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It’s more than 20 years since William James Adams Jr – aka will.i.am – became a star with his band Black Eyed Peas, topping the charts a few years later in 2003 with Where Is The Love?
More hits followed, and the quirky rapper, singer, songwriter and producer established himself as a fascinating all-rounder, always on the lookout for the next sound, style or tech innovation.
Will’s single mother brought him and his siblings up in Eastside LA, but he travelled across the city for school in the affluent West.
Since finding fame and fortune, Will has used his wealth to become a philanthropist. A tech fanatic, he’s ploughed millions of dollars into robotics programmes for schools, and his education programme has seen huge numbers of kids make it to college.
Britain has been very important in his career and he’s loyal to his talent show mentor role on The Voice UK, having stayed with the show throughout all 10 series.
Now Will is adding yet another string to his bow, as a documentary film maker. The sound of his Black Eyed Peas hit, Where Is The Love?, has rung out from Black Lives Matter marches both here and in America.
And in honour of Black History Month, Will has made a film for ITV, investigating what it means to be Black in Britain today, and how that experience compares to life in America.
We caught up with Will, 46, to hear more about making will.i.am: The Blackprint…
Hi Will. How did this documentary come about?
ITV came up with the idea, to celebrate Black History Month in the UK. And I’m so happy we did it, I learned a lot.
Did you worry at all that there might be some negative reactions to it?
Well, society today is super-sensitive on any subject, so doing the right thing should not be stopped because you’re afraid of negative reactions.
In America, we have guns, you guys just have stop and search, which is demoralising because the youth are stopped because they have the attire that people like to wear.
It doesn’t mean they are doing something wrong, and it should be a different approach – a humane approach. But no, I don’t shy away from bringing up subjects, only because I like to put myself at the centre of solving problems and bringing solutions.
In the film you meet Roy Hackett, the leader of a Bristol bus boycott in 1963, who got a rule about no jobs for Black or Asian workers overturned…
I always wondered who were the equivalents of our Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey, and the folks that fought for civil rights. So meeting the leader of the bus boycott, your version of our Rosa Parks, was fantastic.
Your mum sent you on a long journey to go to better schools than the ones in your neighbourhood. And in the film you visit a British school working hard to inspire its pupils – many of whom are Black. How did you find that?
It’s beautiful for kids to get an education in the community that they come from, they don’t have to go too far out of their community to get a better education.
Which brings up another point, why can’t everyone get a great education? Why can’t it be that everybody has access to awesome teachers, awesome mentors, and preparation for what the world is going to be like tomorrow?
In the film we hear the schoolchildren talk about their ambitions. What sort of ambitions did you and your peer group have at that age?
In my neighbourhood, you didn’t learn about the music business in school. You didn’t have financial literacy.
When I was growing up, business class wasn’t about being financially literate. You’d get money, you’d spend money and you’d burn through money real fast.
When I was their age, I wanted to be a musician; I wanted to entertain and they didn’t teach us that in school. I learned music just through my community, my peers and hip hop.
Hip hop taught us music. Which is pretty beautiful, when you think about it. Like, here’s a genre that is based on technology.
We didn’t have samplers and computers… not even in my good school, let alone the school in my neighbourhood.
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In the film you learn about Britain’s involvement in the slave trade and see a portrait of a man who funded the trade. Was filming stuff like that quite emotional at times?
I thought about my grandma’s grandma. I know my grandma, and my grandma knew her grandma. My grandma’s from Mississippi.
And after that we don’t know where our family comes from. My grandfather comes from Alabama, and that’s where all the plantations were.
When you think about that picture in the museum and people that participated in the slave trade, it really wasn’t that long ago.
They teach us in schools like it was a long, long, long time ago. Actually it wasn’t. It’s still there, in the corners.
It turns out the UK was still paying taxes to the freakin’ slave owners’ families eight years ago.
What do you mean?
There was this tax that went to the original slave trade owners that you guys were still paying less than 10 years ago. That’s crazy. It doesn’t hurt, it’s just sad.
It really comes across how much you feel a need to give back…
At one point in time, I was super, super poor. I received free lunches in summer programmes because families that were poor couldn’t afford to feed their kids for breakfast, lunch and dinner – you could only afford one meal.
So I received that. I received the opportunity to take a bus to a good neighbourhood; that was somebody’s idea. Somebody was like, at one point in time, “These kids in inner cities, they deserve a better opportunity. Let’s make sure there’s a programme to send kids from the hood to a good neighbourhood to go to school.”
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I received that. So this is me paying it forward. Should someone have to pay it forward if it was all perfect? Nope. A lot of people are still left behind.
Making the film, it was actually not as disheartening as I thought it would be. When you realise that there’s still streets named after folks that participated in the transatlantic slave trade, it just made me realise, “Wow, I thought this place was there already. I thought this is the most humane place.”
Turns out it’s not. We’ve come a long way, it’s great. It’s not as harsh as it was. But for those that are living in the struggle, it’s still harsh for them.
will.i.am: The Blackprint, ITV, 14 October, 9pm
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