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The Last Word: Ne-Yo

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens


This month:

Grammy Winner Ne-Yo

Born in Camden, AR, Ne-Yo (né Shaffer Chimere Smith) was destined to be a star. The proud product of a musical family, the Grammy Award-winning R&B performer first made a name for himself as a successful songwriter for the likes of Beyonce (with “Irreplaceaple”) and Rihanna (with “Unfaithful”) before hitting the stage himself. A singer, dancer, rapper and occasional actor, Ne-Yo reached new heights in 2007 with his platinum-selling album Because of You. After introducing himself to hockey fans at the 2008 NHL All-Star Game in Atlanta, the 25-year-old is currently touring with Alicia Keys in support of his new album, the Year of the Gentleman.

So how does a platinum-selling R&B artist end up performing at center ice at the 2008 NHL All-Star Game?

Ne-Yo: To be perfectly honest, I still don’t know. I really don’t. (laughs) I have a fantastic managerial team that comes up with all kinds of opportunities for me. All I remember is my manager telling me that he was meeting with some NHL people, but I didn’t know that I would wind up performing and everything. It was as much a shock to me as it was a shock to hockey fans to see me out there. But it was a really cool experience overall and I had a lot of fun with it.

Was that your first exposure to the NHL?

NY: Yeah, pretty much. My main concern coming in was how I was going to be perceived since you never expect to hear R&B and hockey in the same sentence. I was thinking like, “Are the fans going to give a damn that I’m here?” but I got a warm reception. At least as warm as it was going to get out there on that cold ice.

Ne-Yo in Atlanta at the NHL All-Star Game.
It was a pretty elaborate set-up with you and an entire marching band on the ice performing. How did that all come about?

NY: The marching band on the ice was a local Atlanta high school who won a contest to be out there with me, so that was really cool. It took about a week to set it all up and bring the whole concept together. The kids did great and the performance turned out pretty good except for one thing. We all had on these special cleats that we wore out on the ice that were supposed to prevent us form slipping, but let’s just say that they didn’t exactly do the job. (laughs) They weren’t much help at all.

You looked like you were keeping your balance out there pretty well. Can you skate?

NY: I can skate a little bit, just enough to not fall flat on my face. I skated for the first time when I was six years old with my mom and she just loved it. The rest of us couldn’t stand it because we weren’t dressed warm enough and we were freezing! I did take my mom to Aspen, CO, this year and we skated there and had a good time.

You’ve been all over the place this year. How did you also end up in the Celebrity Game on NBA All-Star Weekend?

NY: Let’s just call it an interesting experience and leave it at that. The reason why I like to watch sports is because I do not do very well otherwise. I played okay and I did manage one point, but that was it.

All we need to know is, was that one more than 2006 American Idol winner Taylor Hicks?

NY: Yeah, it was, and dude was actually on my team, too. Everyone just left the scoring up to Floyd Mayweather and Terrell Owens, anyway - those guys just lit it up.

We’ve just got to ask, how does Shaffer Chimere Smith come to be known as Ne-Yo?

NY: It was a long process. (laughs) The name actually started out as a joke. The Matrix is my all-time favorite movie and one of my producer’s friends said that I saw music the way Neo sees the Matrix. It was a cool compliment, but I found the name a little corny. People then just kept calling me that, and now here I am.

What’s it been like touring with Alicia Keys and Jordin Sparks?

NY: It’s been good, really good, but it got it got off to a rocky start. Jordin was really sick and missed the first few shows and then Alisha got sick so that was tough. I stayed healthy though, so I’ll knock on wood and hope my health will carry me through the rest of the tour. (laughs)

What do you think of Montreal?

NY: I’ve come through three times, now, and it’s just a beautiful, beautiful city. I was just telling someone how I would actually live here, no joke. I just like it here.

You performed in front of George W. Bush but declined to meet him. Given you’ve also performed at a benefit for Barack Obama, I guess it’s safe to say your political allegiances are pretty clear, right?

NY: Yeah, most definitely. And it’s not simply because Obama is black. It comes down to his views. He doesn’t try to talk over people’s heads and that’s why he’s affecting young voters like me so much. He’s direct and just strikes me as more sincere than anyone else out there. We’ll see how things turn out, but he’s striking a chord in the younger generation because it’s truly time for change in America.

Your new album, Year of the Gentleman, celebrates the style and grace of artists like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr.  Would you like to see a return to an era where guys like that ruled music?

NY: I think those things come in cycles and it swings back and forth. I like to believe that if we’re too far one way right now, one day it will come back around the other way. I would love to be alive when it does, though.

What was it like to win the 2008 Grammy for Best Contemporary R&B Album for Because of You? Is that your career highlight?

NY: Oh yeah, without question. Getting the chance to share that with mom meant so much to me, too. That’s why she was my date to Grammys. That was an amazing night that I’ll always cherish.

Ne-Yo with Rihanna.
You’ve written hit songs for everyone from Beyonce to Rihanna, what do you like doing more, writing or performing?

NY: It’s equal now, but in the beginning it was the writing. I spent so much of my time writing songs for people that it became what I was most confident doing. But the connection with the crowd that you get as a performer is incredible. I realized that while on stage in Japan, where the audience was singing every single word of my songs. That night, music overcame a language barrier and a racial barrier, and that just blew me away.

Who aren’t you writing for these days? We even heard you did something for Celine Dion. Do you ever sleep?

NY: Nope, not really. (laughs) I did a song for Celine on her current album called “I’ve Got Nothin’ Left”. To be honest, I had a perceived image of what Celine would be like in my head before we met and I figured she would be prim and proper and all serious. But then when she came in, she was laughing and funny and really laid back. She even did this impression of Elvis, and while it was weird, it was cool that she was so comfortable with herself and being around me. She’s a special lady and we had a blast together.

You’ve also done some acting in Stomp the Yard and Save the Last Dance 2.  Is that a resume you’d like to add to down the road?

NY: Absolutely. I’m actually working on something right now that hasn’t got a title yet, but it’s going to be along the lines of what Purple Rain was for Prince. Prince is Prince. He could do it all, sing, danse, act, compose, you name it. I mean, the guy is a musical god to me because there’s nothing he can’t do.

How about you? You sing, you rap, you dance, you write songs, you act…  is there anything Ne-Yo won’t do?

NY: You won’t catch me ever trying to cook. If you want your kitchen to remain intact, do not even ask me to make you a sandwich. I’m serious.

To check out Ne-Yo’s music and videos head to his official Web site,, or to get in-depth news on his biography and tour, check out his artist page on the Def Jam site at

This article was originally published in CANADIENS magazine Vol. 22 No. 7. See table of contents

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