Will.i.am bursts out of the studio dressed in what I can only describe as a basketball reworked into a baseball jacket: it has a bright orange rubber body, with shiny brown arms. It has Will.i.am inscribed across the back, in swirly black writing. It is the most eccentrically bespoke piece of clothing I think I’ve ever seen.
He smiles an open smile; he’s 37 but could be 25. As one of the mentors of BBC1’s immensely popular The Voice UK (12.5 million viewers and counting), he has just emerged from filming the “Battle” round, in which he’s had to cut his ten young hopefuls down to five.
I ask him how it feels, becoming an elder statesman all of a sudden. “I’m a who?” he says, on alert. “No, this is what I’ve always done when I’m not performing. I’m looking for new acts, I’m mentoring people signed to my label, wherever I am, after a show, when I go to a club. It’s just now I’m doing it on a different platform.”
Black Eyed Peas
It’s true that you would struggle to find an activity Will.i.am hasn’t already covered. He started his group, the Black Eyed Peas, when he was still in eighth grade at school in Los Angeles.
They weren’t what you’d call an instant hit, but if you start when you’re 14, you have time to work at it – they were signed in 1998, and their first album, Behind the Front, had enough acclaim to put them at the dead centre of American music. In 2003 they released Elephunk, which featured Where Is the Love?, and they became officially massive.
Will.i.am has a preternatural energy, though, so his CV looks nothing like the classic mega-band trajectory, where you set off, get successful, spend ten years enjoying it, fall out and then go solo: he had individual projects going on throughout. He also trained in fashion, in the early noughties. His wealth is reported as being anywhere between $30m and $75m but, mysteriously, he has no home, preferring to live in hotel rooms.
Career so far
He runs his own record label, creates songs at the rate of ten a month, and has written for everybody you’ve ever heard of (Britney Spears; Usher; lots of young people I actually haven’t heard of, but the world assures me are famous).
He manages other acts, notably for us Cheryl Cole. There were rumours back in 2010 that they’d got it on, which he never commented upon. Indeed, he never says much about his personal life, beyond, “I’m not lonely.”
I put it to him that he’s pretty, erm, private, and he totally disagrees. “I don’t have a private life. I like it like that. It’s because I share it all. I share about my ex-girlfriend, that’s all cool. I don’t say the name because it’s not fair to her.”
He has various acting credits – he was the voice of Moto Moto in Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (this won’t mean anything unless you’ve seen the film, in which case... wasn’t that your favourite bit?).
Even his speech has this restless energy, this urge to produce. “I’m too, like, right now right now right now right now right now. Impatient’s not the right word. It’s angst. Let’s go. Right now.” He reminds me fleetingly of that episode in The Simpsons where they try to drug Bart for being hyperactive.
“Yeah, when I was a kid, they said I had ADD, or whatever. They said I was hyper. ADHD. AHHD? Whatever. That’s cool. Actually I’ve made it work for the best for me. And my mom encouraged me in everything I did.”
His mother is a huge presence in his life and conversation – she raised him and his brother, on her own, in the Boyle Heights, east LA, a notoriously deprived neighbourhood upon which he still concentrates much of his philanthropic energy. He breaks off to read me this text exchange he’s had with his mother:
“Hey Willi, I want to let you know that I feel ten feet tall right now. I want to be a part of all that. I want to be involved in all these projects. I want to be part of your plan, I want to soar with you. You are the fuse that’s needed to set the bombs off. It’s about to explode baby boy.”
“That’s cool, Mom. That’s why I put you on board. Yay.”
“Thank you so very much. My heart feels like it will burst, I love you so very much, not for what you give me or what you’ve done, but for who you are. A son with a very, very big heart.”
“Of course, Mom. You built my heart.”
I think we’re in for some emotional times on The Voice, and that’s not even taking into account the fact that Tom Jones is Welsh.
Recently, Will.i.am has been much talked about for having Barack Obama on speed dial. When I accuse him of being involved in politics, however, he very pleasantly corrects me.
“I’m not invested in politics. I’m invested in this surge of youth energy to take ownership and redefine themselves and the communities that they live in. I care about America. Who’s going to figure it out? But the who is us, you know. Individuals. Entrepreneurs. Innovators. Investors.”
He has a boundless enthusiasm for the future, a total confidence that it’s ten times better to be young now than it was when he was young. “All right, think about when you were three, when I was three, it was no different than when my mom was three, in terms of how we learnt. Three-year-olds now have a different concept of manipulating surface.
“They’re going to look at windows differently. You look at a window, you see outside. They’ll be trying to swipe it. It may seem like a joke, until that three-year-old is 20 and invents something. The next version of the future is going to be defined by these now three-year-olds, and they’ve been given a tool that has changed the way their mind is mapped.”
When you put it like that, you can shrug off your European gloom for a second and share his optimism. But that isn’t to say he’s hasn’t noticed how hard things have become across America (and the world).
His philanthropic urges take two distinct paths: on the one side, he has all that American energy for sustainable business and social entrepreneurship, and philanthro-capitalism; they’re very modish, these ideas, but I’m not 100 per cent sure I understand what they mean. What I do understand, though, is what he’s doing for the community he grew up in.
For his charity i.am Home he sends his mum into banks to look at their list of foreclosures, chooses families about to lose their homes (“Families that lost their jobs – not got fired, lost. They’re capable, but the business is not there any more”) and pays off the mortgage. It is the opposite of what any regular, civic-minded, minted celebrity does (which is to set up a foundation and leave the nitty-gritty to someone else).
“If I go out and say, ‘Yes we can! We can, Obama! I support Obama!’ And then I’m out, going, ‘Woohoo, I’m not even living in America, I’m in Spain!’, how is that supporting? Because I go to a freaking fundraiser and give him some money sometimes?
“People have got it all mixed up. Supporting is actually doing. Let’s change the word ‘supporting’ and use the word ‘doing’. What are you doing to help America and Obama? Donating money to the campaign? Or going into communities and changing people’s lives?”
His isn’t sentimental flag-waving; it’s like an old-fashioned social conscience, wrapped in global fame, dressed as a basketball. It’s impossible not to fall in love with him a little bit. The good news is he’s fallen in love with us a bit, too.
“I don’t know what’s brewing here, but you guys have so many great singers, from Adele to Jaz to freaking Marina and the Diamonds, to freaking Everything Everything. Great talent coming out of this country. Get out of here.”
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 24 April 2012.
The Voice UK continues tonight at 7pm on BBC1.