Barack Obama Surprises YouTube Star Twins to Talk About Music & More: 'He Just Popped Out of Nowhere'
“It was a crazy humbling experience — he watches us!” Tim Williams says
Fred and Tim Williams — the 22-year-old YouTube stars better known as TwinsthenewTrend — have racked up millions of views and a slew of fans for their videos reacting to classic songs for the first time.
Even so, they weren't quite prepared for what awaited them when they sat down on Tuesday to record their latest: listening to one of Barack Obama's favorite Bob Dylan tracks in anticipation of talking with Obama about his new memoir, A Promised Land.
The twins' new video, posted Thursday morning, shows what happened next: The former president surprised the Williams brothers on Zoom after they reacted to Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'," which Obama, 59, included on a recent playlist of songs that were memorable to him from his time in the White House.
"Hey people! What's going on?" Obama asked the twins when he appeared in their video. "I hear you guys were asking questions. I decided I'm just gonna go ahead and come here live."
The twins had thought they were pre-recording video for a Dec. 16 episode of YouTube's BookTube, about Obama and his new book.
And then ...
“He just popped out of nowhere,” Fred told PEOPLE right after their Tuesday meeting. “That’s the cherry on top.”
“It was a crazy humbling experience — he watches us!” Tim says.
“I never thought I’d talk to the president where I come from,” he adds as his brother says, “We grew up with him, man. The first Black president!”
Over the course of their 20-minute chat (which was then edited down into the posted video), Tim and Fred spoke with Obama about the meaning behind Dylan’s iconic '60s protest anthem, released during another time of great civil unrest.
“We asked the president what the song meant to him, and he said the old ways are not going to work. Times are changing,” Tim says. “He gave us hope that there are still good people in power that want to see a change for the better.”
It was an important lesson for the brothers. Obama "didn’t make us feel good about the future, he made us aware," Fred says.
As for their review of Dylan’s song? “Bob is a great storyteller. He’s saying you can’t stay the same way,” Fred says. “It was like a campfire song and very relatable.”
Video-chatting with the twins, Obama said they had shown him something, too.
“One of the most important things we can do as people — but especially young people — is opening our minds to how other people feel, what their traditions are, trying to make common cause with folks even if they don't look like us or didn't come from the same neighborhood,” he told Fred and Tim.
“The country's so divided right now and on the internet a lot of times everybody's just mad, and [what] you guys are doing — which is being open to new ideas, new experiences and reaching out to different traditions — that's America at its best,” Obama said. “And I think you guys sending that message is powerful.”
Their original idea, hatched by Tim in 2019 while Fred was away studying criminal justice at Indiana State University, has since led to award show appearances and supportive messages from stars like Alicia Keys, Dolly Parton, Blake Shelton and Kerry Washington.
The brothers broke through in a big way in July, when they reacted to Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” When the tune got to Collins’ iconic drum roll, the video of Tim and Fred — as captured by their iPhone camera — showed them clutching their hearts and almost jumping out of their seats. Their video has since racked up almost eight million views, and Collins’ ‘80s hit returned to the charts.
“We are following our dreams,” Tim tells PEOPLE now. “We had a lot of doubters. We motivated each other.”
The brothers were raised in Gary, Indiana, in what Fred describes as a “war zone” of poverty and violence. Music was an escape.
Their mother, Tiffany King-Richardson, previously served time in prison for offenses in connection with a crack-cocaine addiction. She went on to work at Indiana’s Edgewater Health to help people dealing with substance abuse. Both of her boys have worked there as well.
"From my own experiences, I’ve taught Tim and Fred how important it is to have a voice," King-Richardson told PEOPLE earlier this year. "I want them to do something in life that they love, and that’s music."
They’ve since moved to the Indianapolis area (“We’re in a better opportunity,” Fred says) and are thinking about their next moves. Fred is out of college and is “saving up — being smart”; Tim just bought a car.
“We want to expand and touch more people,” Fred says. Tim adds: “It blew up so fast. We want to meet people and tour after the pandemic.”
People like Obama, who Fred says told them “when the pandemic is over, he wants to meet us in person.”
“We connected over music because we love music for the same reason: just to open our minds up to different genres and not being afraid to be different,” Tim says. (“He told us he listens to songs about girls [and] cars. I found that really funny,” Fred says.)
In their conversation, Obama joked that when he was younger, loving music required a bit more work: “Mixtapes were hard back then, you guys have it easy ... back then, you really had to like figure stuff out.”
Times change, but some things stay the same.
Fred sums it up: “He has a playlist and we critique music, and that goes together like peanut butter and jelly.”
More from the Williams twins' conversation with Obama will air on YouTube's BookTube on Dec. 16.
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