WILL.I.AM The music star and entrepreneur loves technology but he worries about its effect on our manners and whether robots will leave humans looking second rate
Will.i.am slinks into the suite of a London hotel in a cloud of grey. He’s wearing his “summer outfit” — leather baseball cap, charcoal jacket, dark T-shirt, shades and capri pants, which he calls his ballroom pants. “Not ballroom like I’m going to the dance. Ballroom like I need some ball room,” he grins.
The 38-year-old American is a cultural phenomenon. Not content to bask in the success he’s enjoyed as the leader of the pop group the Black Eyed Peas, he’s also a producer, entrepreneur, fashion designer, philanthropist, solo artist and judge on the BBC musical talent show The Voice.
Over the past two years he has cemented his fame in Britain by flashing his enigmatic smile while carrying the Olympic torch on one of the first legs, jiggling on stage at the Queen’s jubilee concert and swivelling his chair on The Voice. Last weekend he added pop voltage to London’s Wireless festival.
But unlike many celebrities who strike out into new territories with mixed results, Will.i.am is the real deal. In geek circles he’s highly rated as a tech visionary and businessman.
He has the credentials — a creative adviser to the computer chip maker Intel, he has also set up a hardware business, i.am+. Last year it built a camera accessory for the iPhone. Now it’s working on a motorbike helmet “that’s also your dashboard, connected to the internet and with a camera on it”.
And this month Will.i.am has been given the nerd stamp of approval: he is “cocurating” (no, me neither) the new issue of the tech bible Wired and sharing his “network” — a bizarre cluster of musos, inventors and innovators, including a former drug dealer from London who is now the boss of a successful start-up.
In person he’s a mix of ranter and visionary, speaking in expletive-laced monologues.
Despite his passion for technology, he has reservations about the “abrasive” behaviour it has spawned, but maybe that’s just because he’s a star. This vignette is typical.
“There’s a bit of rudeness to culture, if you were to compare it to yesterday. Like a celebrity or someone who’s famous could be sitting here in the middle of a conversation and somebody will just walk up and interrupt you as if there’s nothing wrong with it. When did chivalry and respect get thrown out the window? Is privacy now gone?” he wonders.
Then, answering his own question, he continues: “Not for ever. It’s just redefining words based on new gadgets that disrupt how we did things yesterday. This redefinition of privacy is gonna come; it’s around the corner.”
He also discusses the vile comments people post online. “The Sixties were unique. Music was about something; content was about something. Peace and love, new technology. Right now we have similar technology, even advanced, but there’s so much hate. It’s like comment, comment.
It’s like the harshest thing you could say,” he shakes his head.
“Come on my YouTube page, it’s like the evilest stuff. Like if you compare 2013 to 1960, what are we doing? It’s hard to see just how evil people are. Is it by nature or conditioning?” Will.i.am crackles with energy. It was this drive and impatience that spirited him from the streets of Boyle Heights, a ghetto in Los Angeles, to global fame. Born William Adams, he was raised by his schoolteacher mother along with two brothers and a sister (his mother went on to adopt two more children). He never knew his father.
Neighbourhood gang shootings and violence did not crush his dreams to make music and perform. As a 12-year-old schoolboy he met the future Black Eyed Peas member Allan Pineda — aka apl.de.ap — and in 1995 the pair formed the group with the rapper Taboo (the singer Fergie joined in 2002). They released a string of hits including Where Is the Love? and I Gotta Feeling.
He’s now worth £50m — and can’t wait to give some of it away. His i.am.angel foundation, launched in 2009, includes i.am home, which helps American families in financial trouble to hang on to their houses, and i.am scholarship, which gives deprived young people an education. “They don’t have to worry about paying me back,” he jokes.
So far, nearly $1m has been invested through both programmes, and he’s putting his hand in his pocket to help British kids as well. Last year he donated £500,000 to the Prince’s Trust.
So what are his futuristic predictions? Web 1.0, the early stage of the internet’s evolution, he explains, was all about AOL and Yahoo!, and web 2.0, the current stage, is defined byGoogle, internet searches, Facebook and social media. Web 3.0, he reckons, will be all about increased interactivity with our gadgets.
“You’re going to talk to your phone in a way that right now you don’t talk to your phone. In the future you’re going to talk to it and it’s going to have the ability to talk back,” he smiles. “Siri [the iPhone’s voice control function] is just the beginning. You’re going to communicate with your device like ‘I am hungry’ and it’s going to order.”
When we meet, the case of Trayvon Martin, the African-American 17-year-old shot by a neighbourhood watch man as he took a shortcut home from the shops, is in everyone’s minds. What is his take on the racial cauldron the incident has stirred up? “Racial tension exists but it isn’t like it was yesterday. It’s mild but it’s still there. I think the African-American or the community of African descent isn’t together as it should be in the world.
“For example, in the world we don’t profit from the things we create. So jazz was invented in African-American communities, but the jazz musician that profited the most wasn’t African-American. They didn’t run those businesses or record companies that profited from jazz. Same with blues; same with rock’n’roll. I think we have this amnesia state, where the things that we create we don’t own.”
Switching to the world of technology, he gets a bit out of his comfort zone, talking about the mineral coltan, which is used in the manufacture of mobile phones. “It’s really responsible for how we communicate in the world — every phone needs some type of coltan rock. It’s in the Congo, naturally, but the Congolese don’t own the industry that is responsible for coltan.”
While his behavioural and technological insights may have been overshadowed by the music, his sexuality has not. Although he had a long-term relationship with a woman in his twenties and is rumoured to have had flings with Cheryl Cole and Nicole Scherzinger, the internet is awash with speculation that he is gay or asexual. I ask him what he makes of it all.
“Intellectual orientation is the most important conversation. Popular culture, editorial, government, they probably don’t want you to have that conversation,” he says.
“That’s the reason why we’re not talking about intellectual orientation but sexual orientation. Sexual orientation ties to consumption.
They’re going to sell you anything and use sex to sell it.” He says the things that are good for us are “just not sexy enough”.
He thinks people should see things through the lens of education rather than sex. “Do you want to have sex with a man or a woman? Well, who do you want to be educated by?” If the focus ever flips from sex to intellect, the ability to filter “the abundance of information in the world” would be “tomorrow’s sexy”.
Just as I think he’s deftly sidestepped the real question, he gives a straight answer. “I like women, and from a sexual standpoint I only like women.”
Then his mind zips off again and we’re onto implants and artificial limbs. Women are getting “breast implants, booty implants, lipo” and it’s all for sex, but at some point people will use robotics to enhance themselves.
“What if somebody says, ‘You know what, I don’t want these legs any more. I’m gonna get those robotic ones so I can jump over cars. I don’t want these arms; I wanna be able to crush things’? I don’t care how many frickin’ weights you’re gonna lift, you ain’t gonna pick up no bus,” he says, bobbing about in his chair. “Now that may sound like some sci-fi stuff but that’s actually real right now.”
He highlights the discrepancy of someone such as Oscar Pistorius being judged to have had an unfair advantage in the Olympics because of his artificial legs while “fake boobs and fake lips” on women competing in beauty pageants are blindly accepted. “Because it’s sex, we wash that off, but — wait a second — her things aren’t natural,” he says in mock surprise.
“What happens when they make androids sexier than women? I’m not saying that I’m going to prefer that but …” He laughs uproariously, saying he’s hopeless at romance.
“I’m a joke. I like joking with people that I’m fond of. So a romantic night is a laughing night. Never do I gaze into someone’s eyes — I would freaking chuckle my eyes off if someone was looking at me in a sensual way, like at dinner. I’d probably just start laughing, like, ‘Are you serious?'” He rolls his eyes.
The burning question in the mind of his fans is what is happening to the Black Eyed Peas. “We’re not broken up. It hasn’t gone away”, but “we gotta think about why we resurface”, he says, adding that he and Leah McFall, his protégée from the second series of The Voice, are busy working on her album. He’s sanguine about the fact that she was runner-up. “Just because you won a record deal doesn’t mean you have a career,” he shrugs.
He thinks the secret to a pop singer’s success is the “creative tank”, the “architects” behind them. “The whole show is television, and then you have people’s careers — that is multimedia. It’s radio, it’s print, it’s apps, it’s licensing, it’s touring.”
He says the key is to infiltrate people’s consciousness in an inoffensive way. “It’s noisy in the world. You want to disrupt the noise but you don’t want to disturb people.”
Is he, like his fellow judge Jessie J, going to leave The Voice? “I wasn’t thinking about the third season because I want to focus on getting the right songs now. These people’s careers are on the line,” he says, evasively.
But won’t he be sorry to lose Jessie J? It seems so. “Right now I’m thinking about leaving,” he admits. If he does, we won’t have heard the last of Will.i.am.
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