Art / Music Activism

Selling a Tragedy: The Black Eyed Peas Campaign

On September 1, 2016, another artist who has long been off the airwaves and drifting in the tide of nostalgia released a music video. The Black Eyed Peas (BEP) dropped their new single titled “#WHEREISTHELOVE,” a re-release and remix to their 2003 original song “Where is the Love?” The themes of both songs, as one could imagine, center on asking where the love of humanity is when tragedies such as “nation droppin’ bombs” and “people killin’, people dyin’” are occurring all around the world.

“#WHEREISTHELOVE” is in many ways similar to the 1985 and 2010 versions of “We Are the World.”  “#WHEREISTHELOVE engages with current events such as the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, police shootings of blacks, and the civil war in Syria. Both songs feature a variety of high caliber music artists; the BEP’s song features A$AP Rocky, Justin Timberlake, and Jamie Foxx, to name a few, while “We Are the World” featured, among others, Paul Simon, Michael Jackson, and Diana Ross. Both songs have their royalties linked to charities. But unlike “We Are the World,” “#WHEREISTHELOVE” is both a song and a social media campaign. The BEP’s Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts are all pushing the song and asking “where is the love?” And yet, whatever hint of innocence existed in their original song has since devolved into nothing more than an attempt to capitalize on tragedy.

The Black Eyed Peas used tragedy to stir a social media movement focusing on the seemingly unending pain and suffering brought about by current events. “#WHEREISTHELOVE” was released on the anniversary of 9/11, with the BEP posting on their social media platforms an image of the twin towers with the question “Where is the Love?” written across it, followed by a link to their website, whereisthelove.com. Their website features several GoFundMe-esque pages to support various causes, such as The Trayvon Martin Foundation, Dallas Police Officers, and charities that assist philanthropic operations overseas. By no means am I trying to bash the promotion of these funds. But unlike “We Are the World,” the royalties generated by “#WHEREISTHELOVE” do not support any of the funds being promoted, but instead support the i.am.angel foundation, a charity founded by lead member of the BEP will.i.am. When viewing the webpage for the foundation, one can see that the money goes to Roosevelt High School, a school in will.i.am’s former neighborhood in Eastside Los Angeles. i.am.angel funds what are essentially college preparatory programs, featuring a STEM initiative for accelerated students and scholarships.

The total amount of scholarship money awarded since 2009 has been $550,500, divided among thirty-seven scholars. Each scholar ends up with about fifteen thousand dollars, which of course is no amount to scoff at; however, the average cost of attending college per year hovers around twenty thousand dollars. Since will.i.am’s scholarship program is largely geared towards students of high need, fifteen thousand dollars really does not go far at all relative to the the average cost of a college education. As such, his scholarship is entirely supplemental to what will have to be strong financial aid and academic scholarships offered by each college that i.am.angel foundation scholars attend, in order to minimize the amount of debt that the scholars will likely take on. Furthermore, the college track program supports a marginal group of the school as well. Granted, the forty-five students from this program are all headed to four year institutions, but Roosevelt High School still only has a graduation rate of about 77 percent. Overall, will.i.am’s scholarship program is not very helpful for the scholars it purports to aid. Since the royalties of #WHEREISTHELOVE were intended to increase the funds of the foundation, it is curious that there has been no news release from the foundation regarding any sort of increase in the amount of funding given to young scholars as a result of the song’s royalties. This silence on the part of the foundation is especially suspicious considering that the song has been out for nearly two months and has been off the Top 100 selling songs chart on iTunes for some time.

Courtesy of Walmart Corporations/flickr.com

Courtesy of Walmart Corporations/flickr.com

Will.i.am’s charity page clearly shows that the charity is not about the children, but about will.i.am, with nearly all of i.am.angel’s press releases featuring his philanthropic efforts and focusing on him. This focus on will.i.am has no relation to any of the events that the song panders to, a disconnect which shows that his charity is more about crafting a legacy than figuring out where the love is.

Moving away from where the song’s royalties are going, I took a look at the BEP’s social media platforms. Almost all of their engagement online that has been focused on the #WHEREISTHELOVE campaign features clips of tragedies and frequent posts asking “where is the love?” Almost. Increasingly, posts from the BEP have been less about spreading awareness of these tragic events and are more geared towards their own brand and profits. For example, wedged between a photo captioned “So much love” and another of a photo remembering Terrance Crutcher, Fergie posted an advertisement of a re-release of the BEP’s music in LP form. There is also a post for their very own Facebook filter, which you can use to have your face behind their trademark white question mark (a symbol which is the centerpiece to the question they have been asking). The efforts to monetize and promote their own brand are clearly apparent and do not end with the examples previously described. One can simply scroll back on their Twitter feed to watch the transformation and dilution of their message. Starting around August 27, their feed is filled with the #WHEREISTHELOVE messages, but by mid-October there is little left that can be seen as pertaining to that mission, with posts now featuring will.i.am’s Donald Trump sketch as well as more ads for their music and t-shirts.

The BEP also began selling t-shirts with their white question mark logo at a whopping $39.99, which they claim was reduced from the initial $49.99 price point. In the t-shirts’ description is the exclamation, “The Black Eyed Peas are back! Celebrate with this double-sided, all-over-print Where’s the Love T-Shirt, available only at RageOn!” Granted, there is a $20 t-shirt option as well, but unlike their disclosure of where they donated royalties, there is no such information about the t-shirts, suggesting that this money goes straight to the BEP. Furthermore, recent posts on their Facebook and Twitter feeds feature another ad for their music and advertise the selling of “Where is the Love” t-shirts. The BEP’s blatant price gouging on t-shirts exposes two things: these practices  are past the point of charitable awareness, and the group is exploiting the question “where is the love?”

As already mentioned, all of the BEP’s social media platforms push mini-videos featuring their song and their question mark logo, connected by the question, “Where is the Love?” The constant barrage of this question gives an effect of pandering to the masses. “Where is the Love?” is a question that is more despairing than hopeful. It has been seven years since their original release of the song, but the BEP just keep singing the same tune. Rather than grow from their original model, the BEP have both sold themselves and begun to sell the tragedies that affect large groups of people and the world.

The video itself seems to be almost satirical in terms of its pandering, flashing images of wounded children and people crying out interspersed with scenes of celebrities such as Kylie Jenner and Jaden Smith asking “Where is the Love?” The song even comes with a children’s chorus singing sorrowfully of where the love has gone.

This effort by the BEP consists more of rebranding and pandering than of actual love-spreading. The BEP ask the question “Where is the Love?” relentlessly, but they themselves are acting in a counter to the true advancement of the common good. Although one could evaluate the overall net effect of their efforts in terms of lives positively and negatively affected by this campaign, the actions of the Black Eyed Peas prove that, for them, love is likely secondary to money and legacy. This makes me ask, “Where, exactly, is the love?”