Zoom came alive on Friday, February 5, as USC’s Founder of the Contemporary Music Program, Chris Sampson, hosted a virtual USC Master Session with special guest, songwriter, artist and 2012 SHOF Hal David Starlight honoree, Shaffer Chimere Smith Jr., p/k/a “Ne-Yo.”
Sampson opened by telling students and other attendees that this would be a “very special pop forum,” and SHOF Board Member and West Coast Committee chair Mary Jo Mennella added that our partnership over the last eight years with USC has been ideal and the SHOF West Coast team is “second to none.”
Sampson introduced Ne-Yo, citing that he is a SHOF Starlight Award honoree, GRAMMY awardee, judge on World of Dance and, most coveted title, "father." He is also a senior VP of A & R at Motown Records, has his own production company, Compound Entertainment and has written songs with (and for) Rihanna, Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Carrie Underwood, Anastacia, Ciara, Corbin Bleu, Enrique Iglesias, and Dima Bilan and many more.
Ne-Yo gained fame for his songwriting abilities when he penned his 2004 hit "Let Me Love You" for singer Mario. He’s gone on to release seven chart-topping albums, and received the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary R&B Album at the 50th Grammy Awards for Because of You (2007).
Sampson said, “Take us back to your early days,” and Ne-Yo replied, “From the start of my acceptance that music would be an instrumental part of my life to when it took off, it was double digit years, and it was my sheer love for music that kept me going.”
He talked about how he and four friends had driven to Capitol Records in L.A. with no place to stay or money for expenses, and stood on top of their van singing every day for six months, hoping for someone to sign them. “There was no Spotify or anything digital so you had to rely on the labels at that time. You had to use the tools you are given and work harder than the guy next to you.”
Sampson said, “You regard yourself as a songwriter / singer and not the other way around.” Ne-Yo said, “The only thing that I got attention for when I went solo was the fact that I was a songwriter. I noticed my songwriting was my way in. You'll work 12 years to get that one hit but it's worth it.”
Sampson pointed out that when Ne-Yo talks about his process, he says the way he creates is “Kind of messy and scattered,” and Ne-Yo responded by quoting Bruce Lee; "When you express freely, you become the style."
Sampson asked, “What can our students do to stand on the shoulders of their influences and pay homage?” Ne-Yo said, “There is nothing new out there, and everything has been done. You simply have to take the greatness that was there before you and pour it into your vessel to make your own.”
When a student expressed how difficult it is to hear people’s opinions about his music, Ne-Yo said, “Stop giving people power over you…just listen to people you respect, and be true to you.”
Ne-Yo went on to tell a story about an encounter with a man who told him he had literally saved his life that day when he had heard one of his songs. “The passion that can be created for your project has to come from you saying that your art is like life & death. Music has shape, color and dimension and many people don't understand the power of music. This is a power that can change and save lives.”
After a lively Q&A session, there was a lovely performance of a medley of Ne-Yo’s songs by two USC students, Jordyn Warren and Liza Kaye.
Earlier Mennella had praised USC’s Chair, Popular Music Program, Patrice Rushen, a respected singer / songwriter / music director / conductor / arranger for the outstanding musical tributes the students have arranged for past SHOF/USC Master Sessions.
In closing, Ne-Yo said, “My greatest accomplishment is my career and the things I've been able to do to leave to my children.”
On writing for other artists; “Learn how to embody the person you're writing for. I don't concern myself with fad or trend and a melody never goes out of style. I base my music on melody and lyrics. I'm always going to be the music guy.”
“It is obvious that Ne-Yo lives by his mantra of it being each generation’s responsibility to nurture the next generation of songwriters and talent,” summed up SHOF president & CEO, Linda Moran. "The generosity of his time, wisdom and advice he passed on to the students was passionate, heartfelt and right-on!”
Also in attendance were SHOF West Coast Events Director Barbara Cane, SHOF West Coast Committee members Joel Flatow, Donna Casseine, Michael Pizzuto and Mike Todd, SHOF Board Member Evan Lamberg and the SHOF’s April Anderson.
The SHOF/USC Master Sessions have hosted events featuring David Foster, Billy Steinberg, Benny Blanco, Graham Nash, Donovan and Ralph Peer, Bill Withers, Linda Perry, Desmond Child, Lamont Dozier, Dan Reynolds and Evan Lamberg, Carole Bayer Sager, Irving Burgie, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Paul Williams, Steve Dorff, Jason Mraz, Allee Willis, Jackie DeShannon and Michael Bolton.