A euphoric Usher Raymond IV walked into a reception space at the 92nd Street Y on the upper west side of Manhattan as though he’d just stepped down from atop Sinai Mountain. “I’m on a bit of a high right now,” the eight-time Grammy winner told EBONY.com But it was evident that Usher’s intoxication came from the joy of progressing the aims of a newfound passion: social justice.
“I’m not necessarily calling myself an activist. But I’m active in using what I know as a tool,” Usher said. We’d venture to guess that 37-year-old soul sensation is well aware of his vast audience and strong social capital. In this Black Lives Matter moment, he chooses to use his influence in a quest for truth.
Nearly an hour before our conversation, the iconic musician was on a stage that emanated Black excellence. Joined by Harry Belafonte, Soledad O’Brien moderated a discussion at the 92nd Street Y’s Kaufmann Concert Hall. In what turned out to be an hour-long conversation, the three discussed race, social justice, and activism—topics that are supremely relevant given America’s present social milieu and troubled history.
Belafonte evoked the memory of an America past and the spirit of revolution: “I believe that Dr. King said more than once that anger is the fuel to our cause. Anger coupled with violence leads to destruction; anger coupled with action leads to liberation.” When the 88-year-old civil rights activist spoke, everyone listened. Intently.
And that audience was practically filled to capacity. In attendance were teenyboppers, revolutionaries and celebrities alike. One of the evening’s most notable guests, Jay Z, received several mentions during the conversation. Still, the masses came to witness a meeting of the minds—a lifelong activist and prominent voice in the civil rights movement conversing with a protégé of sorts—and an artist’s awakening towards a more social conciseness.
“Chains,” Usher’s most recent project, aims to combat social injustice. Unquestionably it’s his most “woke” piece of music thus far. The composition, featuring Nas and Bibi Bourelly, is accompanied with an interactive video that displays image after image of slain Blacks, including Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Oscar Grant. It implores ‘Don’t Look Away,’ technologically. Usher recognizes that facing police brutality is the first of many, many steps to “fix” the plagued American system, a duty that’s vital for generations to come.
The father of two Black boys (Usher V and Naviyd), Usher is concerned for their future. When the night’s discussion turned to their safety and wellbeing, he turned torrid. This thirtysomething dad believes that empowerment and involvement in the movement is key to developing his sons’ social conciseness. As such, he has included his sons’ voices in “Chains.” Usher V recites a portion of the Pledge of Allegiance, emphasizing its implicit irony (“With liberty and justice for all. For all? Yes, for all.”) while Naviyd simply utters the word, “pray.”
“Oral tradition is important to us,” said Usher. “[Usher V and Naviyd]’ll look back years from now, hopefully carrying out, as young Black men, the issues that I’m tackling now, and know that they were involved in it at a young age,” Usher told us.
May the benefits of a raised social consciousness be reaped for posterity.