will.i.am Q&A on Barack Obama and 'Yes We Can'

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Will.i.am didn't set out to make history. In fact, says the Black Eyed Peas frontman, he's not even political. But much like the masses around him, the rapper-producer was inspired by a junior senator from Chicago named Barack Obama: inspired by his charisma, his message and what he believed he could accomplish. That inspiration, of course, found its way into his music, and the outcome was "Yes We Can"—a remix of Obama's now-legendary speech that, since it debuted last January, has earned more than 15 million hits on YouTube. It might even be argued that the song has had as big an impact on the slogan's popularity as the candidate himself. (Article continued below...)

Will.i.am's latest Obama-inspired music video (and, as he reveals below, it won't be his last) is called "It's a New Day," and features clips of the president-elect's supporters and celebs singing along over a barrage of election night revelry. (Sample lyrics: "I woke up this morning/Feeling brand new/Cause the dreams that I've been dreaming/Have finally came true.") The rapper-producer (real name William James Adams Jr.) spoke with NEWSWEEKabout drawing inspiration from Obama's words. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How did you first come to know about Barack Obama?
Will.i.am: [In] 2004, the Black Eyed Peas [and I] supported [Democratic nominee Sen. John] Kerry. Terry McAuliffe at that time was the head of the [Democratic National Committee], and [he] was like, "You gotta meet this guy, Sen. Barack Obama, from Chicago." He introduced me to him, we took pictures, and I remember that day. We were very proud of the work we were doing, supporting Kerry, [and] getting the word out. [But] this was way before YouTube … The culture wasn't really the way it is now, as far as the youth engaging, connecting online.

What were your first impressions?
I was like, that's a senator in Chicago? A black senator in Chicago? That's dope, right? I was like, wow, this is fresh.

What was it about Obama's New Hampshire speech that really spoke to you?
I was sitting in this house with a broken foot, and we were watching the playoffs, flipping through channels, checking to see which team was losing, and we stopped at CNN. We were glued to his speech, and he said, "It was a creed written from the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation. Yes we can." And I was like, "Wow." And the way it rang to me, it rang like a song. And I thought of Martin Luther King's speech, I thought of Abraham Lincoln's speech and John F. Kennedy's speech. And I pitied the youth, because there was no new politician [for them], you know? These kids, they dream to grow up to be [Michael] Jordans [or] 50 Cent. It's cool to want to be Lil' Wayne. It's cool to want to be Brad Pitt. It's cool to want to be George Clooney. That's cool, but that shouldn't be it. These kids should want to be Obamas. Why shouldn't a child look to want to be a political figure, to change our nation, to lead us the right directions?

Obama's "Yes We Can" speech itself got fewer views on YouTube than your song. Did you realize the impact you'd have?
If I said, "Yeah, I knew that it was going to impact," I'd be lying out my teeth. But I knew what it made me feel. After I made the song. I got goose bumps. I sent the e-mail to my friend and I said, "Let's make history with this song." I wanted to get it out before Super Tuesday because I wanted to do my part and get people to go out and vote and support Obama. But to say and wish for, "Oh, I want to make this guy president," it's impossible to think that. It was impossible to think that this time last year.

I've read interviews where you say you're not political.
I'm not.

But you had a political impact through the songs that you produced, no?
I wouldn't say that's political. I don't have political agendas. I have social agendas. My social agenda was to inspire people to socialize on issues, and educate themselves on what's going on and realize how important they are. That's not political. That's not politics.

You've produced three songs in the last year on topics surrounding the election. Can we expect more?
Yes, I have a new piece of content I did, called "Take Our Planet Back," around renewable energy. I attended Al Gore's speech in D.C. when he [talked about] repowering America, and shortly after that, I made this song. I ain't no scientist, but I'll be on the Internet, learning about solutions. So, yeah, I'm going to do my job, my responsibility. Hell, if no one else is taking responsibility, I'm going to continue to do my job. I ain't doing it to be popular. Hell, I didn't support Obama to sell records. I've got Republican fans. Republicans like the Black Eyed Peas. Me supporting Obama hurt my career more than it [helped] it.

Did you think it was a long shot a year ago for Obama to become president? At what point did you say, this could really happen?
Well, it was a long shot back then. The odds were, like, crazy … First off: put aside that he's half black and half white—his name is Barack Obama. I got a more presidential name than that dude. My name is William James Adams. Right? Hello? Then, he's half black. And then, no experience. It's a long shot. And the only thing that he has going for him is that he inspires people. Even inspiring isn't enough. And it was scary for a minute, but that's when inspiration is important, to inspire people to be better people, to realize the commonality between blacks, whites and rich and poor, yellow, green, fat and skinny. That's when inspiration is important. The ignited light in the darkest of times. To believe that we can, together, find our way out of the maze. That's when it's important. And that's what we need right now.

What was on your mind on Election Day?
I was really thinking, "How do you explain an emotion you've never really had?' It's beyond joy, it's beyond hope. It made you realize what you were fighting for. We were fighting for Obama to be in the White House because we needed a change. And now that we have it … it makes you question exactly what change is. What exactly is it we have to change? … Because switching over presidents, that was going to happen regardless. And the change is us. We have the change. We have to change how involved we are, how we stay involved regardless if it's right in front of our face, we have to look for it now. We have to search for it. We can't wait for them to put it in our faces.

Do you have any plans for the inauguration?
I'm performing the 19th—it's a very busy day. I perform this new song I wrote, called "The American Song." It's pretty. I love it.

Can you preview it for us?
The lyric is, "From Delaware to Tennessee to Hawaii/On mountaintops, we dreamed from sea to shining sea/And here we are, at the dawn, and the morning/Of a brand new day for all/In the spirit of the father, America." It's a beautiful, beautiful piece of music. It doesn't even feel like I was part of it, because it sounds real, like, royal, and feels like an old soul. My mom said I have an old soul. When I listen to it back I'm like, "Wow, I wrote that?" It doesn't feel like I wrote it, because, you know, I just channeled it.

Do you see yourself being involved in an Obama re-election campaign?
If we can complete [what needs to happen to turn around the country] before Obama's term is up, we probably don't even need to have another election. It's just going to be, like, "Duh, hello," right? Anybody that tries to run against Obama when we pick our economy up is a bonehead. Don't even run up against the dude. Think about it, think about how deep we're in this hole. If we get out of it, why would you even want another president? As a matter of fact, it should be like in the contract. If we get out of it, you're going to get another four years, guaranteed, homie. For real, dude. It's going to be hard. Hard. Hard. Very hard.

If Obama accomplishes what you think he will, and you were to write another Obama-inspired song four years from now, what do you hope the title would be?
"Congratulations. Congratulations to Us All."

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