will.i.am at the NAACP Image awards
Photo: Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage.com
I travel the world with the Black Eyed Peas, and everywhere I go, people ask, "What nationality are you? Jamaican? Haitian?" I answer, "I'm an American." When you ask the black guy in Brazil what nationality he is, he doesn't say, "African-Brazilian." He says, "Brazilian." Someone doesn't say, "I'm African-English." They're English. I couldn't tell you what part of Africa my ancestors came from. So I am American, the way jazz and blues are American music. The way peach cobbler is an American dessert.

I was born and raised in East Los Angeles by a single mom who had three biological kids and adopted four more. I never met my dad. When I was 10, Mom sent me to school in Pacific Palisades, a wealthy neighborhood. She wanted me to be challenged. I had the dream of being a hip-hop artist, and when I was in the 11th grade, I got my first record deal. I formed the Black Eyed Peas in 1995.

Going to Europe three years later to promote our album opened my eyes. It made me realize how young America is. If countries were people, England and France would be old men. Italy would be dead. Compared with them, America is in its 20s. The cultures and attitudes in Europe were beautiful to see. Everyone speaks three languages because the countries are so close together. In Los Angeles, I'd ride an hour to school, but if you drive an hour from France, you're in Spain.

I've always been proud of my country. For me, America was a place where a black kid with a fresh style and a positive message could use hip-hop to get out of the projects. But I didn't get the big picture until I saw this country from a distance. Traveling in Europe made me understand that America has an island mentality: No one exists except us. There's a whole other world out there, but most Americans—all they know is America, the marketing plan. When you're in your house, you don't know what it smells like. Your friend says, "I walked into Will's house; it's got this weird funky fish smell." Then you step outside, and you say, "Wow, what are these? Daffodils?" Back in your house, you say, "Oh, it smells like fish in here."

Everywhere the Black Eyed Peas perform—Kazakhstan, Dubai, Slovakia—we try to represent what Americans really are. Last June, after the big earthquake in China, we played a benefit concert in Shanghai for the Chinese Red Cross. We helped raise more than $1 million. I told the audience, "We are no different from you—we work to pay the bills and support our families." This is the America we represent: the one that's part of, not apart from, the rest of the world. We are living in such a great time right now. We should continue to be the light of the world. America has to be not just an idea but a living, breathing thing. We have to open the windows and let some air in.
As told to Dana White

From the May 2009 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.