Will.i.am Reflects on Growing Up in Public Housing and Launching His i.am Angel Foundation (Exclusive)

ET sat down with the musician for an intimate reflection of his longstanding career.

will.i.am has come a long way since he was a boy growing up in Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles. The rapper, songwriter and mega music producer sat down with ET for an intimate reflection on his journey to stardom that touches on his numerous projects along the way, including the growth of his beloved i.am Angel Foundation

When asked why a seven-time GRAMMY winner keeps returning to Estrada Courts, the housing project he grew up in, will.i.am shares that his regular visits "keep me grounded."

"This is where I was born and raised. I grew up here in these projects," the star says, reminiscing on how much his community has changed since he was a child. "When I grew up here, this recreation center wasn't here. We called it the circle; it was a park so it's where I played football, baseball, basketball. [I] first wanted to make music here... It keeps me grounded."

Estrada Courts is also where the singer's i.am Angel program began, with only 65 kids. The foundation now caters to more than 12,000 students.

"Philanthropy has been in my family. Even when we were poor, we just pour our hearts out," will.i.am tells ET.

Launched in 2009, the foundation aims to transform lives "through education, inspiration and opportunity" by administering charitable activities and programs targeted toward providing college scholarships, college preparation, and opportunities in STEAM education.

The producer explains how the foundation has developed a computer lab in Boyle Heights, where kids are taught engineering, programming and computer science. "I think it's important because the world is getting more and more autonomous," he shares. "Computer science skill sets are sought after more than they've ever been [and] machines are creating and thinking in ways that we never thought was possible. So, there's a lot of jobs that are going to be displayed in this decade."

He adds, "How do you get our kids prepared for this world that they're going to enter? When they're adults, they should already have the skill set. So this robotics team here is a step to show that it should be mandatory in every school. Until then, we have it in after-school programs."

But the foundation does more than create programs for students, it's a community-wide provider as well. Last month, i.am Angel Foundation partnered with WeLink to close the digital divide in Boyle Heights. Through a multi-sector partnership involving the Los Angeles Mayor's Office, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA), WeLink, and the i.am/Angel Foundation, residents living in the 414 apartments at Estrada Courts now have improved access to zero-cost, ultra-high-speed internet. 

According to BusinessWire, as part of this pilot initiative, WeLink also installed no-cost internet service at the Boys & Girls Clubhouse within Estrada Courts. Microsoft's Airband Initiative will also provide digital literacy and skills training offerings along with access to affordable computing devices to help residents make the most of their new internet service. 

"During COVID, we realized that when [students are] working from home or learning from home, they don't have high-speed connectivity. And if your parents were working two to three jobs... they have to decide '[Am I] going to get connectivity or feed you?'" the entrepreneur recalls. "So, we wanted to bridge that divide. With the partnership of WeLink, we provided no-cost, high-speed connectivity here and yeah, I'm really really proud of that."

will.i.am likens the need for connectively to clean drinking water, noting that the latter is "the means to a career, it's the means to education." 

"If you're barely making it, having to figure out how you get food and connectivity so your kids can educate themselves or so you can work remotely -- that's survival now," he adds. "When you think of the internet, it's not just gaming, it's not just social media -- it's work. And if folks don't have that, guess what? They're not working [and] they're not learning."

It's a familiar dilemma for will.i.am, who grew up in the low-income housing association until the age of 25. He went on to become the founding member of one of the biggest musical trios, the Black Eyed Peas. 

He credits his ride to school in the Palisades as the key to his big dreaming, sharing that the school ride "showed me like, hey, there's a big world out there... My currency is creativity [and] it's what got me out of the projects. It's what fuels my dreaming."

Those dreams led to an estimated 80 million records sold with the Black Eyed Peas, making them one of the best-selling groups of all time. That led to his four solo albums and producing work with artists like Michael Jackson, Usher, Britney Spears, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, David Guetta, U2, Justin Timberlake, Nicki Minaj, Justin Bieber and Kesha.

And it was that success that led to will.i.am delving fully into his philanthropy. 

"When you have success with music, the world calls you for all types of things. They call you when there's a natural disaster to raise awareness..." he recalls. "They call you to help get somebody elected, they call you to help sell a product. But what I realized is that there's a tsunami every day in communities like Boyle Heights. There's an earthquake every single day, there's a flood every day, there's a tornado every day, and that tornado is neglect."

"That flood is new opportunity, that earthquake is the conditions of living that people have to go through in communities like Strata Courts and projects around the world," he adds. "And so, why am I showing up to other events and ignoring the ones that are happening where I come from? I could go out every four years and go get somebody elected. But ignore the kids that need to be pushed to solve the problems by learning these skill sets, so they're equipped to solve tomorrow's problems?" 

The singer shares that his grandmother serves as his inspiration for his charitable endeavors, reflecting on how she "kept us safe here in these projects" when he was growing up. "[She was] praying over us, making sure that we were out of harm's way. The people in the community knew our family, they knew my grandma. She was angelic," he says. "And so, i.am Angel is really modeled after her wings to protect us."

"I'm from these projects, born and raised through and through. Estrada Courts, that's where I was growing up, and that's where I am with success with my foundation," will.i.am states. "There's other me's from projects out there and the WeLink collaboration is like a recipe.To come out of this neighborhood, you had to imagine the world that you want to be in. You have to imagine and design that reality, so it's not just a wish, it's not a hope, it's strategy."