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“I am an American first and foremost and I am black” -- American Enka singer Jero

Today, in the uniquely traditional world of Japanese enka, there is no bigger new name than Jero.

Photo courtesy of Victor Entertainment, Inc.

Since writing a piece (“Jero and Me” ) earlier this year, I’ve been deeply intrigued about this American Nikkei singer who’s become a household name in Japan since his first CD, “Covers” (2008) followed by “Yakusoku” (“Promise”, 2009) and now “Covers 2”. I wanted to know what was behind the media hype.

Japan loves the gaijin who wants to belong. What makes Jero unusual is that he wants to make it on his own terms, with his own fashion sense and personal identity. After my interview with him, I came away with a deep respect for this young man’s sense of purpose and determination to make a positive change within his chosen art form. He certainly couldn’t have chosen a tougher or more obscure niche in Japan’s music industry to make his mark.

In addition to the legendary Misora Hibari, he counts sempai Hikawa Kiyoshi, 32, and Sakamoto Fuyumi, 42, among his biggest influences.

The script of his career thus far reads like any good enka song. He was greatly influenced by his Japanese grandmother, Takiko, who met his African American grandfather serviceman at a dance during World War Two. They eventually married, had a daughter, Harumi, then moved to Pittsburgh where Jero was born Jerome Charles White, Jr. in 1981. He grew up listening to enka with Takiko and studied Japanese from a young age. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh (2003), he moved to Japan, first making his living as an English teacher then as a computer engineer, all the while actively pursuing his promise to his grandmother to one day become an enka singer and perform on the annual NHK TV Kohaku Uta Gassen year-end show. He kept both promises but, sadly, only after Takiko passed away in 2005.

I met Jero in a nondescript building in the Ebisu ward of Tokyo. It was one of those narrow three-storey buildings that are squeezed between other similar ones. The twenty-seven-year old was a gracious host impressing me with his maturity and poise.

I catch him shortly before the August launch of his new CD “Covers 2” and single “Tsume Ato” and in the midst of preparing for his first concert tour that will take him, along with a small band and four hip hop dancers to 35 different venues around Japan.

What do you think about the election of Barack Obama?

I think that last year, the first black U.S. president and the first black enka singer to come out was something that I will never forget. I wish that my grandfather was alive to see that. Obama’s doing a great job and I support him 100 per cent.

How did you deal with the hype of being ‘the first American enka singer’?

It is kind of sad to say when I first came out, the number of times that I was called ‘the first black enka singer’, ‘the first American enka singer’ or ‘the first black American enka singer.’ It’s what’s on the surface that they see first. At first, I thought, was the ‘black’ reference really necessary? I thought about it in the positive. It isn’t as though they are lying; I am all of those things. Do I feel any responsibility for all of that? Not exclusively. I am different. They always talk about how well I speak Japanese, how I sound Japanese, which is all flattering and fine; it’s a compliment and I am thankful for it. They also comment on the way I carry myself. I don’t say that it is a responsibility but it is probably something that they’ll be looking at. But, at the same time, I am not going to change myself in any way to conform to any kind of standards that they might have of me.

I am an American first and foremost and I am black. As a person, I am going to share my opinions and express how I feel and that is something that all of my staff knows. If I am not happy with something, I’ll tell them. I absolutely despise confrontation but at the same time, I am not going to keep myself closed up. I am going to say what I have to say and express how I feel.

How conscious was your choice to wear the hip hop fashions you do?

When I first got scouted, after a few concerts in Osaka, they were talking about wanting to make me a singer. As far as wearing a kimono, that isn’t me; that doesn’t equal enka. The music defines the genre. I don’t think that the way you dress defines it either. It is just the way it evolves. You have a lot of male enka singers today who even wear jeans and a collared shirt, some wear suits, others don’t. For me, if I was to wear a kimono or a suit, people wouldn’t take me seriously.

I just want to be me when I go on stage. This is the way I dress on a daily basis. This is who I am. I am not a gangster. This is the type of style I enjoy wearing. When I don’t like it anymore, I will change it. I am 27 and can wear these kinds of clothes. Other people in Japan my age have somebody to relate to. Hopefully they will start listening to the music and start to show a little more appreciation for it too.

Was there any resistance to this form of self expression?

I don’t think that it was resistance. It was a risk for them for the most part and that was totally understandable. I really didn’t have to beg and plead with them. I just expressed my own opinions and they thought about it and went along with it. I am thankful for that too.

Could you have made that kind of choice had you been a Japanese singer?

I have more latitude as an American. If I was Japanese and wanted to wear these kinds of clothes it probably wouldn’t happen. Like I said before being from the States works in my favor.

Do you consider yourself Nikkei?

You could call me Nikkei in a way but it is only one-fourth. I am African American, of course. I don’t deny my heritage in anyway but on the surface I am a black man. I’m mixed, I guess.

When did you know that you wanted to become an enka singer?

As a kid I always thought about it and dreamed about it but never thought that I possibly could because I was living in the States and nobody knew about the genre of music. Whenever I came here as an exchange student, I realized that there was a possibility that I could move here and work and actually pursue it. So when I was in university I decided that I would move over here and while I was working I would try to see how I could go about becoming a singer.

When you were growing up what other music did you listen to?

When it came to singing with confidence, it was really only enka just because I had been singing it for so long. For me it was either singing or dancing as far as the arts were concerned. If I wasn’t able to do either or I would have found a job doing computers or something. My mom and dad listened to 80s and 90s R&B. My favorite artist was Luther Vandross. My grandmother played a lot of Misora Hibari.

Is the importance of your grandmother an overstated one?

She is the whole reason why I am here. If it wasn’t for her influence there would have been no other way for me to have been introduced to this music or Japan. Her being born and growing up over here, meeting my grandfather, my mom and me, that whole cycle was because of her. She always wanted me to sing and do well in school. She was one of my biggest fans.

How would she feel about where your dreams have taken you?

She would be ecstatic. She would be as famous as I am! I am sure that she would be here supporting me and she would be having the time of her life.

When I saw the title “Yakusoku”, was that for her?

The album was dedicated to my grandmother because it came out this year in February and last year all of those promises were fulfilled with my first album. The song “Hare butai” (Gala) was for my mom.

Did you grow up with a lot of Japanese things?

My mother and grandmother cooked Japanese things almost every day. For breakfast she would make rice, grilled fish and natto. She would make things like kuri (pickled cucumber), takikomi gohan, so I grew up very comfortable with the culture. I was never the sports outdoor type. I was more the indoor, TV game, music type.

At about what age did you begin to understand what the songs were about?

At about 5 or 6 I didn’t have enough of the language to know what the songs were about. I didn’t really begin knowing what the songs were about until I went into university and started learning Japanese at a faster rate. The first time I went to Japan was when I was 15 for a speech contest.

How do you explain what enka is to Americans?

The lyrics are so deep and poetic and something related to Japan. It is a form of Japanese blues. It’s melodramatic; it hits the heart; it’s sad and talks about how people are feeling. The blues do the same thing.

Do you think that it is possible to do enka in English?

Honestly, no. I don’t think that it would translate well into English just because there are a certain number of syllables in a Japanese phrase, melody and verse. You can fit so much more meaning into Japanese than in English. Directly translating the words in to English might be possible but the hidden meanings of the Japanese language will probably be lost.

Is the established enka community behind you?

They are. I’ve met a few who have said ‘thank you for coming to Japan and singing our music.’ That was a surprise to me because you don’t usually get superiors saying things like that to a kohai. A lot of them are really comforting. That has been a big blessing. Whenever I meet them, they are humble and I am even more humble, of course.

Do you consider yourself a cultural groundbreaker of sorts?

I think that in any country there are a lot of stereotypes towards a lot of different cultures and races. That is going to happen. I think that it is a good thing. If more people could see that there are other people like me and that it is not just one monolith.

Not a lot of young folk listen to enka. Here, they don’t want to listen to what their parents listen to. I think that that is a big factor why they don’t listen to enka now. My upbringing in the States has allowed me to appreciate something different which has led me to my career now.

My rise has been pretty fast. Most enka singers don’t have so much success in their first year. I am thankful for that. I don’t think about the reasons too much. I don’t want that to be something that I have to think about every day. When I go on stage I just want to be me and not change to be the persona that everybody wants me to be. An American singing enka has never happened before. Me growing up in the States and me being different have worked in my favor. Younger people could appreciate something different and are willing to be fans of mine. I am very, very thankful for that.

What’s your fan base?

Mostly women from forty to sixty; they like the way I look and carry myself. I get a lot of fan mail.

How do you want your career to develop from here?

I just want to concentrate on putting out music and later on branching out into other aspects of music and starting a business of some sort. Right now I want to concentrate on music and getting more people listening to enka. I’m hoping to get older and younger people going away from my concerts and asking their friends to go with them next time. That’s the kind of rapport that I want to make with the audience. Music can bring people together. When I did my debut, it brought my mother back to Japan. Music has a lot of qualities that aren’t always appreciated.

How did it bring your family together?

My mother hadn’t been back to Japan in 20 years. All of my brothers (Michael and Mark) and sister, Yumiko, were here too. It was the first time we were all together in Japan. That was one of our dreams.

What are the biggest surprises thus far in your career?

All of last year was a big surprise. I heard stories about enka singers who start out and don’t have their first hit until 10 years later. So, my first year was not something that happens every day. I am always thankful and will continue to be humble.

What is the importance of being ‘humble’ in Japan?

I don’t think that it is just in Japan. I think that as long as you are humble and realize what you have, other people appreciate that, see that and have more respect for you. If you aren’t then people will see that too and not want to deal with you. I am happy for what I have. I want to keep growing as an artist and a person. I want a house some day. I want my mom to come here to live. I want to have a concert in the Tokyo Dome or the Budokan. I also want to eventually write songs.

What’s the future of enka?

Coming off last year, I think that more people have a little more interest in enka. It is still important to keep that interest alive. In Japan, people lose interest quickly; they always like the new groups and artists. Some artists focus on their core fans. Others are more set in their ways. I want to branch out to get more people to listen to enka and appreciate it.

Has the media hype over you settled down?

When I first came on the scene, it really was a big thing. For the whole of February, in the media it was all ‘Jero this’, ‘Jero that’. It was really freaky but to Japanese people it really was a big thing. Winning the awards that I did last year, it was exciting and overwhelming because it wasn’t all about CD sales. It was about the impact I had on the music industry and that wasn’t so much an eye opener as something that I am really, really thankful for. The country has really embraced me and that is how I felt.

What’s your big dream now?

My dream to become an enka singer has been fulfilled. Now it is just to be able to perform in front of the biggest crowds possible. A few years down the line, I want to be doing those big shows that most enka singers aren’t able to do. At this point in my career, I don’t have ideas of branching out and doing something in the States or worldwide yet.

Do you have a parting message for young Nikkei?

I’d like to tell them two things: No matter how farfetched or big a dream they might have, it is always good to pursue them even in the smallest way. Don’t give up on it; keep working toward it. If it doesn’t happen, you can at least say that you worked hard towards something; that is really, really important.

Second, for those who are interested in listening to Japanese music, just give enka a chance. Just listen to it, listen to the words, take it for what it’s worth and I am sure that you’ll get something out of it.

* First published in the Dec. 2009 edition of the Nikkei Voice newspaper, Toronto, Canada.

© 2009 Norm Ibuki

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