Five-time Grammy Award-winning singer Usher is used to hearing from thousands of screaming fans when he’s performing at venues across the globe. But put him in front of 200 shrieking kids and he’s at a complete loss for words. That’s how the R&B superstar felt when he recently visited the Brookhaven Boys & Girls Clubs in Atlanta as part of their “BE GREAT” campaign. Keeping a promise he made to President Obama last year, Usher continues to encourage young people across the country to commit willingly to service projects, helping us to rebuild our communities. He spoke to ESSENCE.com about the impact of the Boys & Girls Clubs, his future plans with Michelle Obama and getting invited to the White House.
ESSENCE.COM: What was it like spending afternoons at the Boys & Girls Clubs when you were growing up?
USHER: That experience was life changing. I knew I wasn’t going to be a baseball or football player because I couldn’t hang. But it’s the type of positive environment that you would want your children in, especially if you live in an underserved community. Kids can be around other youth, learn social skills and find their own way in life. The Boys & Girls Clubs that I went to had a lot of kids who could have easily become a product of their environment but being around such positive things and people, it allowed us the choice to be a product of our experience instead.
ESSENCE.COM: Part of the BE GREAT campaign includes using a photo of you as a little boy. How did you choose that particular photo and what are you hoping the campaign will do?
USHER: I was 7 years old in the photo and it was around the time I was attending my Club. I was destined for success! Can’t you see that smile? I was dead set on being something even if it was just a poster child. If anything, I hope the campaign will encourage other men and women to make that investment in their children’s future. This is the type of place that really helps, especially for single parents.
ESSENCE.COM: What was it like meeting all those kids at the Brookhaven Boys & Girls Clubs in Atlanta?
USHER: I felt like I had reached an incredible turning point in my life because that was once me on the other side. You don’t think about it until it happens. I mean, you go on stage, millions of people buy your albums and they are happy to see you do what you do, but being able to give back and talk to these kids…I love being a part of that. I felt like, man, the story continues.
ESSENCE.COM: How has being a father changed your perspective on giving back?
USHER: I feel like I’ve been so blessed, and that’s why I started my foundation, New Look, as a way to encourage those who are less fortunate and help them find their way. We do a camp every summer and throughout the year we have our “moguls in training” program where we match our kids with internships at various corporations. For me as a father, it has just made me a more well-rounded person. You don’t know about life’s true experiences and duty until you have a child. It changes your perspective.
ESSENCE.COM: You’ve been seen around Washington, D.C., a lot lately. What have you been up to?
USHER: I sat with Michelle Obama’s staff and we talked about doing community service projects together. During his campaign, the President asked me to motivate the youth to get involved in the vote. I’ve also teamed up with the United Nations Foundation for an effort to try to find a cure for Malaria in Africa. I was there when the Service America Act was passed so I’m definitely all in when it comes to service. In fact, that’s my middle name…Usher “Service” Raymond IV.
ESSENCE.COM: I know that you recently went to the White House. What’s it like?
USHER: It’s beautiful. To be able to look at the same china George Washington used and walk through the same halls that he walked through…it’s just timeless history. To be an African-American man and know at one time the only way we were accepted in these halls was as slaves and then to know that now we’re represented in office, it’s just like, wow!
ESSENCE.COM: If you could be President for a day, what is the first thing you would do?
USHER: I would change the swearing-in date. Man, I froze my butt off and I got so sick and then I had to perform. The first thing I would do is change it to the middle of summer.