Usher wasn't always a social activist. Almost 20 years after his first critical hit, 1997's "You Make Me Wanna," the R&B singer has matured with his fans. He's been working in new empowering messages into his music, and taking his activism into real life as well. His latest initiative, launched in January, will help send one college student to school with a $10,000 scholarship campaign focused on social activism.
"This was very courageous of me to step out, because [activism] would have not necessarily been something that I would have done," Usher said when we spoke over the phone about his newfound role as a public activist for social justice and racial equality. "I do care. I care about our country; I care about where we stand; I care about who we are and I care about empowering our people."
Something that seems to be calling him into the ring is this idea that we can't expect change to come from above. It didn't come during the Obama administration, as he notes in our interview, and Usher didn't seem eager to weigh in on today's candidates, with one notable exception.
"I want to make this fact very clear: I will not be voting for Donald Trump," he said. "In case that shit ain't clear."
Throughout our discussion, Usher is candid, honest and focused on the progress and development of black communities in the United States. He was excited about the scholarship campaign he's working on with Tidal, dedicated to helping create more just societies. Students can submit an essay or video to Tidal's Facebook page discussing their work in community development for the chance to be awarded $10,000, as well as an opportunity to speak with Usher about their involvement in furthering social rights.
Our conversation likely mirrored how that discussion would unfold. We covered a range of topics, from the pain of losing a child — as he went through four years ago when he lost his 11-year-old stepson to a reckless Jet Ski driver — to the divisiveness and polarization in politics today.
[Editors note: This interview has been edited and condensed.]
Mic: I heard you did some Easter traveling.
Usher: I didn't travel to D.C. this year. I instead allowed my children to have the opportunity to have fun with the Obama's [Easter egg hunt] on the lawn, as it's been an incredible, remarkable eight years. They get to have that last experience. My mother and son made it out so they didn't have to do deal with the lockdown.
The scholarship you've put together with Tidal will award one college student $10,000 for their involvement with community activism. I'm interested in your thoughts on the intersection of education and social justice. Do you think the two go hand in hand?
Usher: I do. A scholarship is worth a million opportunities. Think about being able to empower one person who will then not only be an example but will go forth and be a success story, offering not the same experience but a different one that's based off of mentorship.
In terms of social justice and education, obviously without knowledge of the issue, if you don't have an education about it you can't be effective. Social rights is a right that was fought for, a right that I honestly don't think we should have had to fight for. This is, so to speak, a free country, but freedom does not come for free.
[Freedom] comes as a result of using your voice, using what influence you have to strike conversation, mobilize people and get them to engage and recognize the issues affecting you and all of us in some way.
"This is, so to speak, a free country, but freedom does not come for free."
In your "Chains" experience debut, the music would stop completely if the viewer looked away from the victims of injustice. Was there a specific moment in American history where you felt we simply couldn't look away any longer?
Usher: I think it all started with our pursuit to take ownership and responsibility for Africa. I think it was songs like "Man in the Mirror," and conversations with Harry Belafonte, which reaffirmed this idea of being able to use music to at least acknowledge the reality of this type of social injustice as it relates to African-Americans and how long it's been. We need to draw the comparison to what chains mean to us as people. You know what chains are. They're intended for restraint, and control and the punishment they come with.
What role does the next generation play in advancing community relations and the development of just societies today? Do you think we actually have the ability to effect real change?
Usher: I think we have the ability to ignite the issue. To explore, explode and exploit the issue. Do I feel it will change as a result of what we do? It can.
A group of artists came together in New York City this year for your collective with a focus on social justice and spotlighting race relations in the United States. Who are some of your favorite artists?
I saw a photo of you and Future, was that in the studio? Keri Hilson as well.
Usher: Yeah [laughs].
I polled our online audience to see what young people are most interested in hearing from you today. The majority of those who voted want to know, which presidential candidate do you feel fits most in line with your ideology of social and racial justice?
Usher: Well, no one knows where the nose goes when the doors close.
That's all you're going to give me?
Usher: That's about it right now. I think it's obvious that we're in conflict, right? At least from where I stand. I do want to hear a president that I feel will understand the world we live in, and understand the idea that we've been living under and the premise we've been going after for so many years. That's obviously not going to play out in this next term.
Some people feel they have candidates fighting for them, but I think that creates contrast. I think that creates conflict. I think differently than any other candidacy or any other nomination at this time. There is an obvious racial divide in this one. That division is becoming very, very obvious and open.
So you don't see a candidate who is inclusive enough to your level of expectations?
Usher: I'm definitely paying very, very close attention, and you'll know my support because I won't make it hidden as we get closer. What I focus on, what I make more of a priority is understanding how the Senate works ... It's not just [enough] to focus on who our next president is going to be; it's about those seats.
Usher: "(Laughs) Why did you say, 'hm?'"
Well, I'd agree with you. I don't think divisiveness is a trait suited for the presidency.
Usher: Is [unity] just a part of Obama's idealism? I don't know if America wants a world with that sort of integration, as it might claim to. I don't know if America really wants that, as much as America says it does. And as much as there are presidents that can advocate for it, and officials that can advocate for it, is that really what America wants? Or has it been an uphill battle since when we first started to fight for the idea of it? Has the battle for integration only been an uphill battle since we've attempted to make it a reality?
I think, for some, it certainly has. Some people say our rights are in a constant state of threat from being taken away from us.
Usher: We can make our kids play well, but can we really change people's minds so that we actually are on the same level, playing the same game? I think in that, using what you have, using your voice as young men and women, is an advantage to change that reality.
Lastly, do you have any plans to release any further editions to the "Chains" experience, or can fans be expecting to hear more about Flawed soon?
Usher: Chains was the beginning of me becoming an activist. I think that empowerment of African-Americans, and also to educating African-American men and women about their history is where it all starts.
Usher continued to reassure me this is nowhere near the end of his utilizing his platform to further his messages of social activism and racial equality. He'll be speaking at Georgia State University about "shining a light on the path toward social justice in America," according to a Tidal spokesperson.
As for "Chains," Usher tells me it's not just a song — it's a feeling, an emotion. It's just the beginning of a long road for someone aiming to have his name mentioned among philanthropists like Jackson and Belafonte — but it's certainly a start. As the public conversation shifts from the political candidates toward an honest appraisal of the future they're creating, it's clear Usher will make sure his voice is heard.