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Ne-Yo Interview by Ken Simmons (Loop21)
Three-time Grammy Award winner Ne-Yo is a strong supporter of President Barack Obama, and he is releasing his fifth CD, “R.E.D.” (Realizing Every Dream), on Election Day as Obama vies for re-election. Since making his recording debut in 2005, Ne-Yo has recorded three consecutive No. 1 platinum albums and five platinum singles. Ne-Yo also is one of the most in-demand composers, writing songs for numerous stars including Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Rihanna, Mary J. Blige and Jennifer Hudson. In addition to his impressive musical accomplishments, he also is enjoying a successful acting career with appearances in four films including George Lucas’ story of the Tuskegee Airmen, “Red Tails.”
Ne-Yo recently sat down with Loop 21 to discuss working with Michael Jackson, being “terrified” by his executive position at Motown, and the possibility of recording with Obama.
Loop 21: You named your new CD, “R.E.D.,” which is an acronym for Realizing Every Dream. What dreams have you realized?
Ne-Yo: I have realized so many dreams that we don’t have enough time to talk about all of them. They include winning three Grammys, traveling and performing all around the world, and being able to provide for myself and my family. I have worked with some amazing artists. I have realized all the dreams I’ve had since I knew at the age of 9 that I wanted to pursue music, and that is why I named the album “Realizing Every Dream.” I have realized many dreams but there is so much more I want to accomplish. I have won three Grammys, but Stevie Wonder has double-digit Grammys so I have more to do. My albums have sold platinum, but other artists have sold more so I have higher goals and dreams. I want my music to inspire people to realize their own dreams.
Loop 21: You have enjoyed a very successful career. Your first three CDs, “In My Own Words,” “Because of You,” and “Year of the Gentleman,” all debuted at No. 1 and were certified platinum. However, your fourth CD, “Libra Scale,” was not as popular. How did its lack of success affect you?
Ne-Yo: It was a learning experience for me. I try to learn from everything I do whether it is good or bad. I learned to know more about something I am tackling for the first time before I dive into it. “Libra Scale” was conceived as the soundtrack to a 30-minute science fiction movie I wrote. I had never written a screenplay before. I learned that each page of a script is equivalent to one minute. I went to my label, Island Def Jam, and submitted a 146-page script. The songs were inspired by the script. They told me it was much too long and I had to cut it. So I had to cut it down and sacrifice certain elements which affected the album. We never produced the short movie as I intended so the project was not what I envisioned. It was definitely a learning situation.
Loop 21: How did that lack of success affect creating “R.E.D.”?
Ne-Yo: For “R.E.D., I decided to make it less complicated. Just concentrate on producing quality music. Make sure that I had enough songs for my R&B fans and also my pop fans. One problem with my “Year of the Gentleman” CD was that for people who were new to Ne-Yo and liked the song “Closer,” there was nothing else on that CD similar to that song so those fans did not have other songs that they liked. So I wanted to make sure on “R.E.D.” I had enough songs for my R&B fans, my pop fans, and the fans who like a mixture of those styles.
Loop 21: You pride yourself on being a gentleman and your website is called Ne-Yo The Gentleman. How do you feel you’ve influenced people with this style when so much of urban and pop culture is going in a different direction?
Ne-Yo: I want to be a leader and not a follower. I never want to follow a trend. When you follow a trend you are putting a time limit on yourself because a trend will fade away. I want to have longevity and last for years. I have a responsibility as an artist to project a positive image. I take that responsibility very seriously. I know kids are watching. Hopefully kids will see me and like my style. The fact that various companies have approached me to represent their products shows me that my style has a broad mass appeal. I feel my music appeals to a 4 year old and a 14 year old as well as a 40 year old. I am very careful about how I present my appearance, my music and my lyrics. I choose my words very carefully. I know the power and the importance of words. Everything I do is as a gentleman. That is who I am.
Loop 21: You were appointed a senior vice president of A&R for Motown Records responsible for signing and developing artists. You’ve said that you are “honored, excited and also terrified” by this appointment. What does this position mean to you?
Ne-Yo: I am honored because Motown is more than a record label. Motown has a rich legacy. Smokey Robinson held the same position and I am following in his footsteps. I feel that Motown’s energies have been in the wrong place. There was too much attention on imaging and marketing and not enough attention on the music. That is why I believe the label has suffered. Motown has always been known for quality music as well as the imaging and the marketing. It is important to start with the music and create quality music. I talked to (Motown Records founder) Berry Gordy and I expressed to him my fears about holding this position. It was scary to me that I would be so responsible for artists’ careers. I went to his house and he played me a tape of the quality control meeting he had for The Temptations’ (1964) song ”My Girl.” Everyone in the room was asked the question, “If you had only one dollar, would you buy ‘My Girl’ or would you buy a sandwich?” The rule was if the majority voted to buy a sandwich, the song would not be released and they would go back to the drawing board. Seven of the eight people voted to buy a sandwich. Berry was the only person to vote for buying the song. He told me that was one of the few times he overruled the vote and decided to release a song. Obviously “My Girl” became a No. 1 hit and a classic. He told me that showed that you have to trust your instincts and trust your opinion. You take into account what other people feel but know that your opinion matters. He told me to value other people’s opinions but also value my own opinion. I have to struggle with the fact that I am a Motown artist and I am also a Motown executive. There are similarities but there are also great and distinct differences. As an artist I live on my vibe, my emotion, and my spirit. As an executive I have to be more practical. I have to be concerned with elements I don’t think about as an artist, such as what radio stations will play the song, the marketing, and will teenage girls like the music.
Loop 21: In addition to music, you’ve enjoyed a successful acting career. Your roles have ranged from playing a professional hit man on TV in “CSI:NY” to a Tuskegee airman in “Red Tails.” What have been the highlights of your acting career?
Ne-Yo: Those two roles are special because they are so different. For “CSI:NY,” I told them I wanted to portray a character different from myself. I wanted to be a bad guy. I wanted to step away from what people knew. The scene begins and you see me in a familiar way wearing the hat in an elegant setting with a lady, and then there is a twist and I kill three people. “Red Tails” was the highlight of my acting career. The Tuskegee airmen overcame tremendous adversity. They excelled against all odds. They were presumed to fail. They were not considered citizens. Their achievements give me strength. Nothing I encounter will ever be as difficult as what they faced. So whenever I feel there is something I can’t overcome, or a task I can’t complete, a goal I can’t achieve, I am inspired by the Tuskegee airmen. I realize that they overcame obstacles greater than anything I will ever face so I have confidence that I can succeed.
Loop 21: You were the headline performer at the Michael Jackson birthday concert in August in New York City. You idolized Michael and had the chance to work with him. What happened the first time he called you?
Ne-Yo: I hung up on him because I thought it was somebody playing a practical joke on me. He called my cell phone and I have no idea how he got the number. Nobody will confess that they gave him the number. But he did call back and I was ecstatic that he called. He wanted me to work on his new album and of course I was honored. I learned more in a few weeks working with him than I did in my entire career. I gained so much knowledge about music and songwriting from him critiquing my songs. It was an incredible experience. I wrote several songs for him and we planned to record them after his “This Is It” concerts in London. But he died before we were able to start recording. Michael was the epitome of the possibility of greatness. There will never be another Michael Jackson because no one has that same hunger to succeed. He lived, breathed, ate and slept music. No one worked as hard around the clock, had so much dedication and attention to detail in perfecting his craft. I am happy to have spent time with him and talk with him and learn from him. He would tell me what he thought about the music business, what was right with it and what was wrong with it. I still have the songs I wrote for him and I am trying to decide what to do with them. Perhaps I will record them for a tribute album and donate the proceeds to charity.
Loop 21: You mentioned charity. You created your own charity, the Compound Foundation, in 2007 to assist children in foster care and group homes. What do you feel you’ve accomplished with the foundation?
Ne-Yo: My focus has been to show the kids that there is a difference between where you come from and where you can go. We have had some small successes with our entrepreneurship training courses, education programs, scholarship programs, providing music studios, and funding to agencies that secure adoption and adult guardians. We try to prepare children for the next steps following foster care and help them successfully function in society. We also work with the adults in properly guiding the children. Unfortunately one problem with the foster care system is that it believes the solution to undesirable behavior is often overmedicating the children. The idea is to pacify the kids with drugs. I talk to kids and it’s disturbing that they know so much about these drugs and are so dependent on them. They say they want the red pills or the blue pills. I don’t feel that is the right solution. If a kid needs discipline then the adult needs to learn how to discipline the kids instead of constantly sedating them with a drug. Foster parents complain about kids having behavioral problems but they would also have issues if they were constantly shuttled from foster home to foster home and having to deal with different adults and different personalities while carrying their clothes in garbage bags. If anyone is interested in learning more about our foundation or making a donation, please visit www.compoundfoundation.org.
Loop 21: Your new CD, “R.E.D.,” is being released on Election Day. You are featured in the pro-Obama “Forward” video executive produced by will.i.am who also produced the “Yes We Can” Obama campaign song in 2008. Why it is so important for you to express your support for Obama?
Ne-Yo: I support Obama 100 percent and it would take too long to explain all the reasons. The short answer is simple. It took eight years to break it and it takes eight years to fix it. The previous administration created such problems that Obama needs two terms to correct the problems he inherited. Many people are unrealistic about their expectations and their need for quick solutions. The problems can’t be solved overnight. He needs more time. He has had progress but some people are impatient and feel he has not done enough. Reversing the process, reversing and correcting the ills of our country requires more time and that’s why he has to be re-elected to continue and finish what he started.
Loop 21: We heard Obama sing Al Green’s “Let Stay Together.” Would you record a song with him?
Ne-Yo: If Obama called me and asked me to record a song with him, I would jump at the chance. I would be a fool to turn down that opportunity. He has a pretty good singing voice. I would make sure he did not sing about politics. Maybe I would put Kanye West on the track. That would make a very politically incorrect song. (laughs)
(Interviewed by Ken Simmons for Loop21)