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Obama song taps the Web's energy

will.i.am and some celebrities record a tune that echoes the candidate's words. It's been heard on millions of computers.

February 06, 2008|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

The Barack Obama-boosting music video "Yes We Can" hit the Net on Friday and by Super Tuesday it had been streamed a staggering 10 million times on YouTube and the website www.yeswecansong .com.

Produced by multi-platinum-selling rapper-producer will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, the elegiac, reggae-tinged composition isn't a campaign commercial, per se. To hear him tell it, the song is an impassioned plea for social change. But the video's viral impact also represents an Information Age breakthrough: a virtual real-time response to the current, super-heated political climate that juxtaposes politics and pop culture in a way that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

"This is an ode to inspiration," will.i.am said. "Barack's speech inspired me. It changed my life as far as how I look at myself as an American. If that's what he does, the world could use some of that. It's about making people think about change and hope."

The video features clips of the presidential candidate in New Hampshire delivering his Jan. 8 "Yes We Can" stump speech, inter-cut against a cross-section of A-list actors, musicians and athletes: Scarlett Johansson, John Legend, Laker great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Herbie Hancock, rapper Common and Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls among them. In black and white, they sing, mouth and recite Obama's messages about hope, change and social uplift against a plain black backdrop.

Filmmaker Jesse Dylan, son of social activist and rock icon Bob Dylan, came on board to film will.i.am and friends in the studio on Jan. 29. The original plan was to record a Los Angeles studio session involving the producer, Legend and Johansson. But dozens of other celebrities (including Tatyana Ali, "Lost's" Harold Perrineau and actress Amber Valletta) became unexpectedly involved, in an apparently heartfelt outpouring of Obama support.

"I heard [the song] on Tuesday, shot footage Wednesday and Thursday last week, cut it on Friday and it went online," Dylan said. "It was very organic. It came out of everyone's belief in Barack's speech. His speech is so eloquent, Will became passionate about it -- passionate enough to make a song about it.

"That was Will's intention: These themes dramatize the themes Barack has been talking about."

will.i.am said he does not plan to sell downloads of the song, preferring to keep it free so that its core messages reach as many people as possible. And trying to come to grips with the video's out-of-nowhere impact, the normally loquacious rapper-singer-producer is for once at a loss for words.

"This is the nuttiest thing in the freaking world," he said. "It's not propaganda. It's not part of a campaign. There's no corporation behind it -- the record company couldn't get involved. I did it on my own. The only thing behind it is the people. And that's like, wow!"

chris.lee@latimes.com

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