For college student Elijah Williams, the songs make him want to … study.
"I think I should go do homework or something," says the Wilmington University freshman, one of four friends whose entire college education is being bankrolled by the band's frontman, will.i.am, through his i.am scholarship fund. (The scholarship also covers room, board, and books.)
The Grammy winner, 34, who grew up in a Los Angeles housing project and didn't attend college himself, came up with the idea for the scholarship fund two years ago after earning a hefty paycheck to deejay a party.
"I did the math and I could send three kids to school" with that money, the singer tells PEOPLE.
For will.i.am, success is nothing without generosity. "It's one thing to make it – and you've got your own apartment, or house, or car – and you keep it for you. That's not making it," he says. "Making it is spreading it."
So why spread it through education? "You watch the news and you've got Obama talking about our health reform, you got Al Qaeda, you have the economy, and nobody's talking about education," he says. "And that is the scariest, because we could have a nation full of dummies."
A Promise to Keep Up the G.P.A.swill.i.am first met Williams and fellow scholarship recipients Jaiquann Beckham, and brothers Darien and Barien White, all 19, last May, and has been maintaining contact with them via email throughout the school year. Last Wednesday night, he hosted them at the Black Eyed Peas concert in Philadelphia, where they hung out backstage before the show and met bandmates Taboo and Apl.de.ap.
"It's so great that he does something he loves and uses that to help others," says Darien.
As an incentive to keep their G.P.A.s above a 2.8 (which hasn't been a problem), and to inspire the guys to travel, will.i.am has told the foursome, "Let's do a little contest where your grades are up and you come with us anywhere on the planet. You just pick a country and we go there. We'll do it for four years."
This summer, they may join the band during a tour stop in Africa.
Beckham admits that having a famous benefactor adds to the pressure to crack the books. "Everyone always reminds us, if you don't do good, it's going to look bad on you, it's going to look bad on will," he says.
A Dream and a PassionThis year, the i.am scholarship fund will be offering at least five new four-year scholarships to students interested in studying film and television, motion graphics and animation, journalism, and computer science. Each student will also receive an internship at Dipdive.com, will.i.am's social networking site, as well as a job with the site upon graduation.
But when it comes to choosing scholarship recipients, will.i.am says he's really only looking for just one thing: "Anybody with a dream and a passion to go and make their dream come true."