Usher Raymond IV: Fighting that good fight
The superstar discusses becoming Sugar Ray Leonard, learning from LeBron James, and his new album dropping in September
Just about everybody who lived and died by BET’s Video Soul in the ’90s remembers the music video moment in 1994 when a 15-year-old popped up in “class,” gold chain dangling over his James Worthy Lakers jersey, as his teacher mocked him for his tardiness.
“Nice of you to join us today,” says the instructor to the student — who’s about to fake a bloody nose in an effort to skip class. He’s successful, in the way one can be in ’90s music videos — he leaves school and jumps into a drop-top driven by a do-rag wearing Sean (Diddy) Combs. This was everyone’s first glimpse of Usher Raymond IV — who has a voice and a body roll so commanding that he’s referred to only by his first name. This scene opened the video for his debut single Can U Get Wit It, and he spends the next four minutes gyrating on the hood of a car, pop-locking in a stairwell, and crooning against candlelit walls to a Devante Swing beat.
Over the years, Usher has racked ’em up. His last four albums (2004’s Confessions, 2008’s Here I Stand, 2010’s Raymond v. Raymond, and 2012’s Looking 4 Myself) have all gone to No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart. Usher has had eight No. 1 singles on Billboard’s Top 100 songs chart — this places him behind Janet Jackson and Stevie Wonder, who have each had 10 No. 1s.
Confessions, his biggest album so far, has sold more than 10 million in the United States, more than 20 million worldwide — and counting. Usher has collected eight Grammy awards and has 22 nominations. This doesn’t include the countless BET Awards, MTV Video Music Awards, the People’s Choice Awards, the American Music Awards, Kid’s Choice Awards and Soul Train Awards. More than 170 awards for music alone. Then there’s the Emmy win (for his work on NBC’s The Voice). And his accolade count should absolutely include the championship ring he has for being a minority owner of the 2016 world champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
All this being said, Usher — one of the biggest and most successful pop music superstars of all time — would like to reintroduce himself. This weekend he co-stars in Hands of Stone, a biopic about Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran. The independent film, written and directed by Venezuelan filmmaker Jonathan Jakubowicz, chiefly focused on a pair of 1980s fights — and Duran’s rivalry — with American boxer Sugar Ray Leonard. Duran is portrayed by Golden Globe nominee Edgar Ramirez. Oscar-winner Robert De Niro is legendary boxing trainer Ray Arcel. The cast is rounded out with actors such as Ellen Barkin and John Turturro. Very top-note.
And Usher? He flat-out nails the legendary Sugar Ray Leonard in the film, and the work he turns out in Hands of Stone is drawing a line in the sand: Usher isn’t here to play any games. This film could very well garner a trophy or two. Something shiny, perhaps, to add to Usher’s collection — already, his trophy case runneth over.
On this day, though, Usher is fresh off of a 35-minute helicopter ride from New York City to the ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut. He teeters on the edge of a black leather armchair, leans over, and — as it always is when I sit down with him for an interview — he refuses to drop gaze the entire time of our conversation. We chat about what he’s learned from basketball great LeBron James, about why he’s not abandoning his music career, and about a new album finally coming next month. But more importantly, we’re talking about what’s he’s been dreaming of since he had a two-season guest arc on Moesha in the late ’90s — a bona fide acting career.
You’ve been famous for a long time — more than 20 years — and you really push the limits in Hands of Stone.
I had to put Usher Ray down in order to be Sugar Ray. But I approached it with the same amount of commitment. And in terms of the things that I know would work to my advantage … [Sugar Ray Leonard] had this boyish presence in nature, and a lightness to him. I used that a lot. It’s who I am. It’s part of what makes it easy for me to do what I do as an entertainer. So I use that.
Where did you begin?
Robert De Niro — he lost and gained all that weight [in Raging Bull, for which he played a boxer and won an Oscar]. I went through that process of losing weight. I had gotten up to about 180 … but I got down to 155. Then I got down to 150 and I was honestly in pursuit of 146, which is where they fought. I was willing to go through whatever I needed to to get as close to Sugar Ray as I possibly could. It’s all about the weigh-in. If you don’t make the weight, you’re disqualified. I took it that serious. I trained like a boxer, I didn’t act it. I woke up every day, I was running, I made it a part of my lifestyle. Rest became important, a lot of hyperbaric therapy and massages to help keep my body from locking up.
You could have done a big, studio-financed ensemble film and kept it moving. But you clearly wanted this.
It’s important for the history, to recognize those icons who have defined or redefined ideas and expectations — and Leonard was that. So when I was asked to do it, it was an honor and I deemed it a responsibility. This movie is obviously about Roberto Duran, but for us, it’s great for us to be able to look up and see our African-American icons be held up to a certain place and standard. There are so many other incredible things that this director chose to share through his writing. Talking about the politics of the time, Panama — they were fighting for their identity, right? He chose to show you that. He chose to show you how Panama looks. We don’t know Panama like that. We only know Panama has … always been off-limits. Places like Cuba, Panama, have always been taboo — It’s dangerous in places like that. But it’s not. I went into the some of the most perceived ‘darkest’ places in Panama … where Duran was actually raised, and I felt right at home. Maybe because of my humble beginnings, or the fact that I’m comfortable in my own skin. I felt right at home. It’s time for us to support films like this. I wish studios would support films like this because there have been so many incredible, lived stories that are worth telling.
You’ve been acting since 1997. But this is you making the case for yourself to be a serious actor and a box-office contender. Was this tactical?
Yeah. A bit of a disconnection from Usher for a minute to really pay attention to Usher Raymond IV. I’m not going to joke with myself. I think when [writer / director] Jonathan thought of me, or when I was suggested, it was based off of my movement. It was based off of the fact I understand choreography and those boxing scenes had to be real … I can get caught up in the perception of what I’ve done in the Grammys or … Emmys … But it ain’t about that. It’s about the work.
Your musical successes are overwhelming. Certified pop star. Is the goal to in some ways to mimic that in Hollywood?
It’s not about the accolades for me … don’t get me wrong, the celebration of doing a good job, I appreciate it. But that’s not enough. I want more work, to push myself, to challenge myself to be great …What type of roles? I don’t know. They’ll come. I just want to make great work …Obviously I can’t play a white character — I’m black. There are so many incredible things that have happened for African-American people … I’m willing to stretch myself to help tell those stories … I’m looking to change the narrative about what our expectations are for African-American people. There is a code, a way we talk, a way we move, a comfort that we have. But there’s a history we have too — that needs to be shared.
You were actually trained by Sugar Ray Leonard. What was most beneficial — the mental training, or the physical training?
Becoming Sugar Ray Leonard mentally. I did want to know more about the relationship between he and Duran because … you become clear on each person’s true purpose … a great relationship was created. Even when they were around each other, you can just see that they care for one another. [But] Sugar came to Atlanta, I built a gym in my basement.
In your home? Wow.
I had a punching bag there, a speed bag there. I had the ropes and everything. It was a small, close-quarters ring.
So you could train in private.
But now I’m comfortable being anywhere. In some ways, I interviewed him. But the greatest cheat sheet was his [2012 memoir] The Big Fight, which gave me a true perspective of where he came from, so I’d understand why he didn’t know how to handle that first [fight that he lost] between he and Duran. Like, This is not how we conduct ourselves as athletes. We didn’t come all this way to be offensive towards one another. What does it have to do with us in the ring? Sending racial slurs at me, and talking bad about my wife and insulting my wife the way that he did … having a physical altercation outside of the ring that could have led to someone being hurt. This is a business but it’s also to our passion and we should be respectful of it. He didn’t understand that it was strategy … And when he finally got it … something happened to Sugar Ray. He developed the edge it’s important for people to see in order to know him as a full person … I wanted to show that progression of who he became. Not as this macho guy, but…. masculine. Not from the perspective of being loud, or having bravado that’s aggressive. Nah — he moved with confidence. And there’s a sexiness in it … He had sex with his wife [the night before a fight] because he had that type of confidence. I was like, ‘Do you mind if I put that in this movie?’ Selfishly, I want people to know all of Sugar Ray. He’s poised, he understands perception, understands respect. He’s one of the greatest endorsed fighters. I mean, and he’s African-American. That didn’t happen at that time.
Not at all.
He never wanted to jeopardize that. He had to make sure he preserved a certain perception. But Sugar Ray, man, he had an edge. More than just what you saw in that ring. I wanted to bring that out. That was my gift back to him for being as incredible as an athlete as he’s been as a person. So when I looked over my shoulder at the premiere … I’m looking over because he’s sitting just adjacent or parallel to me and I’m looking at Sugar Ray’s reaction to each scene, and I’m watching him relive the moments. I’m like, Did I get that right? I hope he caught that all of the subtleties in the things I added were personal things that he gave me.
Wait. So the sex scene was all your decision?
The sex scene was him. He did it. He lived it. It wasn’t something that was made up! You would never think of Sugar Ray Leonard having sex. He’s 7 Up. If you read his book, and you look at the drama of his life, and his battle with alcohol abuse and other things … but he always kept it intact. He never let it take over him. That’s the thing that makes it so amazing about playing the role of a person who is real — while they’re still living. I was like, ‘Are you OK with me putting this in the movie?’ He’s like, ‘Hell, yeah. It happened, that’s my wife.’
That’s the point in the film where I was like ‘Usher’s going all in. It’s happening.’
Balls and all [laughs.]
Literally! So what have you learned from being around — some might argue the best basketball player in the world right now — about becoming one of the best boxers of all time?
How committed and how aggressive LeBron can be. He’s a leader. It takes unwavering pursuit and commitment to a goal that makes him different from every other player in the NBA. He’s a motivator for those other players. He’s lifted up the entire team. Kyrie [Irving] is arguably one of the greatest point guards in the game. His handles, how aggressive he is, and how committed he is. Even in injury. What’s great about the Cleveland Cavaliers—we had enough bumps to prepare us for the adversity. If it were just smooth sailing and win, win, win, win, win, when we were up against a wall, 3 to 1, we wouldn’t have been able to come back and make history.
If it happens again, it will be you guys again?
I don’t think we’re going to get down like that again. In Games 4, 5 and 6, it was all psychological warfare. And a great deal of that happened with Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard, both in the first and second [fight]. First it was Duran running the mind game, and then it was Sugar Ray Leonard who ran the mind game. LeBron understood … psychological warfare — presence, and power and the idea of taking a person out of their game. He got that, and there’s nothing wrong with it because we talk s— to each other all the time. It’s part of the game … And there’s a reason you can’t hear it. That’s part of the reason they’re not mic’d in that way. Athleticism is confidence, athleticism is in your ability to put pressure on your opponent to the point where they can’t perform and they break down. They become so frustrated with themselves that they implode. So I think that LeBron’s … experience gave him a leg up on a younger team who obviously deserves to be celebrated. Time makes a difference, always.
What’s next for you?
I’m releasing my album really soon. I’m in the process of launching the name, the album. I just finished the master last night so it’s coming. Be prepared.
You finished it last night? Like after the film’s premiere?
I literally mastered and turned it in last night. So it’s coming. Yeah. Producing, releasing an album is like pregnancy. Eventually it has to come out, you know what I mean?
Usher leaves our room to do some quick-hitting interviews around the ESPN campus with his castmate Ramirez. The two spend much of their time talking about the respect that Duran and Leonard have for one another, shooting in Panama and working with De Niro. The entertainer eventually comes back to our room, and we chat a bit more while he polishes off the rest of his lunch — he plays a track that he released back in June — No Limit featuring Young Thug.
I tell him people are going to go crazy when they realize a new album is dropping in a few weeks — it’s been four years since he’s released an album. “That’s why I gave it to you,” he says of his album news — it’s called Hard II Love and it’ll come on Sept. 16 — with a laugh.
“Any chance two of your guests at the premiere the other night are going to be a part of your new album?”
He tilts his head to the side. Pondering. “Jay and Bey?” he asks, referencing his friends Jay Z and Beyoncé, both of whom he’s worked with before, and both of whom who came out to support the red carpet premiere of Hands of Stone earlier this week.
“Yes. Jay and Bey.”
He gets ready to head out to his last interview of the day, turns and flashes a smile — eyes locked, per usual — before walking back out the door and dropping one last tease while laughing: “Stay tuned.”