An audience with a gentleman

2012-05-04 11:41

From the first “Good afternoon, Sir” to the last “Goodbye, Sir”, it is evident that R&B superstar Ne-Yo is grounded in respect and good manners.

Speaking in a calm and relaxed tone, he is not one to be brash and loud – well at least when he spoke to me on the phone.

It is little wonder that one of his albums was called Year of the Gentleman. The man born Shaffer Chimere Smith truly is a gent.

And not only because he dresses well, wears hats and is respectful in his demeanour, but because he articulates through his songwriting talents what women say and feel in a way only a gent can.

By the way, it was Ne-Yo who penned Irreplaceable, with the infectious sing-along hook “to the left, to the left”, which earned Beyoncé more cred as the cheerleader of the independent women movement.

In many ways, Ne-Yo (32) has become the modern-day Babyface.

He was last here two years ago to the day for an electrifying performance in Joburg and Cape Town. And now he returns to the local stage for the MBay Mega Festival in Port Elizabeth on June 2, along with Ludacris, Shaggy and local dance sensation Mi Casa.

7 scooped Ne-Yo’s first interview ahead of the festival. He connected with me last Sunday afternoon via telephone from the comfort of the Dubai International airport lounge en route back to the US after a concert in the Emirates.

He talks about memories of his last trip here.

“I remember South Africa as such a beautiful place. I didn’t expect it to be ugly; I just didn’t know what to expect. It was a pleasant surprise to see what I saw there. It’s a gorgeous place.

“I had a great time there and after setting the bar that high with my performance, I have to top it. Expect me to give 200% on stage and I want the crowd to have as good a time as I will be having,” he says.

He will perform some of his greatest hits – such as So Sick, Sexy Love, Miss Independent and One In A Million – and some new material.

The hard-working globetrotter reveals that work is under way for his fourth album, simply titled R.E.D., which he says is an acronym for Realising Every Dream.

“I am taking stock of my life and see how much I have achieved from when I was nine years old wanting to get in the music industry. And I also look at what dreams I still have to realise. I am counting my blessings and celebrating what I have. And I wish people who listen to the album will do the same.”

He describes his mission as a musician as being on the campaign to use the power of music appropriately. “I wish to inspire people to be better in every shape and form, to themselves and to one another.”

His smooth moves, glove to hand, white socks and fedoras are a throwback to Michael Jackson during his heydays, and he graciously accepts the comparison.

“Clearly, Michael Jackson has influenced me a lot. He showed me that everything is possible and that’s what I strive to do. Michael Jackson was one of the most powerful and well-known people on the face of the earth, and that’s where I see myself.”

His favourite Michael Jackson song is Lady In My Life because of the melody and emotion of the record, he says.

Think Like A Man, his latest collabo with Jennifer Hudson for the movie of the same name, is setting the charts alight, and one would have expected Ne-Yo to flex his acting muscles in the film and not just the soundtrack.

He agrees: “I was busy with other things when they were shooting that movie. I remember talking to the producer about my possible involvement, but it just never worked out.”

About Hudson, with whom he has worked before on Leaving Tonight, Ne-Yo says: “She has an incredible voice. It’s always a challenge keeping up.”

Ne-Yo was born in Arkansas and grew up in Las Vegas, where he joined Envy, a music group. It disbanded in 2000 and he got signed to Def Jam Records writing songs.

In 2006 he released his debut album and has so far received three Grammy Awards for best contemporary R&B album for Because of You, best male R&B vocal performance and best R&B song for Miss Independent.

He has also gained dozens of nominations at MTV Video Awards, the BETs and MOBOs, among others.

Ne-Yo has set himself apart as the “go-to guy” for a sure-fire hit. He single-handedly made Mario an international star with the hit Let Me Love You. He has also written phenomenal hits like Irreplaceable, Rihanna’s Russian Roulette and for many more stars such as Justin Bieber, Willow Smith, Whitney Houston and Celine Dion.

“It was never my aim to make any careers. I just wanted to make music – nothing more, nothing less. Contributing to another artist’s success and career is really fringe benefits. It’s a great thing that it happened.

“For me it’s always about the quality of the record. I insist on making good music that will last for years. I do approach other musicians and they also seek me. It depends on the situation, really.”

Talking about his dream collaboration, Ne-Yo says the list is too long to mention, but puts Stevie Wonder at the top.

It is surprising that Ne-Yo’s name is at the tip of many music lover’s tongues, considering that he has just four albums to his name and has been active as a solo singer since his career-defining 2006 hit, So Sick. He attributes his rise through the ranks to honesty.

“My music is from the heart. People can hear that and identify with it. I don’t do music just for commercial reasons; I do it for the creative and artistic side.”

As a budding actor, he has been seen on movies like Stomp The Yard and more recently as Andrew “Smoky” Salem in Red Tails.

“Every role has been satisfactory. Stomp The Yard was fun, Battle: Los Angeles was challenging and Red Tails was more challenging, playing a role that is so different to what I am and with such rich history.”

Ne-Yo’s hat collection is the stuff of legends, along with his impeccable styling and grooming. And for that he credits his mother for the advice she gave him when he was still growing up. “She said, ‘looking the part is as good as being the part’. People see what you look like and make assumptions based on it long before you speak or act.”

The father of two comes to South Africa in the midst of Youth Month in June and his message to young people is about drive, “to keep their heads up and never depend on handouts. It starts with you. You need to take the action and run with it.”

» Ne-Yo performs at the MBay Mega Festival on Saturday June 2 at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth. Tickets range from R150 to R550 

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