“Everybody’s familiar with what Martin Luther King’s dream was and that was basically, in laymen’s terms, for everyone to rock together. To realize that underneath this skin, whatever color, we’re all one tribe. So for this kind of show to fall on this day with that message—it just all makes perfect sense.”
Ne-Yo, singer, songwriter, producer and host of the fourth annual Urban One Honors, waxed emotional over the timing of this year’s awards show, which airs Monday, January 17 on TV One and Cleo TV. The Honors are a burgeoning extension of media conglomerate Urban One, which was founded in 1980 by Cathy Hughes and is based outside of Washington, DC.
Under the theme “The Soundtrack of Black America,” the event is celebrating a swath of influential music makers: Emmy, Grammy and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson; writer/producer Timbaland; songwriting/production team Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis; Philly soul architects Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff; and gospel singer Tasha Cobbs Leonard.
The two-hour telecast will also include a performance by Grammy winner H.ER. and appearances by Missy Elliott, Jermaine Dupri, Tyrese, VaShawn Mitchell, Johnny Gill & Ralph Tresvant, D-Nice, Tank and Marlon Wayans.
“Music has been an integral part of the African American experience, and the influence of Black music can be seen in all aspects of our culture,” says Honors executive producer Marilyn Gill of the theme for the show, which traditionally celebrates the accomplishments of Black individuals who have made significant contributions in the fields of entertainment, media, music, education and the community.
“And oftentimes musicians and artists are mirroring what’s happening in the fabric of our society spiritually, socially, economically,” Gill added. “They help tell our stories, they help us celebrate our pride and carry us through times of struggle and oppression. We felt the timing was right for us to celebrate that.”
The show marks Ne-Yo’s first hosting gig—he studied Jamie Foxx and Kevin Hart for inspiration—and it’s perhaps no coincidence this year’s honorees have had a profound impact on the soundtrack of his own life and career.
“Let’s start with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. They were responsible for a lot of the music that molded me into who I am. From Michael Jackson, Prince and on down, they had something to do with that whole era in sound. My initial bread and butter,” he says. “Gamble & Huff – same situation. A lot of the music that molded my sound and my appreciation for music came from them.”
Ne-Yo has has collaborated with Hudson and Timbaland, noting of the latter: “Timbaland changed the sound of hip hop and R&B for pretty much everybody, present company included. There’s certain drum patterns and sounds that weren’t being used before Timbaland used them.”
The Sexy Love and So Sick singer, whose own musical style tends to the smooth and silky, shared his thoughts about the recent trend of R&B songs being saturated with rap features.
“I don’t think it’s a secret to anybody that R&B music has definitely gone through an era where it’s a lot harsher than we all remember. ‘I love you’ became ‘You my bitch’ or something like that. And it’s like OK, we’re gonna move with the times and whatever, but at the same time, love is not a trend or a fad,” he said.
“At the end of the day I don’t think an R&B song has to have a rap feature for it to be successful. That’s not to say that it hasn’t been proven time and again that that recipe works. But I generally feel R&B is slowly and surely making a comeback, and the pendulum is swinging back to people wanting to feel something from the music. I love hip hop as much as the next man, but you can’t get from a hip hop song that thing you get from that right R&B song.”