will.i.am on East LA Classic as the Grammys, gentrification in Boyle Heights

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“I started with 65 kids, now we serve about 12,000 students across LA with robotics programs, computer science programs, and college prep programs,” will.i.am says of his i.am/Angel Foundation. Photo courtesy of i.am/Angel Foundation.

The East LA Classic is a decades-long rivalry between Roosevelt and Garfield high schools, and this Friday, they’ll compete at the Coliseum. The half-time show will star will.i.am, a Boyle Heights native and member of the music group the Black Eyed Peas. The artist — born William Adams — grew up in the Estrada Courts projects in Boyle Heights and has made it a point to give back to the community since forming his charity, the i.am/Angel Foundation, in 2009.

“The Roosevelt-Garfield East LA Classic was our Grammys way before I was even hip to the Grammys,” says will.i.am of his formative east side years. Now the game has corporate sponsorships and a half-time show produced by the Black Eyed Peas frontman, with tens of thousands expected to attend.

As the game has evolved over the years, so has his neighborhood. “Boyle Heights is undergoing significant change right now because of the gentrification that's happening with downtown's arts district. And folks that see Boyle Heights is a thriving community and rich of culture — are pushing folks that have been living there forever out.”

will.i.am’s charity aims to prepare kids for well-paying jobs that can help them stay in the community. It offers college prep and scholarships, plus opportunities in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics). 

The Roosevelt High graduate is proud of his accomplishments in music and philanthropy, but playing the East Side Classic stands out.

“We went everywhere. Everywhere on the planet that you could think of, Black Eyed Peas was there. But coming out of Boyle Heights and now doing this half-time show, I say this one is more important than the one we did when we played the Super Bowl half-time show.”