Ne-Yo is one of the most prolific songwriters of our time, wearing various hats between producing his own album projects, appearing on the small and large screens, along with his philanthropic efforts. The pop music star has become a familiar household name.
Shaffer Chimere Smith grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada, most of his childhood and was raised in a predominately female household—headed up by his mother. As a teenager, his mother gave him a pen and pad as a way to express his emotions and release some of the anger that had built up with the presence of his father. He immediately began the healing process of journaling and penning poems.
Throughout the next few years, Smith would find himself joining forces with various people in the music business—singing in a male band to eventually writing his first hit song “Let Me Love You” for R&B singer Mario. That led to a successful meeting with then-Def Jam president L.A. Reid, who signed the young singer/songwriter to a recording contract.
The three-time Grammy award-winning singer’s climb throughout the entertainment world has produced seven albums that included “Because of You” and R&B songs “Miss Independent” and “Spotlight.” His long list of film and television credits include “Save the Last Dance 2,” “Stomp the Yard,, “The Wiz Live!” and “Empire.” Ne-Yo’s appearance as a guest judge on “America’s Got Talent” gave fans and viewers an inside peep in his ability to give sound advice with tact, leading to his venture as a permanent judge on NBC’s new talent show “World of Dance.” The show includes judges Jennifer Lopez (also Executive Producer), Jenna Dewan Tatum and Derek Hough, premiering May 30.
During a visit to Chicago, the husband and father of three had a chance to discuss his role as a judge on the new television show and the impact of the music business.
Tell us about your new show, World of Dance.
The “World of Dance” is a dance competition show. I am one of the judges.
The reason that I got involved with this show—honestly—I didn’t have the desire to do anything like this. I took a break for a minute, got married and had kids. When I came back, I was able to come back to do music. When they started telling me about the show, that’s what really attracted me to it.
As a dancer, you’re constantly the guy behind the guy. You never get the spotlight yourself—you’re always in the background for whoever that artist is. In most cases, the dancers are working just as hard as the artist that they’re dancing behind. The reason that I joined this show was to help give the dancers the spotlight for the first time.
Dancers compete for the million-dollar grand prize. So, finally here’s a show that gives dancers the respect, recognition and the financial compensation they so absolutely deserve.
There are different dance competition shows that have come and gone. As a viewer, what can the audience expect that is different?
It’s the Olympics of dance competition shows. It’s not about your cousin saying she could do the “roger rabbit” really good. I just showed my age. [laughs] In order to touch this stage, you have to be the “best of the best.” There are names on the show that are unfamiliar, but everybody on this show literally is the best at what they do.
That’s one of the things that separates us from other dance shows. The million-dollar grand prize will make anybody go that much harder.
As a singer/songwriter, how are you able to dictate who is one of the best dancers?
Everyone assumes that I’m a dancer. Jennifer Lopez started her career as a dancer so she has more knowledge of dancing than I do. [And Derek], he’s been dancing his entire life. What makes me qualified? I dance a little bit myself. Above all, I’m an entertainer. As they look for more technical skills—I’m looking for the passion. I’m looking for the person who is dancing like their life depends on it. I need to see that in your face and in your body as I’m watching you perform. Otherwise, why are you here?
Will this be based on a group style or individual dancers?
There’s groups, solos and juniors. By the end of this competition, there will be juniors versus solo acts or a group can compete against junior dancers. Everyone is that good to compete against each other.
We have major weight on our show. We’re going to either change somebody’s life or crush somebody’s dream.
Growing up, who were your mentors?
My mom was my mentor. My mom has been my mentor throughout my life—she is the strongest person I know on the planet. Anything and everything she was into, I wanted to be a part of. I hated my singing voice when I was a kid because I didn’t sound like the people that my mom listened to. My mom used to listen to the O’Jays and The Temptations. She introduced me to Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder songs because I had similar styles. If it wasn’t for that, there would be no Ne-Yo.
You just recently made a $2.3 million investment to benefit underprivileged youth in San Francisco. Can you talk about why you made this generous commitment?
I invested into the Hoberton School because tech is changing the face of the planet by the day. Every day and every second something is changing in regard to tech. If this is going to change the world—everyone should have access to it. People that look like us don’t have the access and sometimes the requirements to attend them.
There’s a clip going around where you’re in the studio with Mary J. Blige and she’s spilling out her heart about her ex-husband. What was going on while filming the documentary?
I know Mary and Kendu very well. I didn’t know all the details of the situation. I heard some names, but I like to get it from the horse’s mouth. She was letting me know what happened and who was involved and she didn’t want this person involved in her project. As she’s telling me this stuff, I was collecting the info to write about it for later. I can’t give you your emotions or your feelings. You have to give them to me and let me turn them into a song for it.
We get together, we eat some food, we have a therapy session and then I write a song.
As time goes on with musicians and artists, sometimes the hunger and passion may not be there anymore. Some feel they can put out an album and everyone will buy it. How do you keep it fresh?
I can’t speak for any other artists. All of us are different in the realm of our inspiration—this is why we do what we do. For me, keeping it fresh is just about remembering why I do it in the first place. I never really did this for the fame or recognition. Music was my therapy. Music saved my life.
What advice can you share for aspiring musicians and songwriters?
I received a lot of really good advice throughout my long career. If you know in your heart of hearts this is where you’re supposed to be, then you can’t allow what people don’t know to stop you from getting there. You’re going to hear no, you’re not good enough. There’s no getting around it, it’s going to happen. You have to determine if you’re going to let it stop you.