Jerome Najee Rasheed, known in the music business simply as Najee, is set to perform at Fayetteville State University’s J.W. Seabrook Auditorium the evening of Saturday, March 16. Najee is a musical pioneer; he released many of his jazz and R&B hits before smooth jazz was solidified as its own genre. “Smooth jazz didn’t exist until the (19)90s,” he said. “When I came out in ’86, they created a separate billboard chart. There was a billboard jazz chart and a contemporary jazz chart, and I charted on both.”
Najee has been immersed in music his entire life. “My first exposure was through my mother,” he said. “She was an avid jazz listener. It was just part of the household musical experience — she listened to everything from R&B to jazz to Latin music to classical music.”
Najee’s childhood interest in music transitioned into a career shortly after he graduated high school. He went on tour with his brother Fareed in the band Area Code at the age of 18. “We toured all over the world with the USO for about a year,” he said. “Then my mother told me that I had to go to school and get a job.”
Najee’s early experience prepared him for success later on. After attending the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, Najee began performing with more big names in the industry. “When I couldn’t afford to go to the conservatory, my daughter and I went to New York (City) and got hired by Chaka Khan,” he said. “We toured for a year playing with her, and I signed in 1986 to Capitol Records.
“Since that time, I’ve worked with people like Prince and Quincy Jones.”
Najee released his first album, “Najee’s Theme,” in 1986. An immediate success, it received a Grammy Award nomination for best jazz album.
That trend of success continues. “Of my first four albums, the first two went platinum, the two after that were certified gold,” he said. “After that, it was actually Prince who convinced me not to sign to a label.”
Najee has collaborated with a handful of major artists, including Stevie Wonder, Freddie Jackson, Al Jarreau and George Duke. “The beautiful thing about all of that is I was fortunate enough to see the human side of it,” he commented.
“When you’re around it, they’re just like everyone else — they like to laugh, they like to have fun,” Najee said, specifically speaking about performing for President Jerry Rawlings of the Republic of Ghana at the White House during the Bill Clinton administration.
Najee hesitates to pick favorites when it comes to his performances, but he does admit to a few shows being particularly memorable. “I have many of those,” he said. “When Nelson Mandela was president of South Africa, he remarried and sponsored three concerts in South Africa. I was a guest along with Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan; we did this major, beautiful concert on his (Mandela’s) behalf.”
Though that event was nearly 21 years ago, Najee still remembers Mandela fondly. “What he did was a gift to the nation,” he said. “The highlight of it all was to have lunch with him in the presidential residence. He was such a nice and gracious man; you felt like you were sitting there with your father or grandfather.”
After 23 years in the music industry, Najee still tours the world and releases new content. “We’ve been on the road since last year: Europe, Africa, the United States,” he said of himself and his band. “We are touring now — I’m on a smooth jazz cruise with all the major artists.
“Fortunately, at this stage in my career, I choosem what I do. I’m having fun now.”
Najee’s 17th album, “Poetry in Motion,” is a tribute to his collaboration with two outstanding artists: Al Jarreau and Prince. Najee recalls his time with these and other artists as positive learning experiences.
“Les Brown once said that people grow through people and projects, and for me that’s been certainly true,” Najee said of his evolution as an artist. “Every situation I’ve been blessed to go into, I’ve been fortunate to take something from that experience.”
Despite his success in the industry, Najee is humble and thankful for what he does. “No two daysare alike,” he said. “My life is just not that bad, trust me — I have nothing to complain about, and I’m very grateful to be doing what I do.”
Aaron Singleton, personal relations representative for the Seabrook Performance Series at FSU, talked about the excitement Najee is bringing to the community. “We are so pleased to bring an artist at the caliber of Najee to Fayetteville,” he said. “(His) appearance is creating a lot of buzz around town.”
Najee said the audience can look forward to a wonderful and diverse experience. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been to Fayetteville,” he said. “I’m looking forward to meeting some new people, some students on campus that are musicians. We do that (bring people on stage). I don’t know who’s available as of yet, but I have friends around town who might surprise you.”
For the setlist, Najee plans on incorporating a variety of songs. “We perform things that I’ve recorded over the years ... and we toss in the newer stuff as well,” he said.
Steve Mack, budget director at FSU, is thrilled to welcome Najee back to North Carolina. “I’m certainly looking forward to it. I’ve seen the great Najee many times — I take advantage of every opportunity I get,” he said.
Najee performs March 16 from 7:30-9:30 p.m. at FSU’s J.W. Seabrook Auditorium, located at 1200 Murchison Rd. For tickets, and to learn more, visit www.uncfsu.edu/najee.