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The insecure man’s guide to hating Usher

The Keke Palmer incident isn’t anything new. Usher has been driving guys crazy for decades.

It seems like every show at Usher’s Las Vegas residency has created a new viral moment: from 21 Savage singing with him to his smooth skating fall to his serenading of Saweetie. And of course, when Usher sang to actress Keke Palmer — prompting her boyfriend to call her out on social media and leading to a barrage of insecure men voicing their concerns about how “their” women should behave. This shouldn’t come as a surprise – Usher has been terrorizing insecure men for 25 years.

I should know, because he used to make me feel insecure, too. 

When an 18-year-old Usher released his second studio album, 1997’s My Way, with his first major single, “You Make Me Wanna,” his smooth moves, silky voice and, yes, even the small glimpses of rap ability made him an instant heartthrob. All the girls loved him — including the girls I had crushes on. Sure, I was 11 at the time and my chances of actual relationships with any of these girls was as likely as any of them ever meeting Usher. But it didn’t matter. Usher was public enemy No. 1 for prepubescent David Dennis Jr.

Luckily, I grew up. But for many fellas, Usher continues to be the guy who unapologetically serenaded our women. The guy who needed to be humbled for daring to attract the attention of women we wanted to possess or see possessed. Mostly this “transgression” takes place during Usher’s live performances, even though he is carrying on the tradition of performers of all genders serenading and, yes, seducing members of the audience. Have you seen Teddy Pendergrass kissing women on the lips and telling their husbands, “You better hold on to her?” Or Millie Jackson holding onto … well, just look. Janet Jackson pulling men on stage has been a thing of legend. And so on.

Usher performs at the Something in the Water Music Festival in Washington on June 17, 2022.

Paul Morigi/Getty Images

But Usher struck a different nerve. And that nerve gets hit every time he does this with a woman we deem as belonging to someone else. Because too many men see married or coupled women as no longer their own person. Instead, they belong to the men they are tethered to.

Take, for instance, Usher’s history with Beyoncé. When he brought her on stage to perform his song “Bad Girl”, they grinded, touched and teased each other and the crowds who watched.

But they also made insecure men angry. They haven’t seen Beyoncé as a whole person going on two decades now — ever since she was partnered with Jay-Z, a person men have used as a proxy for our own hypermasculine aspirations. We’ve grown up with “Big Pimpin” Jay-Z, who many believed would never stand for his woman to be touched like that. I remember the casual conversations about the dances. The affair accusations. The conspiracy theories that Jay-Z had Usher on some hit list for taking liberties with something that was his. We created fan fiction to justify the fact that Usher was allowed to roam the streets without ramifications from Jay-Z. HE TOUCHED HOV’S WOMAN.

Even now, people are imagining a world where Usher brings Beyoncé up on stage and Jay-Z puts the hammer down. Twenty years later.

The Usher-induced panic has only increased during his residency in Las Vegas. Every show features a personal serenade from Usher. Often, he calls celebrity women to the stage and woos them with his voice and those dance moves that ruined my childhood chances at love. (Sorry, got distracted.)

Recently, Palmer was the target of his musical romancing. The actress and new mom was eating up Usher’s antics as he hugged her and sang into her ear. She was wearing a sheer black dress over a bodysuit, continuing her roll of post-labor gorgeousness that has stunned the internet with every snapshot. As soon as the clip of her hugging Usher hit the internet, her boyfriend and father of her child, Darius Jackson, took to social media to criticize Palmer and the entire event.

“It’s the outfit tho.. you a mom.” He followed it up with more chauvinistic opining: “We live in a generation where a man of the family doesn’t want the wife & mother to his kids to showcase booty cheeks to please others & he gets told how much of a hater he is. This is my family & my representation. I have standards & morals to what I believe. I rest my case.”

The insecurity radiated off the tweet. As well as the fact that Jackson seemed to relegate Palmer to her roles as wife and mother and the services she provides to him as her boyfriend, the father of her children and a man who wants to police his woman.

Jackson’s outrage may have torpedoed whatever career he had as it caused the internet to dig up old, troubling tweets, forcing him to delete his social media. Palmer has addressed the incident indirectly (including releasing a sweatshirt with the phrase “I’m a MOTHA.”) 

What Jackson’s comments revealed was another layer of how many men view the women in our lives. Mothers. Girlfriends. Wives. They are augmentations of our own images. Vehicles of our own greatness and how we’re perceived by the people around us. Certainly not as their full human selves. 

And the cause of that disruption is just a guy who sings his heart out. A man who’s been there singing and dancing his way through life and somehow making too many of us feel like less than by simply existing. Life would be so much easier if we just sat back and enjoyed the show.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.