A Closer Listen: They are making Usher sing about the dead again

Carlo Javier // columnist 

It must’ve been the magic of television, but I could’ve sworn Usher was floating. At least this is how I perceived what I was seeing on my screen on Friday, January 31—just five days after the tragic helicopter crash that took the lives of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven other passengers. 

In a literal sense, Usher was not at all floating, but the way that his velvety voice traversed through the peaks and valleys of “Amazing Grace” made it seem as if he were. Much like an NBA athlete gliding through the air for a brief moment in time. 

He was here just a few days ago, singing in commemoration of the three-year anniversary of Prince’s death. Just as he was here over a decade ago, when he sang beside Michael Jackson’s casket in front of the millions that watched Jackson’s televised memorial service. 

It is 2020 and they are making Usher sing about the dead again. 

A significant part of my childhood in the Philippines was spent in the care of my godparents. When I was six, my mother gave up her accounting career to move to Canada as a caregiver—one of the pathways to immigration Filipinos can take, without the exorbitant costs of traditional means. 

My father worked a desk job for the Philippine government, under the department concerned with agrarian reform. It was not a luxurious position, but it was stable, and often involved trips to farmlands around the country. 

My godparents were avid basketball fans—the type who lived through the apex of Michael Jordan’s fame—and I acclimated quickly. You could say that a significant part of my identity was cultivated during my time under their care. 

While living with my godparents, I got to spend a lot of time with their son, Ben. He was about 25 years older than I was and already enjoyed a successful career in pharmaceuticals when we started hanging out. In his athletic heyday, Ben was a point guard. Later in my life, I would become one, too. 

The Philippines can get incredibly humid in the summertime, but we were privileged enough to be able to afford and install an air conditioner in one of our bedrooms. Whenever Ben would visit, my father would let him nap in the room with the air conditioner turned on, even during the afternoons. 

One afternoon in 2004, Ben called me over to catch the infamous Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers brawl that saw players and fans fight one another. A year later, we saw Usher win half of the eight Grammy nominations he received for Confessions

I was in Canada a year after that. 

I watched Usher’s voice break when he sang “Gone Too Soon” for Michael Jackson. I saw the very moment towards the end, when his impeccable, angelic voice broke, as he willed his way through the tribute for his artistic hero.  

It seemed impossible for Usher’s voice to break. This guy sang note-for-note with Alicia Keys in “My Boo.” He did “Burn” and he did “Climax.” I was certain his voice was unbreakable.  

We thought those things about Michael Jackson, too, and we certainly thought them about Kobe Bryant. It seems impossible for our cultural icons to die. That is, of course, until they do. 

Three years after the Michael Jackson tribute, Usher’s stepson died following a boating accident. We did not sing for him. 

It’s been almost 15 years since my family permanently left the Philippines for Canada, and I have not been back since. Even my parents who maintain familial ties to the country have limited their trips to bare necessity. My mother has gone back twice. Once when my grandmother passed, and again when grandfather did. 

My father’s only trip back was when Ben died. 

On the night Usher sang “Amazing Grace” to honour Bryant and those who died in the helicopter crash, rehearsal photos surfaced on social media. The images showed Usher wearing a #8 Bryant jersey, sitting alone in the empty stands of the Staples Center, surrounded by a sea of #24 Bryant jerseys draped over the seats. 

The images were taken from  a number of different angles, but they all tell the same story. There, Usher sat alone with a blank gaze into nothingness, and shoulders slouched in defeat. For all of his energetic live performances and the galvanizing voice he was blessed with, in that moment, like he did in 2009, Usher broke.  

Lebron James of the Los Angeles Lakers would later take the microphone and speak on the tragedy. The teams then played basketball, and we watched. 

Grief will often lead us to look to our stronger friends for counsel, guidance and words of healing that we can’t quite articulate ourselves. When my grandparents passed, they looked to their youngest daughter “to say a few words.” I did not see the service they held for Ben, but I imagine it was the godparents who helped raise me who led that process of healing. 

Usher is 41-years-old and three times we have asked him to use his voice to help carry our collective grief at the public tributes for our dead icons. Too often, we rely on our stronger friends to lift the weight of despair. Too often, we forget to check on our stronger friends to see if they themselves are doing okay. 

Usher still sang that night. He had to. And it must’ve been the magic of television, but I could’ve sworn he was floating, despite the impossible weight we’ve put on his shoulders. 

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