Shaffer Chimere Smith never gave himself a Plan B. It was either breaking through with Billboard hits as the internationally acclaimed entertainer Ne-Yo, or homelessness.
Those are extreme ends of life’s success spectrum, but sometimes such is the self-imposed hand creatives deal themselves when the passion for arts and expression means more than just about everything else.
The three-time Grammy Award-winning R&B singer is now looking to change the life of a burgeoning star with the same make-it-or-break-it attitude he once had by serving as a judge for NBC’s high-stakes talent show World of Dance, a reality competition that brings skilled performers from all ages and corners of the globe under one roof and awards a lucky sensation with a $1 million grand prize.
World of Dance premieres May 30 and is complemented with a standalone Snapchat series ahead of the NBC debut. Ne-Yo will be joined by judges, including Jennifer Lopez and choreographer Derek Hough. Actress Jenna Dewan Tatum will play as the 10-episode TV show’s host and dancer mentor.
“I jumped on World of Dance because I saw it as an opportunity to give back to the guy behind the guy, and make sure that dancers start earning the proper compensation that they deserve,” Ne-Yo told AListDaily in an exclusive interview. “Most of the time, dancers are working just as hard as the artists—if not harder. A lot of people don’t know that they rarely make the amount that they should be earning—especially for what they do. World of Dance gives them the opportunity to be in the spotlight, and in the best way possible. With NBC’s production quality at their disposal, the dancers will have their time under the sun.”
Ne-Yo says the show, made in partnership with the World of Dance Federation, is marketable because it brings universal appeal and intrigue to the screen. Viewers don’t need to know anything about dancing to tune in—it is expression without words, people painting pictures with their bodies, vividly, with more color.
World of Dance is also tapping into a social community by inviting fans to join in at home and gyrate to J-Lo’s “On the Floor” as part of the #WorldofDanceChallenge.
“The show is definitely spectator friendly,” Ne-Yo says. “These cats can do amazing things with their bodies. You almost can’t even look away. It’s infectious. You watch them, and you want to get up and do the same thing.”
But here’s a warning shot—the 37-year-old will be playing more heel than face when judging the freestyle dance-offs in genres such as hip hop, krump, pop, lock, tap, ballet, ballroom, clogg, stomp and more.
“I didn’t get on the show to make friends and be nice. I’m trying to change somebody’s life. I’m the difficult judge. Everyone feels that I am hard. I kind of am, I won’t lie. But there’s a reason,” he explains. “You literally have to be the best of the best to even be a part of the discussion for this Olympics-of-dance-like show. I’m not going to just give away a shot at a $1 million. They’re going to have to earn it.”
Ne-Yo knows all about earning his keep. Before blowing up into the mainstream, he was working as a composer and producer under the limelight penning hits for the likes of Rihanna, Beyoncé, Jennifer Hudson, Usher, Carrie Underwood and Celine Dion, among others, at the turn of the millennium.
In 2006, Jay-Z changed Ne-Yo’s life forever when he signed the Arkansas-born, Las Vegas-raised artist to Def Jam Recordings. All Ne-Yo needed was a chance to break from the background and into the forefront, and he made the most of it by since recording three No. 1 albums and selling over 10 million LPs worldwide.
And much like he’ll soon be playing an integral role in changing the life of a talented dancer, he’s doing the same in tech by taking on an active role in attracting underrepresented groups—particularly African-Americans and Hispanics—to software engineering.
Last month, Ne-Yo expanded his personal brand and portfolio by announcing his part in a $2.3 million investment in the Holberton School, a radical Silicon Valley coding college that charges no upfront tuition. It’s the singer’s first foray into tech, and he’s promising that he’s not just slapping his name behind it for marketing or financial gain. He wants to be hands on and help shape future generations.
“When you think about coding and software engineering, it’s not realistic for cats coming out of the hood to aspire to be working on apps and video games,” Ne-Yo says, now a member of the school’s Board of Trustees. “The technology space is very one-sided right now. No offense to anybody else, but not a lot of people look like me in the tech space. That’s just the reality of it. I did this as an opportunity to try and diversify the playing field with more minorities, and women. The world is changing around us. And only rich people should not be shaping the world.”
The Holberton School, named after Betty Holberton, one of the first computer programmers, is a two-year alternative to college for full-stack software engineers that uses a progressive curriculum concept of project-based learning, and peer learning. Their disruptive approach to diversity does not require students to have any previous qualifications—just the desire to learn the trade. Instead of paying for school, assuming that you land a job, Holberton charges 17 percent of internship or salary earnings over three years once a student finds a gig. The first graduating class for 2018 has already been hired or interned at Apple, NASA, LinkedIn, Dropbox and Docker.
“My passion for the Holberton School came from using my platform to empower and educate the underrepresented groups in society,” Ne-Yo notes. “I’m trying to lead by example for anyone who looks in my direction. . . . I’m trying to promote an option, and an alternative, to not being on the one-trick pony that everybody is kind of on right now.”
The “pony” Ne-Yo alludes to are his peers in the rap, hip-hop and R&B scene—and the overall flavor and tone of the industry—which has shifted to churning out music at a fast-food-restaurant rate.
Whereas Ne-Yo’s soulful vocals hit you right in the feels and tug at your heartstrings, ears for the current consumer—and how they are actually getting to content—are always adapting and evolving.
Ne-Yo came into the industry right at the tail end of when people still bought CDs and artists could make some good cash solely of off album sales. Those days are long gone in a mobile-first world. But he’s trying to make a change.
“There is more music being consumed nowadays than ever before. The only thing is the way that they’re getting to it—because they’re not buying it. Now it’s all about the streaming and downloading part of the game,” he says. “The laws for that are still iffy and messed up. I’ve actually been to Congress with ASCAP several times just trying to get the government to look at the music laws because they are over 100 years old. They need to be updated. It’s an ongoing battle. The money that we used to make off of publishing and album sales is crumbs compared to what it was.
“It’s a good time for music. But it’s also a bad time for music. As much as people’s appetite for music has grown, I feel like their appreciation has not. That’s a little disappointing, but it is what it is. You can sit back and complain about the evolution, or you can be a part of it. You have to stick with the times or you get left behind. I commend the young cats who have already figured it out, and applaud them. Now, I’m just trying to figure my place out.”
It shouldn’t be too difficult. The self-described “gentleman” is a triple-threat singer, performer and songwriter with retro style and sharp swag, and he plans on bringing a combination of that entertainer flavor with a reintroduction and new album slated to drop later this year, his first since his sixth studio album “Non-Fiction” in 2015.
The harmonious crooner with such party-starting hits like “Let’s Go” and “Time Of Our Lives” to his credit has already delivered a steady diet of new appetizers this month. The upbeat single “Another Love Song” marked the musician’s first original melody since his last LP. He also collaborated with protégées Candice Boyd and RaVaughn Brown for a sensual audio soap opera, and added his own flair by remixing Kendrick Lamar’s hit song “Humble” to reflect on his Grammy-winning career and rise to fame. He also stormed the stage for Spike TV’s Lip Sync Battle in April to show off his cover skills with Cameo’s “Candy.”
“Everything is sex, drugs and rock and roll these days, which I’m a fan of all three, too,” Ne-Yo says. “However, I’m just trying to show others that there is more in life that you can get into. The world needs a love overhaul right now, and I’m trying to be a part of that movement by spreading the love. And I can do that in a number of ways.”
Love has always been a common theme in Ne-Yo’s songs—and should be even more so now that he married Crystal Smith Renay last year, who gave birth to Shaffer Jr., his third child.
“The things that were important to me before I got married have completely shifted,” he says. “My priorities have changed, and I am in a different place. At times, it can prove to be a little difficult as you’re trying to relate to the world. I can’t write solely about myself because everyone is not in my position. I want to make sure my music is relatable, and music that everybody could get into. I don’t make music for the sake of throwing it out there. A lot has changed since my first album. Heck, a lot has changed since my last album. I’m just making sure that whatever I have to say is worthy to my fans.”
If he’s not using his music to speak with admirers, he’s doing so directly with social media. He’s even previously allowed fans to be a part of the creative process of his songs. Ne-Yo knows that brands are closely paying attention to how artists engage with their audiences, and he thinks experiential brand relationships with musicians are going to be more important in the coming years—especially from a financial standpoint—as the industry evolves.
“You’re going to see this a lot, where one hand in the brand washes the other in the artist,” says Ne-Yo, who previously has collaborated with the likes of Hennessy for a concert series, wrote jingles for brands like Fruttare, and has spoken at Cannes on the matter of brand relationships. “That’s been a part of the business since the beginning. But it’s gotten to the point where, whether they’re deserving of it or not, the number of followers an artist has on social media has translated into opportunities. Now you have companies connecting with artists solely based on followers. The hell if they think you can do the job or not. They just care about the number of eyes they can turn toward a certain direction. And I don’t agree with that.”
He says the same social follower count plague has hit the dancing world, and some of his friends and business acquaintances with proven track records are having a hard time getting booked because they just don’t have the numbers social celebrities do. It’s all the reason more why he really wants to reward the best performer in World of Dance solely on the merits of talent with the grand prize.
“I hope this doesn’t sound egotistic, but I always knew that I’d get here. I always had a little voice in the back of my head saying, ‘Just keep going—don’t stop.’ That voice was God bringing me to this opportunity. I want the lucky winner to fulfill that dream too,” he says.
“After World of Dance, I’m still me, doing what I do with music. I’m never not working. I’m in a good place mentally, spiritually and physically. I want to spread positivity, and love. When it’s all said and done, and Ne-Yo is gone, I want people to say, ‘he was an uplifting dude, a good person who always had a smile on his face, and he could write the hell out of a song.’”
Follow Manouk Akopyan on Twitter @Manouk_Akopyan