Usher’s latest musical release is more than just a song. The singer confronts racial injustices and police brutality with “Chains,” featuring Nas and Bibi Bourelly. Through an interactive experience that forces the listener to look into the faces of victims such as Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd and Caesar Cruz, the trio’s track serves as a heartbreaking encounter with a harsh and ongoing reality.
The conception of “Chains” however, was not a one-man show. Usher tapped Sankofa.org – a non-profit organization spearheaded by Harry Belafonte that includes board members such as Danny Glover and Jesse Williams – to help faciliate the effort. Co-directors Gina Belafonte (Belafonte’s daughter) and Raoul Roach were on-hand at the TIDAL X: 1020 festival at Barclays Center on Tuesday (Oct. 20) to explain how Usher’s vision came to life.
“We put a meeting together with him and my father, Mr. Belafonte, to discuss the issues of the emerging and new movement that’s rising,” Belafonte explained. “Usher wanted to incorporate the families of victims and the victims themselves in the video. So we helped to coordinate that effort by contacting the families and making sure he had the opportunity to engage with them and that they supported the campaign.”
The “Chains” video features victims of injustice who have received widespread attention, and others who did not become a trending hashtag. Amongst Sean Bell and Ramarley Graham, there was also Marlon Brown, a 38-year-old Florida man ran down my a police car for a seatbelt violation and Andrew Joseph, a 14-year-old Bay Area teen who was ran down on an Interstate after being booted from a State Fair. The decision to place a variety of stories into the campaign was a joint effort between Belafonte and Usher, according to Roach.
“[Gina] wanted to make sure that it was a diverse group. And also Usher and his team wanted to make sure that there was a diverse group of people, Roach said. “We wanted to shine a light on some of the victims who haven’t gotten the notoriety. But all of the families are really connected together, which is really beautiful. Throughout the movement, throughout these things that are happening, like the one that recently happened with the drummer in Florida. We continue to press forward.”
Sankofa, a Ghanaian word meaning “go back and get it,” runs in conjunction with Usher’s seeking of Harry Belafonte’s guidance. Noting the longtime relationship between music and social justice that spans back to the days of slavery, Belafonte’s daughter praised the on-wax efforts made by artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Janelle Monae. She also showed admiration for Usher’s decision to contribute to the movement “from the inside out” by working with the victims families and with organizations to bring his message to light.
“We’re very fortunate that Usher has chosen to do it from the inside out,” Belafonte said. “A lot of other artists – Kendrick Lamar and Janelle Monae, just to name two – put out songs that people are now inspired by. This case is a little bit different, and very much in the footsteps of my father. He’s working with the movement, he’s in contact with the families, he’s incontact with movement builders and organizers, and is finding ways that are the most productive to use his platform.”
As the new, “decentralized” movement takes shape, Belafonte notes that other upcoming leaders continue to seek her father’s advice with regards to strategy. And while Mr. Belafonte is 88 years old and not the most savvy user of the social media force that drives younger activists, he still has faith in the movement moving forward. His daughter noted a conscious effort by the veteran activist to let younger supporters of the movement find their way.
“He’s trying his best to keep up with it all. He was in the very early stages of the Dream Defenders defining their roles and who they were,” she said. “He still plays the role of godfather consigliere. Many activists call him for advice, because the one thing that my father still is to this day, is a strategist; he’s exceptionally wise. He is very patient and also very steadfast in staying out of the way because he believes in the young people and what they’re doing. He really wants them to emerge and take the space.”