With the Agape Children’s Choir in November 2011
|will.i.am is committed to helping foster creativity and education among underserved youth|
|Having fun with one of the choir members|
|will.i.am with the College Track graduating class of 2011|
Will.i.am has a lot on his plate. A founding member of The Black Eyed Peas, he spent 2011 touring with the chart-topping band in addition to recording songs for his next solo album, releasing tracks under the pseudonym Zuper Blahq, and voicing the character of a bird in the animated film Rio.
But extensive charity work was also a part of his busy schedule. Never one to just donate money blindly, the native Angeleno helped form The Peapod Foundation in 2006 to incite global change by uniting children through music, and more recently founded the i.am angel foundation to foster creativity in underserved youth and joined the board of directors of the Grammy Foundation. Los Angeles Confidential talks to the passionate activist about how music has shaped who he is and how he gives back.
Why do you believe in the importance of music education?
Music saved my life—in more ways than one. Once I knew music had to be a part of my life, it set me on a path. Because I was into music and dressed like a dancer, the gangs in my neighborhood left me alone. Today, kids are producing their own sounds and songs on laptops, producing music videos and putting them online. You want to learn how to mix a song? Learn how to use a laptop and software.
What did music teach you as a child?
Music is about making sense of the noise, and learning to do that is a valuable skill. I learned everything I could about music and making it. For me, music has always been a positive force, and I’ve tried to make positive music. I set a personal goal to get a record-label deal when I was in high school, and I did it through drive and passion—with a lot of encouragement from my mom and uncles.
How did you come to join the board of the Grammy Foundation?
I went to a board meeting as a guest, jumped right into the conversation, and really enjoyed it. Afterward I received an invitation to join the board and accepted. I also costarred in the Grammy Camp PSA video that calls for kids who are interested in music to apply to attend, and I’m looking forward to visiting the camp this summer.
Why was joining the board of directors something you wanted to do?
I always wondered before I joined the board and got involved: Who are the people who run the Grammy organization? I’m involved because the Grammy organization is all about music, and I’m part of that community. If you want to make an impact on your community, it’s up to you to be involved. Being on the Grammy Foundation board is like being at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and getting to personally know Harry Potter. The board members are the true wizards of the music industry.
What is your favorite part of interacting with kids who want to be in the music industry?
Inviting talented kids to join me in the studio to show them that being a professional musician and making music is about hard work, discipline, and not stopping until every song is perfect. There’s a lot more to it than just the “rock star” lifestyle.
What inspired your outreach?
Even before I became successful, we—The Black Eyed Peas—created The Peapod Foundation to help our community. I still visit regional Peapod programs to meet with and work hands-on with kids. My personal giving style is to pay it forward to help transform the lives of young people who can in turn help transform their communities.
Tell us what the i.am angel foundation does.
Kids from underserved areas don’t always have the family support, resources, and encouragement they should, so my i.am angel foundation focuses on education, nurturing creativity, and preventing homelessness. I started it to help transform communities, starting with my own in Boyle Heights. I was fortunate my mother insisted I be bused an hour a day to a magnet science school in Brentwood and then to Palisades Charter High School. I want other kids to have that same opportunity. When underserved communities are given access to quality education and prepare their children for the careers of tomorrow, then we will see progress that will alter the culture of the community from one of survival to one of success and achievement.
Of all your philanthropic work, what do you find most rewarding?
Spending time with young people—the students who are part of i.am angel foundation programs—is something I am extremely proud to be doing. Next on my list is opening an i.am College Track (which nurtures students to make sure they graduate high school and are eligible to attend and succeed in college) in East LA, where I grew up. When you support kids and help them find their passion, they find their drive to learn, and that will help them succeed.
What do you notice in kids who receive music education?
They do better in school, stay in school longer, and they smile—a lot.
It’s Grammys season. What do the awards mean to you?
Being a Grammy Award winner is a tremendous honor. When you start out in the music business, you never dream you could win a Grammy, and when it finally happens, it’s just unbelievable.
photography by meeno (will.i.am)