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Twenty years of soul music

BOYZ II Men is considered the most successful R&B group of all time, famous for 20 years of emotional ballads and complex, intricate a cappella harmonies.

They have sold more than 60 million albums worldwide. Their signature song "End of the Road" broke the record on the Billboard Hot 100 set by Elvis Presley. They have won four Grammy Awards, American Music awards and the hearts of millions of fans around the world.

What has made them so popular for more than 20 years? Their simple answer: Music and staying true to their own music, despite fads and change. A new album "Twenty" is coming out in October.

The American three-man group performed recently at a charity concert at the 2011 International Horticultural Exposition in Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi Province. Tenor Wanya Morris spoke to Shanghai Daily before the show.

He has no security guards, no entourage. He's easy-going, humming a song. "Music is created by God, and we're ambassadors of what God creates," he said. "It's our responsibility to touch every color in everyone's heart, to paint that picture, and allow them to place it in the museum of their hearts and live by it. We artists are the vehicle to express the aspects of love through music."

Boyz II Men started out in 1989 at the Philadelphia High School for Performing Arts. They were first a quintet, then a quartet until 2003 when Michael McCary left for health reasons. Today they are a trio - Wanya Morris, Nathan Morris (no relation) and Shawn Stockman.

"What we loved and still love more than anything is music, singing, harmonizing together," said Wanya Morris. "We stayed true to what we loved and each other. We respect each other vocally and that has allowed us to have a great career."

Morris has six children, two girls and four boys, and said he hasn't lost his boyish side. He likes pencil sketching and watching cartoons, such as Tom and Jerry.

"I am a simple person who loves music," he said. "And it's the boyish quality within me that keeps me learning."

Q: Why have you been popular so long?

A: We were always taught that if you work hard and do your best, you'll always have a place in this business. Today it seems like the less you work and the worse you sound the more people accept you. Pretty tough to wrap your head around that after 20 years. So we just stick to what we know and love. It's progressed naturally for us; we love what we do and we put the music and our fans before everything else. That's honestly the secret. It is the key to our 20-year success.

Q: What's special about R&B?

A: R&B music is just simply soul music, they named it R&B because it had rhythm and it had sentimental blues. R&B is the rhythm and the soul. R&B made its mark because it has emotion. It's very simple to sing a song, but when you put emotion in it, that's when people begin to feel you. You do not even have to know the language.

Q: What do all the awards mean to you?

A: Awards mean a lot. They mean that you have been recognized for what you are doing. It means we are doing our jobs. The greatest reward is still being together, doing what we love to do 20 years later. And being relevant for people to still appreciate you right now.

Q: Many people pursue overnight fame. Is that hurting the music industry?

A: I really think so. The music industry used to be music, period. But now it's a business. Some artists these days do not hone their gift; they are not respected enough to have longevity. It's a fly-by-night-type industry. The record industry is changing too - it basically just gravitates to what is hot, not to talent. There are a lot of artists with great talent who won't ever be heard just because they do not fit within the demographic of what music is offering today. One thing we have always tried to do is maintain our integrity, not fall victim to the industry standard, but instead create our own standard and drive in our own lane.

Q: Who and what is up-and-coming? Who are your favorites today?

A: The sad truth is that not many artists are creating great R&B records anymore - and if they are, those are the songs that the labels are weeding out in the album finalization process, for fear of the sound being dated. Our fans have gotten older and younger. While many artists' fans grow old with them, our fans not only grow old but also pass our music down to their children. This makes our fan base much younger than one would think. And a lot of the young artists we admire, like Beyonce, Justin Bieber, and Justin Timberlake, are calling Boyz II Men one of their inspirations. We recently recorded a cameo on Mike Posner's song "Deja Vu." It's cool to have that kind of pull and appeal to young superstars.

Q: Many groups break up, but you have remained together. Will you stay together?

A: We're lucky enough to have incredible chemistry and we never lose sight of the fact that we're a team. It's easy to let disputes and drama and egos come between you as a group, which is why a lot of people go solo. But we still know why we do it, and that's because we truly love it. That is the key to being here 20 years. You can't predict the future, but we have a great bond.

Q: Please describe your group.

A: In the group, we all play by our rules. Shawn is more the diplomatic, he is the master of ceremonies, he speaks to the audience, gives them an idea of comfort. He is like a butterfly, a strong man and very spiritual. That's the attribute you need in a group.

Nathan is very strong-minded, business-minded. He doesn't include too many people in his circle, he doesn't smile much. If he's happy or not, he will let you know. His vocal ability is so vast - he can hit the notes that are out of range for most people. He has very low registers as well. He is very opinionated, manly and emotional. I am the guy who brings it home. I like to joke and be very funny. I am a first tenor and I can sing pretty high. I don't sing very low but my emotion within shows that I want to touch the audience. I do not mind crying and I do not mind laughing.

Q: What are your plans?

A: We're releasing a new album in October, called "Twenty." It's about why we're still here 20 years later and still able to captivate the audience. Music is the reason. And I believe "Twenty" is the beginning of the rest of our careers. It's a new start. We are doing a double CD, one will be eight new recordings of Boyz II Men classics; the other is all brand-new songs. We put our hearts and souls into it and wrote compelling lyrics and melodies. If it becomes successful, that's wonderful, if it doesn't, that's still gratifying because we did what we have to do.

Q: Tell us about your Sina weibo account and your Chinese fans.

A: It's our idea. We try to reach out to all our fans to express appreciation, let them know we are still here. We remember you, we hope you remember us. We want to link up with people, not only musically but also in a cultural way. I am not the most tweetery person, but I try to follow the more common people, so I can stay grounded.


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