Usher, Babyface showcase icon and legend status at Apollo 90th anniversary

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NEW YORK – Icon and legend are some of the many words to describe Usher and Babyface, and on Tuesday, they were given the official titles from the Apollo Theater.

The historic theater in New York's Harlem neighborhood celebrated its 90th anniversary with the two music moguls at their annual spring benefit.

"We're thrilled to honor Usher with the Icon Award and Babyface with the Legacy Award," Apollo Theater CEO and President Michelle Ebanks told USA TODAY on the red carpet. "These are transformational artists. They've had a global impact."

The benefit included tribute performances from the next generation of Black talent, including a dance routine to Usher's hit songs from nearly 50 young performers that took over the theater and singers Saint Harison, Leon Thomas, Avery Wilson and Karyn White lending their voices to various Babyface songs.

Leon Thomas performs at The Apollo's 2024 spring benefit.
Leon Thomas performs at The Apollo's 2024 spring benefit.

"There's room for all of us. We have to encourage (prospective artists) and speak life into the youth. 'Gatekeeping' … that word should be thrown out the window," Jordin Sparks told USA TODAY ahead of her performance, with the "American Idol" alum adding that she would "love" to be considered as a judge in a singing competition to help the next generation.

To kick off the night, Sparks performed a musical medley of "Superstition," "Respect" and "I'm Every Women" as a nod to the legacy acts that have previously graced the Apollo stage.

Jordin Sparks performed a musical medley of "Superstition," "Respect" and "I'm Every Women" at The Apollo.
Jordin Sparks performed a musical medley of "Superstition," "Respect" and "I'm Every Women" at The Apollo.

After Sparks got the crowd dancing, the night's host Kym Whitley breathed laughter into the air with jokes about Harlem's signs of gentrification (French vanilla lattes for sale on the same street as incense) and quips about how she's been trying to hunt Usher down for a serenade at his Las Vegas residency.

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Usher talks about being 'the youngest of the legends' while accepting the Apollo's Icon Award

Usher was first to take the stage to accept his award, recalling his early memories of being at the Apollo, including seeing former Apollo Amateur Night host Kiki Shepherd. "They say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. But if you can make it to the Apollo, you can do anything," he said. "Everything that the Apollo has done has motivated me in so many different ways."

Usher shared early memories of visiting The Apollo.
Usher shared early memories of visiting The Apollo.

The "Good Good" singer praised his mother Jonnetta Patton for allowing him to dream big. "I was always talking about the reality that I would be able to make it and she believed it," he said. "She was daring enough to support my vision and support me as an artist and as a man and as a philanthropist.

"Incredible moments have happened on this stage. Tonight I'm able to join a legacy of incredible people, like Harry Belafonte," Usher continued. "I feel like I'm the youngest of the legends, but for some reason, I also feel like I might be the oldest of the pioneers of this time. Someway, somehow this puts me in this very new and classic space. I'm so happy that I could have this moment."

Usher wished he "got a chance to meet Kiki Shepherd, but I never became an amateur because I became a major," he joked to a roaring crowd. He later quipped, "By the way, Kym Whitley, you didn't come back out here to get me to serenade you. You know I like 'em older."

The performer ended with a note to his newly minted wife and "best friend" Jennifer Goicoechea: "I'm so happy that we get to do this together."

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Babyface took the stage to perform after receiving the Legacy Award from The Apollo.
Babyface took the stage to perform after receiving the Legacy Award from The Apollo.

Babyface says he never imagined being on The Apollo stage

Babyface, who was awarded a star on the Apollo's Walk of Fame Monday, lamented to the crowd that he's "usually a lot funnier" in his acceptance speeches but was at a loss for words when it came to the inaugural Legacy Award.

"If I'm honest, I just never saw myself as being on the Apollo stage," the 12-time Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and producer said. "I was just always the guy behind the scenes, writing songs for everybody else and looking at people like my little brother Usher … You knew he was going to get here, and he knew he was going to get here. I am just in awe to be considered a part of the group."

Babyface added that he hasn't been on this journey in music alone. "I was being pushed. God was living through me and said, 'This is what you gotta do, this is what you're going to do.'"

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"People always ask me, 'How are you so humble?' I never feel like I do it all, I never feel like it's just me doing it," he added, giving praise to his fans. "I need every one of you to do what I do."

The musician ended by not only getting on the stage to accept his award but closing the night with a surprise performance of his 1989 song "Whip Appeal" as the theater sang along.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Usher, Babyface awarded at The Apollo's 90th anniversary

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