Ahsan Watts isn’t your average teenager.
There are many things that make the 17-year-old lifelong Newark resident atypical. The first would be scoring a recording contract with Interscope Records at the age of 12. The second, and arguably more impressive accomplishment, is how he uses his voice to raise awareness about the inner city struggles for youth in Newark and beyond. The singer’s first single, “Under”, isn’t a chart-topping dance anthem that other artists his age are churning out. It’s a sobering warning about the all-too-real struggles that youth face when it comes to facing the dangers that lie in turning to a life on the streets.
The teen, whose voice has been likened to a young Michael Jackson, first gained the attention of many through a YouTube cover of Smoky Robinson’s “Who’s Loving You.”
For many teens that kind of comparison — in addition to amassing over 800,000 views on YouTube — would go right to their heads, but not for Ahsan. His manager and godfather, Donald Richardson, describes the early days of recording. “He would drive and go maybe an hour away to record in a mini-mansion high on the hill. Then his family and all of us had to go back down to, I would call, a piece of reality,” he said.
His mother, Davonna Terry, or Day as her friends call her, says raising Ahsan was difficult at times due to the area of Newark they lived in. “The neighborhood was terrible,” she now laughs. “I refused to let my son become a product of that. His friends from school wanted him to go outside, and I would literally go with him outside to take the garbage out. The majority of the time if they wanted to go out, I would go outside and sit with them.”
Still, Day says that hasn’t stopped him from becoming his own person. “He has grown up around very affectionate people, so he’s affectionate. He can be a little hard headed at times, but that’s every kid. He’s just a ball of fun,” she said.
When asked to describe a normal day in his life, Ahsan lists things like taking the garbage out, going to Newark’s Central High School and doing homework. Only after the mundane does he mention his music. After an already full day, which also includes being the percussion leader where he plays the snare, does he start talking about rehearsing his own music with his mother.
Ahsan and his mother tell a similar story of discovering his talent. His mom recalls hearing something. “I don’t know what I heard,” she said, “but I heard something. So I walked past the bathroom door and I said, ‘Is that you?'”
“So my mom bust through the door,” Ahsan says. “I’m thinking I did something wrong, but she’s like, ‘Do that again!'”
“He said, ‘Yeah mom I’m signing a song.’ He sang it and I called everybody. I called my mother, my sister, I called everybody. I said, ‘Listen to your grandson. He can sing!'” Day said.
Donald discovered Ahsan while he was running a studio called the Club House, which was a music program for the Housing Authority of Newark at the time.
“He was this real shy kid and he came in and they were doing this record and he didn’t want to sing,” he recalled.
“I asked him to be my manager. I want to be a superstar,” Ahsan said. “He says, ‘Are you sure that’s what your dream is?’ At first he’s like, ‘No, I’ve been in the business,’ so I begged him and begged him and begged him and finally he said yes.”
As someone in the music industry from a young age, when Ahsan’s mother approached him about putting his name out, he was resistant. “He was a peaceful kid. I didn’t think that he could handle the trials and tribulations of getting denied and trying to get a deal. He just didn’t seem like the kind of kid to me that could handle it.”
Richardson called a friend, entertainment lawyer Evan Krauss.
“We called and it’s ringing, you know no answer,” Ahsan reminisces. “So he’s like, ‘You know what? We’re just going to sing on his voicemail.’ So I sing, and kid you not, 30 seconds later Evan Krauss calls back and says, ‘Who is that kid? Who is he? What’s his name? I need him in here Friday afternoon right after school.'”
“The next day I brought him in and eventually I took his mom and we met different production companies to work with. We finally found Tony Perez and this guy named Rabio and AllStar Gordon who worked with so many artists, produced six of his tracks. Six months later we’re on a plane going to L.A. and he had a deal,” Donald said.
Ahsan’s first single, “Under,” is about some of the struggles that kids who grow up in inner cities, not unlike the singer, face growing up. Whether it’s in Newark, or beyond, his manager says the message is universal. “Every time when we look on TV, on social media, we see there’s a different murder,” Richardson said. “That’s not only in Newark, but across the country. So this isn’t just a problem that we deal with here. It’s a problem that we deal with nationally, globally even.”
“When I first heard the words to ‘Under’ I automatically thought somebody had sit down and told this person how we lived. This hit home because Newark is in an uproar right now. Newark needs a lot of attention. Newark needs help bad, because every five minutes there’s something going on. It’s just, wow, the words. Every word means something,” Davonna said about hearing the song for the first time.
When asked what Ahsan’s reaction was the first time he was shown the words to “Under” he said, “I was like, wow this is my life. You know, I grew up in the projects and stuff like that and it was just like literally my life story.”
Additionally, the passing of a friend, 15-year-old Kasson Morman, created more meaning behind the already powerful song.
“My friend Kasson Morman, who I’ve known my whole life, he passed. He got murdered on Christmas day so that was like, wow. That’s like a connection to the song, so it made me like love that song so much. This is my life story and I have put everything I have in that song. Everything,” Ahsan said.
“I’ve always been moved by the record,” Richardson said. “This is a 13-year-old kid, so when you hear him sing ‘Under’ after knowing that he went through those type of situations and living them. Personally, I always look at his mother when he performs it. Each time it’s different. Each time he sings the song it’s a different passion, it’s a different pain. There’s a different joy and there’s a different feeling every time that he sings the song.”
Another video on YouTube that displays Ahsan’s vocal ability is a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon in the Sky.” The video has over 1.3 million views. The young Ahsan delivers a beautiful cover of the 1982 hit that earned Wonder a Grammy nomination for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.
However, the video isn’t solely about the teen’s vocal ability. About two minutes into the cover, the music legend comes out and surprises Ahsan.
“Now that is the most exciting thing I’ve ever did in my life. Besides going to Disney World for the first time,” he jokes. “Going on stage with Stevie Wonder — do you know how awesome that was for me?”
While trying to maintain his composure, the music icon asks Ahsan if it’s OK if he steps in and plays while he continues with the cover. Viewers can’t help but smile as they watch the sheer joy and shock on Ahsan’s face as he plays with someone he grew up listening to and admiring.
“He’s the greatest singer! That’s really all I listen to, well it’s not all I listen to, but that guy is an icon. I love him. I love him so much. That guy is amazing. He really is,” Ahsan said.
Ahsan calls it the most amazing experience in his whole life, and as evidenced by the excitement in his voice as he recalls the experience, there’s no doubt.
Through his recording contract with Interscope, Wonder serves as a mentor of sorts. While a busy schedule doesn’t allow a ton of personal time, Ahsan says being able to talk to him is enough. It’s yet another thing the teen says he’s grateful for.
Ahsan expresses wonder at the fact that he never thought he would perform in front of so many important political figures, both in New Jersey and across the United States. He performed for then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker, as well as for current Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. He performed for Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and at the Million Man March in Washington D.C. this past year. However, as important as getting the word out is, Ahsan’s mission is closer to home.
“I want the actual people that live in my community to listen to the words and the song. When they do that they’ll realize this kid is serious. He wants his community to get better. He doesn’t want killings. He doesn’t want shooting. He doesn’t want suicides and murders all over the place. Let’s try to make it better,” Ahsan said. “We can get this message out so we can get into the younger people’s heads.”
“It’s having a young man from Newark who actually lived in the environment that a lot of these things were going on,” Richardson explained. “Every kid wants to reach their destiny, every kid wants to be what they want to be and to be shot down at 17, to be shot down at 19, to be shot down at 12 is a tragedy.”
“He’s reaching the people that may be involved or could be involved. They’re hearing the song and I’ve had stories and they’ve actually left it alone or they may have said, ‘OK you know what? Not today,'” Richardson said. “But I think it also reaches the parents and the ones that don’t want to speak up. But when they hear his song and then they look at their kids and their kids are running through the house or the kids are coming from school it gives them the perception of that could happen too. I think he’s reaching the adults that maybe they can reach out to their children and say maybe let’s try and do something as a family today. His mother’s great for that.”
Similarly, Ahsan credits his parents for their constant support over the years, music and beyond.
“My parents support me 150 percent,” he said. “They support me in everything I do. My mom is always there. I couldn’t wish for anything better because without them I probably wouldn’t be here right now.”
On the best part of being able to perform: “You know what I love most? I love when I finish my whole set and the audience just pours their power into me,” he said. “I just love that emotion that I can put on stage, and that emotion that I put out I get right back because if I’m feeling excited I’ll get that back. If I’m feeling emotional I’ll get that back. It’s a give and take.”
It’s clear from spending time with the teen that the once shy kid has now become a true performer that loves being on the stage.
“That’s my passion,” he said. “That’s what I love to do. It’s like the easiest job in the world. You know when you go to work and you say I love my job? That’s my job. I love my job. I love to sing.”
Beyond those in his inner circle, celebrities, like producer Russell Simmons, have spoken out about the importance of Ahsan’s work. “I am proud that an artist would use his voice to talk about something that can really change our communities,” Simmons said in a blog post. “Celebrity is worthless unless you use it to uplift others. At an early age, Ahsan has learned this important lesson.”
When asked what the future holds for him, Ahsan quickly replied, “I’m definitely going to college. I’m going to go straight to Georgia State University, hopefully be there for four to six years while also doing my own tours and getting my name out there and making myself relevant in the music industry. I want to try and double major. It’s between dental hygienist and vocal or band. I’m trying to decide.”
No matter what he decides, it’s clear the future holds a lot for the already accomplished teen.