On Friday, thanks to our partners Feld Entertainment, Phase 3 Marketing and Chick-fil-A, Johnathan Lee Iverson, the first African-American Ringmaster in 129 years and 15 year Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baileys Ringmaster, came to the Usher’s New Look office to speak to our Atlanta high school Leadership Academy students about how to follow their passions and discover a career pathway they will love. He began by telling the students how he fell into his career as a Ringmaster by chance. After staying true to his personal brand and his passion, and studying performance in college on scholarship at the Hart School of Music, he one day received a call asking if he would be interested in auditioning for the Ringling Bros. Ringmaster, a role that had never been played by an African American. He told the room, “I think this is when I really learned God has a sense of humor, because this job was never on my vision board. I never thought by 22 I’d be in the history books as the first African American Ringmaster of a major circus. I especially did not think I would be here for 15 years, but I think this job fits my personality more than anything else I could’ve done. If you follow your passion, the right job will come to you.”
Iverson told the students, “Your job is to just get on the path and then just go! You never know where you’ll end up.” He explained to them how when he was a teen in the boys choir at his school in Harlem he discovered his passion for music and performance. He knew he wanted to pursue a career related to his passion for performing, but many adults in his life including his parents and music teachers tried to sway him to a “safer” career by suggesting that he major in music education as a back up plan. Iverson told our students, “It was one of the great benefits of youthful arrogance. I told them, ‘But you are all doing your B-plans. You are all musicians who didn’t live out your dreams’. You have to dodge other people’s visions of you. People who care about you will want you to be happy and secure. They don’t want you to struggle, but you have to DO YOU, and to do that, you’re going to have to be a little zealous. You will have to rebel against people’s imaginations of what you are. You’ve got to be stubborn about your craft and protect it like that.”
Iverson’s biggest lesson for the students echoed throughout each of his points: Whatever your craft is, pursue it as though you were a circus performer. He explained, “Circus performers practice every night even after several performances. They have to, because their life depends on it. Literally…I challenge you to think of your craft like a circus performer. In the circus your craft might cost you your life. You have to trust you will not fall. You’re in a cage full of lions and tigers and one of them could be having a bad day. You have to stay on top of your craft or else!”
Iverson compared this dedication to that of New Look founder Usher, who this week received the BET Honors Musical Arts Award for his twenty-year career in the industry. Iverson asked the students, “Do you think Usher ever pursued a different career? No. It was in him from the beginning. He knew what he wanted and he did everything he needed to do to become one of the most celebrated entertainers.”
Iverson ended by explaining to the students how sometimes we all face obstacles that might deter us from following our passions. When this happens, we have to be BIGGER THAN. “My Father died of a heart attack on the same day as my first Madison Square Garden performance. For a year, I couldn’t go to sleep without music. Sometimes there will be moments you’ll want to give up, but you have to persevere.”
Thank you Johnathan Lee Iverson for inspiring our students with your story!
“Every one of you have individual aspirations in your life and you’re at a stage in your life where your nerves will start to kick in. Your biggest enemy will be yourself. There will be some doubts, but how bad do you want it? How hungry are you for it? It’s all an endurance game. That’s all you need to make it. You find out how much you love something by how much you’re willing to suffer for it. It doesn’t matter what you want to do. There are always going to be funny journeys you have to go through. And they are ongoing. When you have a passion you don’t retire. It’s your purpose. You do it until the day you die. If you feel it when you go to sleep and when you wake up, it’s your passion. Go the way your blood beats.” -Johnathan Lee Iverson to UNL Atlanta Students