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will.i.am deserves all his flowers! Beyond his talents in the music industry, most notably known as the founding member of the famed Black Eyed Peas alongside Fergie, apl.de.ap, and Taboo, the Los Angeles native never lost sight of his overall goal: Helping the kids in his hometown of Boyle Heights. Growing up in the Estrada Courts public housing project, Will was the only Black man in his neighborhood and traveled an hour to go to high school in the Palisades in an attempt to get a better education.
During a previous appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” he surprised four Black teenagers with scholarships live on air, and jumpstarted the creation of his i.am Angel Foundation, which grew his philanthropy efforts to a new scale. Grown from 56 students in a trailer classroom in the parking lot at Roosevelt High school to serving over 1,400 students, the venture comes completely full-circle as Will teams up with LAUSD to roll out the first ever robotics program for students to participate.
REVOLT was recently present as will.i.am hosted a press conference and robotics club demo at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, as he continued to push the importance of STEM education and how technology can better the city. While every school has sports as extracurricular activities, robotics can prepare the student to fill pertinent tech jobs with a solid background in education.
REVOLT caught up with the star right after the conference to discuss what it means to return to Theodore Roosevelt High School where his family attended, why he has the desire to give back to kids who are underprivileged, producing the only original on the Aretha Franklin biopic soundtrack alongside Jennifer Hudson, the new Black Eyed Peas album, and more. Read below!
What does it mean to be here today with the kids at Theodore Roosevelt High School?
My mom went to this high school, my whole family. But, I got bussed out to Palisades to get a better education. When I started my foundation, I started to change the configuration of kids’ paths from the neighborhood I’m from. We started with a college prep program 11 years ago and a robotics program eight years ago. Now, we’ve served about 1200 kids in my neighborhood. Partnering up with LAUSD, we’re going to take that 1200 kids to 12,000 kids. Instead of the success we’ve had over the past 11 years in one school, now we’re going to be in 400 schools. We’re in 400 schools in LA with my robotics program. I sit on the board of FIRST Robo. FIRST is the program that’s going to transform these kids’ lives by equipping them with robotics skill sets, STEM skill sets, and to prepare them for tomorrow. It means the world because we started in Boyle Heights where I’m from, and now we’re going to spread out through the greater Los Angeles schools.
Do you remember the moment you first found interest in robotics?
It was 2008, I fell in love with the First Robotics transformation when I saw the kids. There were about 40,000 kids competing every April — when the world was open. Either St. Louis at the time, now it’s Houston and Detroit. Seeing the electricity, these bright minds, it’s football of the mind. It’s basketball of the mind. I don’t mean that saying football isn’t intellectual. It’s algorithmic, mathematical, electrical, it’s that type of seeing 15-year-olds — even as early as nine years old building and competing with LEGO robots to 18-year-olds. We’ve had kids graduate from our i.am Angel program. I got kids going to Brown and Stanford.
How did you want to ensure that children in Los Angeles were able to find that same experience?
Focusing on one neighborhood without the red tape of starting a school because there’s a lot of politics behind starting a school. We started with an after school program at first. The success from the after school program, the LA Unified School District acknowledged the success, and now we’re going to officialize it in a major way.
What does it mean to be able to reach these kids who might not typically get these opportunities?
To turn the hood to good? That’s what it means: The hood going good. The beginning of the 1900s, the world was talking about electricity, automobiles, lights, then — shortly after that — flight. Black and brown folks were not a part of that conversation. Now here we are in 2021, we’re about to have a robotics program to 400 schools across LA aimed at inner city kids. To serve 12,000 students, that’s where the world is going. The world’s going robotic. I’m talking about autonomy and autonomous vehicles. The world’s going advanced computing with artificial intelligence. To get these kids prepared for that and part of that conversation is what it’s all about.
You funded one of the first all-girls robotics teams from Afghanistan. What does it mean to leave an impact not only locally, but internationally?
Going where it’s needed and going there to encourage support. I like to apply myself where I see what could be results when people are struggling or don’t have the means to get involved in tomorrow’s conversation — starting today with skillsets. I was the recipient of somebody doing good stuff when I was growing up, so I want to pay it forward.
How do you feel the administration is doing so far with the education system? They want to add four more years of high school, which is crazy.
It’s all in the details. What does that mean? Four more years of high school? The fact of the matter is, we need to prepare for tomorrow. We need to compete in a major way, whether that’s four more years meaning a different level of workforce development. I don’t know what the details are, but I’m for you never should stop learning. Sounds about right as far as preparing for tomorrow.
How do you never stop learning?
Collaboration. If collaboration is your process, if you make collaboration a part of your culture, then you’re never going to stop learning. If collaboration is a part of how you move, then you’re never going to stop learning because you want to collaborate. That‘s your whole reason for being: To collaborate with people and collaborate with different disciplines. You’re going to learn from somebody. You’re going to add to your vocabulary of doing stuff, getting it, solving problems. Whatever your aim is... say for example you want to make money. How are you going to get there? If you want to make money, real money, you want to have skillsets that are of value. To do that, you need to collaborate either with a mentor or somebody that’s a master at their craft. That’s how you get it.
What do you do if you can’t solve a problem?
I look at myself in the mirror and I ask myself, “What keeps me from solving that problem?” You gotta put your ego in check.
What did you learn from your time being creative director at Intel?
I learned how to think around corners. I learned about futurism, and being a futurist. That’s the ultimate level of creative thinking ‘cause creative thinking is relative to what you mean by creative thinking. Then there’s creative thinking as far as seeing problems that are around the corner, not problems right here. A lot of times when this problem’s here, it stops people from being able to think strategically — and project and predict other problems that rhyme with that problem that are synonymous with that problem. Not seeing around corners. I learned that from Intel in the futures department.
What led to you investing in Dance’s e-bike subscription service?
I like SoundCloud, and those cats started that. So you follow the entrepreneur, right? It’s no different than music. If somebody had a hit, they’re probably going to have a hit somewhere else. And the same thing: The electric bike, there was no winner there yet. What’s the Tesla of electric bike? What’s the Mercedes of electric bike? It doesn’t exist, there’s no winner. I invested in Tesla early on before Elon had it. Before Elon took over the company, I invested with the original founders. I like to go out and hunt.
Talk about producing the only original on the Aretha Franklin biopic soundtrack. How did that come about?
Oh, rocking with Jennifer Hudson. That’s like a sister, working with her is like hanging with family. It was dope. It was different because we did it over Zoom. We were over Zoom and it came out dope. Felt like we were in the same room (laughs).
How was the COVID-19 pandemic for you?
I created about two companies. It brought out ultimate creativity.
Speaking of, talk about partnering with Honeywell on the Xupermask face mask.
That company was started during COVID. Came up with the idea in March of 2020, had the first prototype in May. Put it in a couple Black Eyed Peas videos. Made functional ones, Marc Bendza connected me to Darius, sent it over to Honeywell and told them to vet it. They gave it a thumbs up, we partnered up and launched it. Sold out in nine minutes.
Is that expected?
No, no, no. If you expect that kind of stuff, that means your ego is wild. I wasn’t expecting that (laughs).
Black Eyed Peas released the TRANSLATION album after an eight-year hiatus, which featured four charting singles and was named one of the top Latin crossover albums of 2020. How does that feel?
Being away for eight years, then coming back and writing songs partially in a different language — I’m from East LA, so I understand Spanish decently. But then to have four songs from that whole album go No. 1? And it all happened during COVID? To me, dang. That’s what they mean by whoever said “prepare for the worst.” How do you prepare yourself for the worst, and be functional and productive during the worst?
What does it mean to be a Black man in America today?
Whether I was successful or not, dignity, importance, and being able to sit at the table with solutions is what you want to aim towards as a Black man in America. Not only be at the table — ‘cause usually when you say at the table, it’s somebody else’s table — you want to move away from always wanting to be at somebody else’s table, which is usually a white person’s table to create your own table. Have that table just as fluent, nutritional, productive as the other tables. No matter if I was successful or not, that’s what I’d be aiming to do if I was a Black man in America. Doing programs like this and partnering with LAUSD is that same energy.
What are you most excited for as the world opens back up?
As the world opens back up, really getting this program to be vibrant. It’s a league, a big one to create a robotics league alongside First Robotics in LAUSD. This is our first school district that has signed up this many robotics programs. 400 schools serving 12,000 kids. This is the beginning of a whole new American dream.