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Singer Ne-Yo spreads love in Japan

By Denise Quan, CNN
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Ne-Yo breaks down barriers with music
  • Star went on a tour in Japan a week after a devastating earthquake and tsunami
  • Ne-Yo says he may work with Willow Smith
  • Singer says talent is "rarely the first thing looked for nowadays"
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(CNN) -- Ne-Yo is standing center stage in Nagoya, speaking a few halting phrases of Japanese to a packed arena. The crowd cheers.

"Some of my pronunciations are not exactly up to par," the 31-year-old R&B star admits after returning to his home in Atlanta. "But I'm doing my best, you know. They take it upon themselves to learn the lyrics to my songs, which is incredible to me, since many do not speak the language. So the least I could do is learn a couple of phrases here and there."

Just a week after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami left parts of northern Japan a disaster zone, Ne-Yo embarked on a three-city tour of the Land of the Rising Sun.

"Never in my mind was there ever the thought of not going," he says. "I was actually more anxious to go, because in times of great turmoil like that, you need something to make you smile. You need something to take your mind off of what's going on -- even if for a little while. I just wanted to see what was going to be the safest way to get us over there."

Ne-Yo headlined concerts in Nagoya, Kobe and Yokohama. A fourth stop in Tokyo had to be postponed. At a scant 150 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, it was deemed a little too close for comfort for the production crew.

"That was the one show where they said due to the radiation, it was just not feasible for us to go in," Ne-Yo says.

At each venue on his "Spread Love Through Music" tour, fans generously filled donation jars earmarked for relief efforts and snapped up black bracelets that read, "Our prayers are with Japan."

"So far, we've raised upward of $10,000 in each city that we've gone to. I think we'll do about ($60,000)," he says. "It's one thing to come over here and sing a song and dance and all of that. But it's another to give them something they can use.

" 'Spread Love Through Music' -- that's what I'm going to do."

The singer recently spoke with CNN about his tour in Japan, why talent doesn't count for as much as it used to in the music business and what it's like to be a new father.

CNN: When you first traveled to Japan, it was during a period where people didn't really know how bad the nuclear fallout was going to be.

Ne-Yo: Well, of course, we wanted to get the absolute facts on what was safe and what wasn't. You don't purposely and knowingly walk into a situation where you could potentially be in some serious danger. The main thing we wanted to get done was see if the areas we had planned to go to had been affected, and what was realistic as far as going. The Japanese people have been some of my most dedicated fans, so what kind of artist would I be to not go over there and give some of that appreciation back -- especially in their time of need.

CNN: But there were a few crew members who were worried about potential radiation and didn't want to tour Japan.

Ne-Yo: There are some news channels who just want to make it sound as terrible as they possibly can. But as far as the people that decided not to come -- you know, I can't make a person do anything that they don't want to do.

However, I came from a school where the show must go on, given any situation. You can't pick which shows you're going to do and not going to do. That's not something that's allowed, you know. You can't work any other job and decide, "OK, I'm not going to go to work today." You can't do that and keep your job.

I don't fault anybody for how they felt about going or not going. It was what it was. We went over there, the shows went off without a hitch, and nobody came back with any sickness, or any newfound limbs or anything weird like that. Nothing happened. Everybody was perfectly fine.

CNN: How did you learn the Japanese phrases?

Ne-Yo: We had a translator. I would just ask them, "How do I say this? How do I say that? I want to address the people like this -- what do I say?" And they would tell me. It's not an easy language to learn, I will say that.

CNN: Where are you headed next?

Ne-Yo: I've been home for about a day and a half. It's good to come home and spend some time with my daughter. She's about 5 months now, and she's getting louder by the day, and that's a beautiful thing.

CNN: You're working on a new album. When's that coming out?

Ne-Yo: Probably going to shoot for around September. Be looking for a single probably around June or so. As of right now, the album is currently untitled. I don't know what to call it yet.

CNN: We hear you might be working with Willow Smith.

Ne-Yo: We've definitely been talking about doing stuff. I think she's ridiculously talented, especially for her age. (The daughter of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett is 10.) There's just good genes in that family, I guess. Everybody over there is talented.

CNN: What if your daughter grows up and wants to become a singer?

Ne-Yo: Well, it's not something that I would ever try to force her into, but I'm going to make sure that she does it the right way. There's definitely a wrong and right way to get into this business, to exist as an artist.

CNN: Has it been hard or pretty easy to break into the business for you?

Ne-Yo: It was definitely hard, and it's harder now.

Talent is rarely the first thing looked for nowadays. At one point, talent was, at the very least, 70 percent of what was needed to do this job, and I feel like it's been bumped down to somewhere in the low 20s and 30s.

Now, it's like, "I need you to be as controversial as humanly possible. Look good with your shirt off, look good with a short skirt and just do things to make people pay attention, and I don't care what it is." I don't understand that route.

CNN: You have a pretty positive image.

Ne-Yo: I don't necessarily feel like my image is so much squeaky-clean, as it is just real. Before I became a celebrity, I wasn't a knucklehead. I wasn't a troublemaker. Why would I start doing that now, just because people are paying attention? I've never been that guy to begin with. I've always been a somewhat easygoing guy who thought before he acted for the most part.

I mean, nobody's perfect, but I think at the end of the day, I'm not about to set myself on fire and jump off a building so that people will pay attention. Honestly, if my talent is not enough to get your attention, then maybe you should go and pay attention to somebody else.

When the pendulum swings back toward actual talent, I'll be sitting right here. And in the meantime, I'm a just do what I do. Other than that, I'm at the house eating chips, watching TV and developing a gut. Yeah, that's what I'm doing.

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