Last week, a late night email mysteriously summoned us to Radio City Music Hall. A publicist briskly ushered us past rooms of rehearsing Rockettes and posters signed by Frank Sinatra and Madonna. She deposited us in a disappointingly normal conference room. "What's this about?" We asked. "Will can tell you," she answered. "Will" is Will.I.Am, the pop star and social activist who launches Ekocycle today. A program created with Cola Cola and including brands like Beats By Dre, the plan aims to raise environmental awareness and ultimately increase the amount of consumer goods created with recycled materials. After moving to an oak-paneled reception room somewhere deep in Radio City (a high frequency buzzing in the conference room bothered Will's ears), we got informed by the music maven and his partner, Beatriz Perez - Coke's first-ever chief sustainability officer.
You're already kind of busy making hit records. When did you decide you also wanted to create a recycling program?
We had a show in Atlanta in 2009. A couple of months before the show, I went to Clinton Global Initiative and learned about the 2020 millennium goals and how Coca Cola is [aiming to be] "zero waste"... Then I came up with this concept, like, "Wow, it would be great if we started a movement that took byproducts and turned them into new products." At the concert, I asked a friend of mine if he could introduce me to the people at Coke, and he said, "Funny you should say that' they want to come to your show, can we get them backstage passes?" so I was like, "Yeah I can do that. I have an idea I want to pitch to them."
You tried to pitch Coke a concept backstage at your show?
I mean, yeah. They were backstage, and I went up to Bea, and I said, "Hi I'm Will, I have a concept I wanna pitch to you guys." They gave me a time in two weeks. So I had two weeks to get my presentation together and do my research. I had to say why Ekocycle would be important for society.
Bea Perez: I have to tell you about this deck, it wasn't just any deck... Will took pictures of everything you would see from after a show, where there would be empty bottles in the audience - and what it could look like if you actually met the ambition of zero waste... He had done his homework. He knew that today, 30% of Americans recycle, and that's not good enough.
Will: Wherever you're from, you like your team, right? You like the Lakers, the Clippers, the Dodgers or the Angels. But Tuesday, when the garbage man comes to take your trash, you don't look at him the same way you look at Kobe Bryant, when [the garbage man] is important. They keep your city clean. As a matter of fact, they're more important than a Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan because if they go on strike, your whole city is messed up. If the Lakers go on strike, you can miss out on some basketball. So you have to start valuing people that make our city go 'round, that team, their cycle. We have to create value in what would otherwise be called waste.
Can you give an example?
When you recycle a bottle it doesn't turn into a bottle. It turns into shoes, it turns into those glasses you have on, and it turns into that hat, those jeans; it can turn into Beats headphones. Aluminum cans can turn into bicycles, tables, chairs, pencils, computers, but it only turns into that if we create a demand. It doesn't have to be called "waste," it's only waste because we waste it. It's only trash because we trash it.
Are recycled materials more expensive than raw materials?
Here's a factoid: In a recession, luxury brands went up... So why are you paying a lot of money for a Gucci bag? It's an aspiration; people aspire to have that bag. Now when people aspire to have things made out of sustainable materials, [that] is when the youth comes along. So worrying about price point is a way to put up an invisible barrier that we shouldn't even be worried about. If we have a demand, there will be a supply.
Tell us about the Ekocycle website.
Ekocycle is a Facebook page, so people can engage and interact and tell us what products they would like see being made. We keep it in the community that people actually communicate on.
Are you designing any of the recycled products yourself?
I went to FIDM and I have a [clothing] line, so my line will be a big part of Ekocycle. But I work with other high end brands, and talk to them about [Ekocycle], and they can't wait to get involved. A year ago when I was telling people about Ekocycle, they were like, "So it's going to be like Coke t-shirts?" But it's going to be cool, dope stuff.
Is it going to be super-branded?
No way. We have [a pair of Beats headphones] out to show you how it looks. We're not trying to take away from Beats or the brands and products you like. We just want you to know consciously that these headphones are exactly like your other ones, except they are made out of plastic bottles.
What's your spirit animal? '
An owl because they see at night. I work at night, and I would like to see in the dark.
What was your first job ever?
Surviving (laughter). My first job was at Costello Park, which is a summer youth program. I passed out free lunches -- I was going to say to the poor kids but I was one of the poor kids!
What's the worst advice you've ever been given?
It's not cool to be conscious about the environment (laughter)... To not follow my gut, to not believe in my dreams.
The election is coming up. Are you going to release another Obama song?
I really don't think America needs a song right now. If it did I would have done it... All the work I'm doing in the ghetto that I'm from, the school I went to, getting people to take an interest in science, technology and math; that activity, that's what "Yes We Can" was about. If someone says, "Hey, what do you think about Obama? How is he doing?" I say, "What am I doing? What are you doing?" Anyone can point fingers, but I'm doing all I can; my mom is doing all she can; friends of mine are doing what they can. Where are you from? If you can't change where you're from, then what are you doing? So on a personal level, a community level, a state level, a national level - That's how we have to change. I'm changing my neighborhood and it's going to be dope. I have kids in my neighborhood learning how to build robots and write code. Why is that important? For airplanes. The next innovation in flight are going to come from some twelve year old in twenty years from now. New medical equipment is going to come from some nine year old 30 years from now.
What was your mom like growing up?
My mom was strict. I couldn't say certain words; I couldn't dress the way I wanted to dress. I always wore suits. My friends, if I picked friends she didn't like, she would say, "Why are you playing with that boy? Is he really your friend?" My friend selection was important because my friends got me out of my neighborhood. My mom asked, "Who are you kickin' it with? What are you doing with your time?" I still want to go back there, because I can't alienate people. I go back and talk my childhood friends, the ones that are alive.
What were you like In high school?
I was the guy that -- you know there's cliques, especially if you go to a multi-racial high school --but I went around to all of the different cliques. My high school was diverse, and I used to mingle. I was supposed to win "Best Dressed," but I didn't win. I won "Space Cadet," but I don't know why.
What was your look like in high school?
Oh, my hair was the same, it just went the opposite direction. I had the Gumby going the other way! Like Ekocycle on Facebook now to get involved.