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Last Friday, Usher took the stage at the Colosseum in Caesar’s Palace for the opening night of his Las Vegas residency. For many in the audience, it was their first concert since the country began pulling itself out of the COVID-19 pandemic. For Usher, it was another major milestone in his nearly 30-year career that cemented him among the greats.

“What I saw is an opportunity to go back and do things that I hadn’t done before and also find a way to introduce all of my audience to each other,” Usher tells ESSENCE of signing on for the weekly concert series. “We managed to put together a show that I think has definitely made a lot of people happy and more than anything it’s a pleasure and a continuum of my passion because I love this.”

For three nights a week throughout July and August (with additional shows dates after Christmas and into the new year), Usher and his band of dancers deliver non-stop energy as they perform the greatest hits from the 42-year-old’s career, some with a twist. “I had the opportunity to try some things I hadn’t tried before,” Usher says. “I’m skating on stage. I brought a lot of Atlanta culture in here.”

As a native of the Georgia capital, it’s a natural integration. But there’s a larger message Usher sends audiences when he incorporates moves typically seen at the city’s Black-owned skating rink Cascade into the show or the Magic City-esque tricks strippers perform alongside him as he sings “Bad Girl.” He wants fans to understand Black Americans have their own unique culture and, further, that independence can be a part of that narrative.

As far back as 2015, Usher began speaking out in support of Juneteenth, wearing a t-shirt during his performance at ESSENCEFest in which the date July 4 was struck out and Juneteenth was written beneath it. “Independence is something that has been declared by this country and it actually gives us the confidence to move forward. For us as African Americans, or either native Black Americans — because here’s where we are, here’s where we landed, here’s what we built up — we deserve to have that day recognized as a national holiday,” Usher says when asked about that moment. “We have native Black American culture so we deserve independence.”

This year, Juneteenth was declared a national holiday, but six years ago there wasn’t as much awareness of the significance of the date. As such, some took offense to the shirt Usher wore which was designed by Pyer Moss fashion designer and creator Kerby-Jean Raymond. “As an African native Black American you should know your independence day. [The shirt] wasn’t to shun it was to be awakened. There was a lot of criticism that came in that moment and I didn’t care. It’s like hey I really do want you to understand what this means,” Usher adds.

Usher’s commitment to opening people’s eyes to the contributions of Black Americans seeps over into many facets of his work as a performer. This past spring, he partnered with Rémy Martin to create “Team Up For Excellence,” a film that explores the connection between cognac and music with roots that are undeniably African American such as Jazz, blues, and hip-hop. And whatever backlash may have followed Usher’s 2015 moment of fashion activism was certainly worth it. For his part in this phase of America’s awakening, Usher was present at the White House when the bill declaring Juneteenth a federal holiday was signed into law this past June.

“To have the piece that I’d written read on the floor, I thought, man, I’ve done something major with my life in addition to what I’ve offered, which is joy. I’ve also done something that I feel is significant — not to say I’m done because there’s more to do. But that felt like, I’ve arrived at a place that I never thought I would’ve been,” Usher says. “I didn’t forsee that part of my life.”

Check out our full interview with Usher in the video above.

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