Fifteen years ago, 20-year-old Usher and his mother, Jonetta Patton, devised a plan they hoped could provide at least 10 teens per year with invaluable experiences and opportunities they couldn’t get elsewhere.
The soft spoken, best-selling artist’s vision blossomed into Usher’s New Look (UNL), a nonprofit organization that instills in youth that talent, career, service and education are essential tools for developing into global leaders.
UNL, originally a two-week camp for close to 150 teens, steadily evolved into chapters in Atlanta, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, New York and Detroit. Twenty-one thousand teens from around the world have participated in the foundation’s various programs to date.
Usher came up with UNL after he and his mother sat in the rear of a courtroom. The pair watched several minors go to trial and knew that something had to be done. The now 35-year-old megastar-turned-humanitarian admits he didn’t know what he was doing at first.
The multi-talented entertainer gives serious eye contact whenever he speaks: particularly when it involves UNL. He considers the 501c3 organization to be “his greatest investment.”
“It sounds so simple, but this started as the result of a dream to do something positive,” says a well-tailored Usher dressed in all-white. “This really is a passion project that encourages youth to be passionate about something. I was more afraid of them than they were of me.”
The most extraordinary quality about UNL is how the organization places emphasis on personal and career development using a peer-to-peer model. The Moguls in Training (MITs) have conducted Powered By Service (PBS) training throughout Hong Kong, Kenya, London, Vancouver and Shanghai.
UNL youth participate fully in all activities whether it’s registering voters or providing relief efforts for victims of Hurricane Katrina and the Haitian earthquake.
If he’s not on tour or recording, Usher is completely hands on.
Last year, UNL formed a partnership with the Georgia Dept. of Education to develop a class for high school students on entertainment and leadership. “We put kids in the forefront,” says former and first UNL President Shawn H. Wilson.
“Our sole purpose is to empower youth. We’re acting as a bridge to give them experiences we wish we had.”
In return, Usher acknowledges Wilson’s influence on UNL’s success. “Without [Shawn], we would not have been where we are,” the singer says.
Before any UNL event begins, Digital Program Coordinator and board member James Harris, known to everyone as “Dewey,” leads off with UNL’s signature and infectious chant-styled call-and-response refrain.
“Hey!” yells Harris.
The kids reply, “Ho! Usher’s New Look got soul, you know!”
Originally a participant, Harris lobbied before Congress along with Usher in 2009 to address the Serve America Act. Speaking without any notes, Harris’ efforts paid off.
Over $6 billion from the stimulus package was allocated towards various service organizations nationwide. One representative on Capitol Hill was so moved by the reformed Kansas City native’s testimony, he quoted excerpts from Harris’ statement in the actual bill.
“I was speaking for youth around the world like me,” says Harris via phone. “The stories are what fuel the organization. From day one, [Usher] was preparing me for a job I didn’t know I was going to get.”
Harris admits to once being “part of the problem.” The hip hop artist-turned-owner of his own imprint, LoudPack Productions, had hopes of being discovered and signed by Usher.
Upon arriving at UNL, Harris learned how to draft a business plan and contribute to group projects. “I was getting put on to a better life,” adds Harris. “They put us in real world experiences, so I know what’s on the line.”
Tony Betton credits UNL for giving him moral support and encouragement. He witnessed his mother deal with a bout of unemployment. Their home was also on the verge of foreclosure. Despite the obstacles, the exceptional student was inducted into the National Society of High School Scholars (NSHSS): graduating in the top 10 percent of his senior class with a 3.7 GPA.
The incoming freshman at Georgia State University earned over $365,000 in scholarships. “It hasn’t been easy,” says Betton. “I can say I made it, and I didn’t do it alone.”
Currently putting the finishing touches on his eighth studio album, Usher was one of the star coaches on this past season of NBC’s The Voice.
He made sure Kaufman sang with a mirror as his only prop. Kaufman also had to run around on-stage to build up his endurance.
The mentee asserts that Usher’s mentoring went well beyond what television audiences are commonly exposed to.
“[Usher] was really invested in it,” says Kaufman immediately following a performance. “He really did want to work with me. He was happy where I was vocally, but he was about using those moments to make that connection with the audience.”
“He was all about using actions and examples,” adds an extroverted Kaufman. “There was something that went along with it to get his point across.”
Even UNL Chief Operating Officer Gavin McGuire notices Usher’s evolution as a selfless mentor.
“I’ve seen an even greater commitment and focus on philanthropy,” says McGuire. “The more that his career ascends, the more intentional he’s become to use that vehicle to provide access, real world experiences and exposure to our students.”
Usher’s fellow mononym performer, entrepreneur and philanthropist behind his nonprofit organization, The Ludacris Foundation, says Usher, who collaborated with him on hits like “Yeah” and “Lovers and Friends,” is a “very hard artist to get on a record.”
At the gala, Ludacris recalls sharing a flight with Usher. The pair was talking about collaborating on another single. The singer with nine #1 pop singles, minority owner in the Cleveland Cavaliers and his own fragrance listened to several tracks before he ultimately decided on the right song.
Ludacris says Usher’s resistance taught him a few lessons about embracing his artistry. “Patience is key to maintaining your integrity,” says Ludacris. “And if it’s meant to be, the Lord will put you in the position to receive it.”
Usher concurs. “To be prepared for life is more important than anything,” he says.
Tony award-winning director Kenny Leon attended the luncheon. He jokes that he “doesn’t have Usher on speed dial” but acknowledges how Usher allows his superstardom to leverage his willingness to pay-it-forward.
Leon mentions that he altered his calendar around just so he could attend. “It’s huge that someone of his stature walks the walk and talks the talk,” says Leon.
“The way he’s giving back is even bigger. These kids can see that. He’s reaching back and not kicking the ladder beneath him. He is someone that is doing something important for our country.”
Usher takes guidance, too. The vocalist’s next project is portraying boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard in the film Hands of Stone. Known for his incredible choreography, Usher spent two years preparing for the role.
The film is slated for release in 2015. Leonard was quite impressed with Usher’s work ethic.
“I couldn’t believe how diligent he was,” says Leonard prior to the luncheon. “I couldn’t think of a better person because of the footwork. He’s going to shock a lot of people because he shocked me.”
McGuire adds, “Through [Usher’s] business acumen, career, success and service, he is a true role model to our students. He has effectively established New Look and his work to help others into his overall brand.”
The future looks prosperous for UNL. There are plans to revive Camp New Look next year. The luncheon raised over $1 million before guests were seated. Usher couldn’t have been more proud and appreciative of UNL’s success.
Reiterating his extreme gratitude for UNL’s support, Usher clarifies that setting goals requires commitment and dedication.
The father of two young sons considers himself a father figure to UNL’s participants. “Dreams do come true,” he says softly prior to the 15th anniversary affair.
“Doing something positive does pay off. Looking back at some of the youth that I’ve been watching grow, it’s an incredible transformation. I almost feel like they were my kids before I had kids actually.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.