‘The world needs more Gates and Edisons, not musicians.’
Before I met him, my perception of William James Adams, Jr. was somewhat limited. Perhaps it was because I balked a little at the idea of the punctuation in his chosen stage moniker (although the playful, risqué grammarian in me did rather enjoy the scope that Will.i.am as a name lent to a little creative thought), but I knew little about him bar the three defining facts of his British presence: he is a big deal in the Black Eyed Peas, he is a rather good judge on The Voice, and he seems to have a lot to do with Cheryl Cole.
Well, I am now rather taken with Will.i.am (he has earned his punctuation). In his conversation with Paul Thompson for RCA Innovation Night, supported by the humanitarian Rumi Foundation, he proved himself worthy of the invitation to speak as an innovator, as well as being a gifted raconteur with a charming fondness for tangents. He came across well-informed and as quirky as you would hope, if you, too, have been glued to The Voice, and seen his ability to go from insightful to kook within the space of a sentence.
The first point he made was that technology, and geeks, ought to be applauded, for music rode their vehicle to reach each of us. The music industry ought to pay their dues to Tesla, he said, because without him this relatively new record industry would never have come about.
He told us how he had asked his grandmother how she listened to music, and how she responded: ‘in churches and parties.’ ‘You partied, gran?’ Will asked. ‘Yes, but they were nothing like your parties, Will.’ Probably not, grandma.i.am.
He moved on to say that despite the huge amount of technology around that the next step would have to be innovative, not just further building on what we already have. Take the film industry: ‘we see adverts all the time for the new Spiderman, the new Superman, but none of those things are new,’ he said, ‘Avatar and Inception, they were both original, but they were the only ones – we need to think forward more. If you ask people today to imagine the future they don’t know what to say – it isn’t like it used to be with ideas of flying cars.’
He has a point. When he suggested that were he a fashion graduate he would design a coat with inbuilt gadgetry, so that the pocket would become more than just a place to store a phone, I realised that Will.i.am is not a man who enjoys boundaries. ‘Art used to imitate life, now life imitates art, because the tool is so advanced, and it is changing how humans communicate with humans,’ he remarked, just as his phone went off several times in his pocket (it was his mum, if you’re curious).
Two little things really cemented my newfound appreciation for Will.i.am. Firstly, he seemed to harbour a healthy interest in language and how stimulating it is, as illustrated by his tale of how, after witnessing Will and his friends call each other ‘fool’ casually, his uncle asked: ‘who is more a fool, you for having friends who are fools, or them for letting you call them fools?’ Will credits that question with opening his mind to the importance of choosing your words.
The second was that, for one night only, he allowed me to imagine what it might be like to be Cheryl Cole. ‘You got sweet cheeks, can I squeeze them?’ he asked me with a smile, after a friend and I approached. I let him, naturally (he was referring to my facial cheeks, in case you, like my husband, are shocked at the nerve of old Will).
He went back for a second squeeze as I left, and I found myself recalling his words on being asked what he would most like to be remembered for. ‘I haven’t done it yet,’ was his answer. Well, to me, Will.i.am, you have. I will never forget those two squeezes.