Urban One honours trailblazers who wrote the soundtrack of Black America

The fourth annual Urban One Honors presents a showcase of Black American music seldom seen in music award shows in or outside the U.S., emceed by Oscar-winning R&B musician Ne-Yo in his debut role as award show host. The Urban One media network released a lineup of incredible performers, including H.E.R. as the show opener, actress Eva Marcille as backstage host interviewing notable award presenters, industry honourees and legendary artists who wrote the soundtrack of Black America. The show premieres on digital and cable on Monday, MLK Day in the U.S.

Urban One Honors poster with Ne-Yo tipping his black fedora, headshots of Kelly Price, Timbaland and Jennifer Hudson inset across the top

This year’s theme, the soundtrack of Black America, is really about connections, said Urban One and Cleo TV network president Michelle Rice in a press conference on Wednesday. The body of work that the honoree group of artists produced, resonated as something that brings us together, she added. “We also wanted to bring the show back to its musical roots of the first Urban One Honors that we did in Washington, D.C., which really fits the DNA of what we are trying to do. We thought this was the year to really come back and celebrate that.”

Rice, the only other Black woman in America to run a television network aside from Oprah, also mentioned their viewers and how important it was to “keep entertainment going” for their audiences during challenging times, an idea that Susan Henry, the executive producer in charge of production for TV One, agrees with.

Henry spoke about music as an integral part of the African American experience and the influence of Black music in all aspects of the culture. She added that the show is a celebration of culture and something to look forward to during the pandemic. Henry suggested that it was the right time to present the award show, which she is in charge of producing, in spite of the fact that Urban One Honors is usually presented in front of a live audience. The network went ahead with filming in a theatre full of empty seats as a safety measure during the pandemic.

After Ne-Yo put together “a whole spiel,” with jokes to liven things up, he learned that there wouldn’t be an audience for the show except for members of the production crew on-set. The musician said, “The hardest part was cracking a funny joke but there was nobody there to laugh.” He found the lack of an audience to laugh at his jokes “a little uncomfortable. Other than that, the show that people are going to see is something they’re going to remember.”

Ne-Yo had had nothing but praises for the Grammy and Oscar Award-winning musician and Urban One Honors award show opening performer H.E.R. He sees the artist as the future of a genre of music he’s made his career composing, performing and producing. During the video call he said he is a fan of her music (no pun intended) and that “if the future of R&B is in her hands,” he thinks “we’re going to be alright.” 

Rice saw H.E.R.’s performance as an example of music’s ability to unite people and was in awe of the way the artist connected with everyone from the youngest to the oldest person in the room. Everyone was so touched by her music, she said.

The universality of music and its ability to unite, fits in with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s message of togetherness. The Urban One Honors is set to premiere on Urban One’s cable TV and digital network on Monday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (MLK Day), a federal holiday in honour of Dr. King’s birthday.

“For the show to fall on this day with that message is just kind of serendipitous,” suggested Ne-Yo. “It was meant to happen this way.” Everybody is familiar with what Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream was – in laymen’s terms, he said, it was “for everybody to rock together.”

That inspiration was enough to carry him through the show, but the musician and World of Dance judge says he was nervous about doing it. He performed live on stage at the Urban One Honors award show two years ago and recalls it was a great experience. Network executives who worked on that show were also on the video-conference call and gave rave reviews of his performance. But Ne-Yo admits that he was shocked when they asked him to host this year.

How Jamie Foxx and Kevin Hart helped Ne-Yo with his pre-show jitters 

With all of Ne-Yo’s experience performing in front of millions of people, the R&B singer said he got nervous before the recent filming of the Urban One Honors award show. In the press conference earlier this week, Ne-Yo said he was honoured to be asked to host the Urban One Honors showcase.

“It feels amazing. It’s a full-circle moment being asked to host,” a show honouring the people who inspired him, he said. “Without Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis there would be no me”…”I’m absolutely honoured” and it was an absolute pleasure to show recognition to these trailblazers.”

In spite of the honour, the artist said he was shocked that they asked him. His first reaction was to ask the network executives, some of whom were present on the video call, “Are you sure you want me?” Everyone laughed playfully along with him, as he explained that he’d never done anything like this before. He still seemed to be in disbelief.

The 2022 Urban One Honors was the first award show that Ne-Yo hosted. The singer admitted to having “pre-hosting jitters” and “cast iron butterflies” fluttering around in his stomach before the big show and making a few emergency trips to the bathroom. To get rid of the jitters, he studied his favourite award show presenters, Jamie Foxx and Kevin Hart, for hosting style tips.

“I’ve always liked Jamie Foxx as a host on anything. Because he just makes it feel really conversational. He plays off the audience. Kevin Hart is another person who does really well in the realm of hosting,” said the artist.

When Ne-Yo found out that there wouldn’t be an audience because of precautions taken due to the pandemic, he had to adjust his mindset. He said he tried to envision how his jokes would land with the audience and it became a little awkward when no one laughed after he delivered a punchline since there was no audience. Some of the executives reminded him that they did laugh at his jokes — likely not the same thing.

Aside from that, the overall experience was great for him. Part of the reason why he was so nervous was because the Urban One network entrusted him with the important job of playing host to his peers and some of the legendary musicians he grew up listening to. These musicians carry the cultural inheritance of African American music, the music of the original innovators who composed folk music, gospel, jazz, blues, soul, rhythm & blues and their offshoots and melded those forms to create the sounds we listen to today.

The music of “old Motown, Prince, Stevie Wonder, that whole era of music is what molded my love for music and for melody and for those different sounds and tones,” said Ne-Yo.

Sometimes certain styles of music are forgotten or excluded from the scene but are very relevant to the culture because it allows for diversity within African African music. Ne-Yo believes that “diversity is the answer,” to putting together award shows that celebrate music, as it allows for growth and change in music.

Musicians being recognized with Urban One Honors this year

Musicians like Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, two of the artists who are being honoured with the Urban One lifetime achievement award, are responsible for the music that molded his style and made him the performer that he is. “From Michael Jackson to Prince and on down, they had something to do with all of that, that whole era in sound is my initial bread and butter, is where that comes from. Gamble & Huff, same situation, a lot of the music that moulded my sound and my appreciation for music came from them.”

“Jennifer Hudson … She’s easily one of the most amazing voices of our generation.”

Ne-Yo, a multiple award-winning musician himself, was in the presence of musicians he admired for most of his life, including Jennifer Hudson, when he hosted the Urban One Honors award show. Talking about her work, he said, “I’ve had the honour and pleasure of working with, writing for, as well as singing with Jennifer Hudson. She’s easily one of the most amazing voices of our generation.” 

“Timbaland changed the sound of Hip Hop and R&B for pretty much everybody, present company included.”

“I’ve also had the pleasure of working with Timbaland,” he added. “Timbaland changed the sound of Hip Hop and R&B for pretty much everybody, present company included. There are certain drum patterns and sounds that weren’t being used until Timbaland used them. So, for me to be a part of music myself how could I not give that man his flowers for showing us all another way to express ourselves.” 

The Urban One Honors award show is wrapped and ready for telecast. Earlier this week Urban One officially announced that the award-winning singer H.E.R. will be the opening act, joining the previously announced lineup of performers: Tasha Cobbs-LeonardKelly PriceTyreseTankJohnny Gill and Ralph Tresvant with a special set by D-Nice

Jermaine DupriMarlon Wayans and Vashawn Mitchell are presenters this year, handing out awards to the honourees Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis for lifetime achievement; Timbaland for music innovation; Gamble & Huff for the Living Legends award; Tasha Cobbs-Leonard for inspiration and impact; and to the Oscar, Grammy and Emmy Award-winning performer Jennifer Hudson, the Entertainment Icon award. 

Actress Eva Marcille (All the Queen’s MenReal Housewives of AtlantaHouse of PayneAmerica’s Next Top Model) will host a special Backstage Pass segment doing up-close interviews with the show’s special guests, honourees and presenters.

Urban One Honors was created by Urban One founder and chairwoman Cathy Hughes to recognize individuals who have made extraordinary contributions in entertainment, media, music, education, and the community. The vision since day one was to “honour our culture, our stories and our people,” said Rice.

Urban One Honors airs in a two-hour telecast on MLK Day, Monday, January 17, 2022 at 8:00 PM ET/7:00 PM CT on TV One and Cleo TV, a division of Urban One.

by Cherryl Bird – Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Twitter @ladycbird | Instagram @cherrylbird

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