Usher, the multiple Grammy Award-winning diamond-selling international megastar, actor, dancer, entrepreneur, philanthropist and proud Atlanta resident has changed music, culture and countless lives. Beyond selling over 80 million records worldwide and collecting dozens of awards, he has also tirelessly distinguished himself as a devout humanitarian, raising tens of millions of dollars for various causes and uplifting youth via his ‘New Look Foundation‘ since 1999.
Just recently, his ‘My Way: The Vegas Residency’ has been extended again with new dates taking place in June and October 2023 at the Park MGM.
Usher, with a career like yours, it’s hard to imagine there is a thing you haven’t accomplished yet. Looking back on it, what would you describe as the biggest highlight of your career?
It’s really the establishment of the beginning, the most fundamental part of which is what happens afterwards. The first time you ever hear your song played on the radio, first time you see your face on the television, those seem to be the the most important moments. And also the fundamental moments that actually make you appreciate the long term. When I look back, I remember when things were so simple, when you didn’t have to think so much. You kind of went with what you feel, was authentic as you could be. We find ourselves later on in our lives always trying to get back to that place. You could appreciate being an adult, but you just want to feel young and free and have fun and remember that you’re doing this because you’re really inspired by what you’re feeling in the moment.
You have just recently extended your Las Vegas residency, ‘My Way: The Vegas Residency’ with new dates for June and October of this year. Not many musicians get the honor of having a residency in Vegas. What does this residency mean to you personally and for your career?
After you’ve done so many things and you’ve performed all over the world, now we can have an audience actually come to you. You can create a show specifically for them, a planned destination for them to come and be able to escape and have a good time. There is some expectation, but you leave them fulfilled. It’s not only a treat for them because you’re playing your classic records, but you too get a chance to relive certain moments or either create new ideas, be creative or just find freedom. For me, I decided to skate on stage, I decided to really spread my wings and just have fun and create a world that would allow you to feel like all of the places you’ve gone, all the places that these songs, this music and this entertainment has taken me.
The residency is named after your 1997 album ‘My Way’. What made you name it after it?
There’s a few things. Me being in Las Vegas feels a lot like Frank Sinatra. And if you listen to the song ‘My Way’ and what it’s saying, there’s such a statement in that. My version of ‘My Way’ is obviously a bit different, but I was inspired by Frank Sinatra, and on the other side we were celebrating an anniversary of ‘My Way’, so I felt like why not do things my way, cause that’s what’s actually happening out here.
Sometimes you can get blinded by expectations because so many people are expecting for you to live up to some idea of who you were or what you made them feel. But you have to do things your way and do them based on how you feel, and hopefully people will respond to those things.
You are known as a very good dancer as well. Why does dance play such a pivotal role in music performances on stage?
It’s based off of my upbringing. I was born in the seventies, danced in the streets in the eighties, break dancing with my friends and my family members, so it’s always been a part of the culture and of who I am as a person. As I got older, I found inspiration in performers like MC Hammer, Bobby Brown, Michael Jackson and James Brown. Dance was such a significant part of what their entertainment was. Being inspired by them, I did it in my own way, based off of what current moves were happening or either where the music led me to.
They were the rock stars of those times, or at least R&B stars of those times. They were Patriots. I looked up to them, everything that they did and wanted to be like them. Eventually, it created something that gave me freedom to then do things exactly the way that I wanted to and choreograph things the way that I wanted them to be seen.
Your music and your career have been rewarded with 8 Grammy Awards. Which of these eight had the biggest, most personal meaning for you?
The first one, because of the category Best Male Vocal Performance. This is a guy who completely lost his voice when he went through puberty. You lose some of your higher range, higher pitch. If you may have started off as a soprano, you become a baritone or maybe even a tenor. I’m a natural baritone, but I have the ability to rise all the way up to alto and soprano in my voice.
The biggest part ever was to conquer that. I had lost my voice, felt like my career was going to be over, got it all back and I did well enough to be rewarded as Best Male Vocal Performance in the R&B category.
What made you fall in love with music, and in particular with R&B?
This is my one place of power in life. To me, entertainment gave me identity. I wasn’t a football player, I wasn’t a basketball player. I felt like I did pretty good in school, I got a diploma. I did not go to college, that wasn’t my thing. My connection to being able to take care of myself and my family started with my gift.
To be creative, that’s part of the reason I wanted to actually spend the time building it. It gives me an ability to do whatever I want to do in life, that is creatively and emotionally being able to articulate feelings and emotion that I think people need to hear about. To be able to create and do things that are memorable, that will be documented in history. You win a Grammy, you remember that forever. Music did that for me, it gave me a meaning.
Throughout your career, how has R&B changed in all these years?
I think it’s grown, it’s migrated. The one thing about R&B different than any other category is that all things exist in R&B. If I’m an R&B artist, I can create a pop song. If I’m an R&B artist, I can create a classical song. If I’m an R&B artist, I can create a country song. That category has liberty that other genres haven’t shown themselves to have as much. It gave me the ability to explore and try things, and do things that redefined the idea of what you think and perceive R&B to be. I made EDM records, I made Latin records with Romeo Santos. I’ve done so many things in that space of R&B.
Everybody needs something to feel too. What’s beautiful about R&B is that it holds emotion. There’s honesty in it, there’s sensuality in it. You are making love to a song or are either crying or being excited or being motivated or being conflicted. Whatever it might be, you have a full range within the genre.
As one of the bestselling artists in American music history and a father of four, what legacy do you want to create for your children?
For them to follow what they’re passionate about. Hopefully, what they choose to spend their time invested in will make them feel the way I felt. The legacy that I’ve built is one that will hopefully inspire them to find what they really want to do with their lives and carry it on. I don’t know if they’re going to follow my footsteps, but I just want them to be passionate about whatever they choose to do and look at me and say “My dad, he really followed what he loved at the age of 11 and it led him to be able to do a ton of things, not just in music. He was able to help people. He was able to help bring attention to certain issues and conversations, topics. He was able to be creative and create other avenues and ways to be able to create, and then also to take care of himself and his family”.
Since 1999 you’ve been raising millions of dollars for various causes and uplifting youth through your ‘New Look Foundation’. What inspired you to start this foundation? Tell us more about it and the projects you are doing with the foundation.
‘New Look Foundation’ started as a result of me looking at what entertainers do once they have established a career and an opportunity to influence people or either that opportunity to bring attention to things. It did start off specifically for youth, but then it far exceeded that as I began to look at the world’s issues. The foundation goes after children who really just need the tools to become prepared in the life that they’re going to choose to live. But they also have the confidence when they leave from working with ‘New Look’ to not only have the tools, but the belief that they can actually make something incredible. 20 years from now, I hope that the kids that I mentor become major directors, become artists, become entrepreneurs, become businessmen, businesswomen, and are considerate of young people who are coming up like them and create more opportunities, maybe other philanthropic efforts as a result of the one that helped them be who they are.
It’s a peer to peer organization. I actually give the tools to kids to teach other kids as opposed to us just being mentors or either having funds to offer kids. We actually give them a trade. We give them information, we teach them about finance, we teach them how to executively function their lives, be organized, how to prepare for an interview, how to audition, how to present themselves as businessmen and women, to really find their passion and ask questions.
After all the years in the music industry, what excites you the most about it now?
What excites me is new ideas. What excites me is being introduced to new things and meeting people. What excites me about it is the opportunity to create something remarkable that people will remember. What excites me is to continue to exist in it. What also excites me is the ability to actually perform. I really enjoy that portion of it, it’s so great to be able to physically perform for people.
Photographer: Chrisean Rose @ Monday Artists
Photography assistants: Shaquille Kokumo, Jhalin Knowles & Naja Mansur
Director: Dametreus Ward
Stylist: Jan Quammie @ The Wall Group
Styling assistants: Lacava & Lana Rae
Make-up: Lola Okanlawon / Hair: Brandi Farrell
Production: Tunnel Media Group / Executive producers: Danielle Hawkins & Jason King
Producer: Tiffany Greene
Tailor: Colin Turner / Location: Mrs Go Too
Editor: Timi Letonja
This interview was done for Numéro Netherlands by Jana Letonja.