by Christopher A. Daniel
Black pop megastars (or lack thereof) are frequently targeted in mass media. Their success and fame is often the result of controversy, gossip blogs and misinformation. While the sensational aspects of a pop star’s life are widely circulated, the singers’ contributions to young people often go underreported, especially on the Internet.
Take Usher for example. The Grammy Award-winning, million-selling entertainer’s highly publicized custody battle drama, failed marriage and interview with Oprah Winfrey made virtually every headline in recent weeks. Despite his critics, his nonprofit organization, New Look Foundation (UNLF), hosted a day-long Powered By Service (PBS) Training at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. The first week of October, UNLF, in partnership with the Joseph E. Lowery Institute, hosted a mock debate at Clark Atlanta University’s Multi-Purpose Center.
The kickoff events lead up to UNLF’s annual World Leadership Conference (WLC): consisting of icebreakers, group discussions, spoken word performances, motivational speeches, call-and-response chanting and a wildcard talent show. The peer-to-peer workshops are facilitated by youth counselors, or Moguls in Training (MITs). The guest speakers and MITs are each known by nicknames voted on by the kids. The events allow each child to take ownership in UNLF. “Each child is using whatever talent they bring to the table to guide them on their journey to finding their leadership skills,” says Damon L. Phillips, Morehouse College’s Associate Director of Alumni Relations and Annual Giving. “They’re automatically excited because it’s something they already do.”
Since 1999, UNLF has hosted empowerment charm schools in Vancouver, Hong Kong, London, Nairobi and throughout the U.S. under the pillars of talent, service, education and leadership. “Leaders are not always the one with the loudest voice,” Gavin McGuire, UNLF’s Associate Executive Director, says. “We can’t just provide them with information. They have to activate what info they receive.”
Because of Usher’s status as one of music’s best-selling entertainers, Phillips believes that a male presence like Usher’s can influence and transform behavior. He adds that Usher sets a great example for others to get involved in the community. “It’s time for people in our community to get involved and change what’s happening with our young people,” he says. “We need to look at ourselves and reinvest in where we come from and who we are. It sends a powerful message to young men and also young ladies. We have to assume our place and our role in our communities. They can do more with their lives than just whatever the media says they can do.”
Usher’s influence goes beyond his namesake and brand loyalty. UNLF constantly seeks to strengthen alliances primarily with local schools, youth groups and underserved communities. “It’s amazing to see leadership opportunities available to young people that they’re able to engage with regardless of how well they do in school or how poorly they do in school,” says Katrina Mitchell, Senior Director for Education and Community Engagement for United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta. “Having an opportunity to have someone stay with you at all aspects from that really difficult time all the way through school is critical. Having other young people work with other young people is better than what any adult could ever do for our young people. Adults need to figure out how to do right for kids, get out of their way and make sure we really support them because there are some powerful leaders in there.”
Christopher A. Daniel is a pop cultural critic and contributor to The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.