Where’s Usher? No matter where he is, Atlanta is there

Halftime sponsor Apple ups the anticipation with promo spots and a streamed interview in advance of the big show.
Usher performs Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, at The Dolby Live at Park MGM. It was the last performance of the R&B star’s 100-show Las Vegas residency. (Nolen Ryan for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nolen Ryan Photography

Credit: Nolen Ryan Photography

Usher performs Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, at The Dolby Live at Park MGM. It was the last performance of the R&B star’s 100-show Las Vegas residency. (Nolen Ryan for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Atlanta may not have a team in the Super Bowl, but we’ve got Usher.

Ahead of the superstar entertainer’s headlining performance at Sunday’s Apple Music Super Bowl LVIII Halftime Show, it was clear home was on his mind.

“What I’ve been able to do is bring a great deal of Atlanta and the melting pot that it is musically, culturally to Las Vegas. That is the source that has been fueling me for these years creatively,” he said during an interview with Apple Music radio host Nadeska Alexis on Friday.

Apple Music is banking a lot of iPhone bucks on one of Atlanta’s biggest music icons.

In a new TV spot released before Usher’s Apple interview, the company’s leader Tim Cook has a FaceTime call with Taraji P. Henson, Lil Jon and Ludacris. The latter, whom Cook refers to as “Christopher,” explains that the crew lost Usher the night before. Cook, rocking an Usher graphic t-shirt ends the call, and shoots Luda a text message: “You will find him!”

The cheeky promo is part of Apple’s weeklong build up to the megastar entertainer’s performance at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. Via Apple Music, fans can explore the artist’s full discography, exclusive playlists curated by Usher and pre-add his forthcoming new album, “Coming Home,” out today.

“Usher is one of the greatest performers alive, and his music has touched so many of us around the world,” said Oliver Schusser, Apple’s vice president of Apple Music and Beats. “We couldn’t be more excited to have him on board for the second Apple Music Super Bowl Halftime Show and offer fans so many fun ways to celebrate this iconic moment in his career.”

Apple, one of America’s biggest companies by market capitalization and the maker of the iPhone, iPad and other gotta-have gadgets, has pushed hard into streaming entertainment and music. Sunday marks Apple Music’s second time presenting the Super Bowl halftime show, following last year’s performance by superstar Rihanna. It also will be the first time an Atlanta artist will hit the field since Big Boi and Sleepy Brown joined Maroon 5 on stage for Super Bowl LII in Atlanta.

Apple is one of the most zealous brands in the world at marketing its products and services, and throughout its history, Apple has used the Super Bowl to enhance its brand. Its landmark 1984 Super Bowl ad — introducing the Macintosh personal computer with a Ridley Scott-directed allegory based on George Orwell’s dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” — remains one of the greatest commercials of all-time.

Usher, even with a 30 year career behind him, is the beneficiary of some of that powerful marketing muscle.

To many, especially in Atlanta, Usher, 45, is one of the greatest entertainers of all time. He released his first album in 1994. With more that 180 million people expected to watch the Super Bowl halftime show, he can take his music to new listeners worldwide. For local sports lovers, it’s the closet the city can get having their name not be synonymous with Super Bowl failure. For local music lovers, it’s a chance to right the wrong of Super Bowl LII’s halftime show in Atlanta, which was not headlined by an Atlantan.

As a die-hard Atlanta sports fan and music executive, Steven “Stevo” Dingle fits into both camps. Dingle, the founder of Stay Lowe Entertainment and longtime music manager grew up in Atlanta, which means he grew up on Usher. His favorite album and song are “Confessions” and “Superstar,” respectively. Growing up, he jokes, it was a “rite of passage to love Usher. He’s hometown greatness. Everybody knows Atlanta for hip-hop, but Usher’s one of our shining bright stars — it doesn’t matter what genre he makes. He’s one of our icons.”

It’s not Usher’s first time on what has become entertainment’s biggest musical stage — he joined the Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am for his 2011 set.

During his interview with Apple, Usher said that over course of 100 sold-out shows, he “turned Vegas into Atlanta.” In between the Vegas run and the Super Bowl, Usher also announced his new album, “Coming Home,” featuring album art where he’s holding a peach. The lead-up to this performance is working in terms of building up anticipation, says Shawna “Peezy” Spears, vice president of brand marketing for Venice Music.

Spears, who grew up in Atlanta, but currently lives in Los Angeles, felt a tinge of home when she saw the latest Apple spot, which features cameos from Wesley Snipes, Andre 3000 and J Balvin in a longer version. “For him to incorporate Lil Jon and Ludacris in the promo, what that means to be from Atlanta and see that, it’s just huge,” she said. “I feel like it has been a masterclass in authenticity, branding and star power. It’s like, oh, he’s not going anywhere.”

Usher said he definitely will bring some flavor of Atlanta to his show. His Vegas residency last year incorporated dancers from the Blue Flame and roller skating. He wouldn’t give details on who might join him on stage, though folks like Spears and Dingle wouldn’t mind seeing artists that were a part of Usher’s journey taking part.

He did offer some insight there. “I definitely went through a lot of ideas of who I would have shared this moment with me, and I do feel like the people who are going to share it deserve just as much recognition for what they do in their careers,” he said.

Both Spears and Dingle are looking forward to Sunday’s show. Dingle has seen Usher perform about five times and not once was the singer ever off pitch. Either way, seeing Usher on the stage, with the world watching, it is something that will resonate with locals for years to come. Dingle says Usher’s is a story Atlantans can get behind. It’s a message he tells his children.

“You may not be a singer or a performer or somewhere in entertainment, but I’m going to be watching with the rest of the however many millions of people and my family with an excess of pride,” Dingle said, “because look what somebody did who was walking around these same streets that you were.”

Staff writers D. Orlando Ledbetter and Scott Trubey contributed to this story.

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