How a young 'half-breed' is reviving a very old, traditional, insular, often ridiculed form of Japanese music.
You know this story, right? Multi-racial kid, thin as a wisp, elongated frame, mocha-complected skin, lives in a foreign country, comes to the ancestral home of his mom and grandparents, does well in his university studies, then toils hard for a few years in a grueling, thankless, low-profile job. Through determination and commitment to his craft, he positions himself to experience “overnight” popularity -- massive in scale -- and suddenly is in all the media seemingly 24-7, saying all the right things, amassing a legion of supporters, being hailed as a savior, and anointed as the new king.
“Yeah,” you say, you are familiar with the story, having watched the US presidential inauguration on January 20th. Only . . . actually . . . it wasn’t Barack Obama who I was describing. No, the guy whose tale I was referencing goes by the name “Jero” -- at least over here, in the place of his monumental conquest: ReDotPopland. “Jero” being short for “Jerome White, Jr.”, a brother from Philly; a dude whose dad was African-American, but whose mom was half Japanese, half American [what they call “hafu” (half) or “daburu (double) over here in ethnically-over-attuned Japan].
Jero is a phenomenon, a symbol, a beacon of hope, a potential bell-weather, a portent -- all rolled into one. And, because this is so, wherever you are reading this, you may actually have heard about him and, thus, you may be familiar with his bio. If not, you can catch up here. In a nutshell, though, Jero is a hit in the world of enka -- ReDotPop’s most conservative of musical genres, Japan’s equivalent to American Country and Western music -- which, to date (and for over half a century), has been popular among the geriatric set.
And Jero cuts an especially striking figure: not only because he has mastered the arcane language and warbling intonations of this tradition-bound musical genre, but because he has done so outfitted in urban gear and with urban attitude -- making him popular with younger audiences. Whereas nearly every enka star stands stock still, crooning in a kimono, yukata, flowing gown, or tux, Jero offers up a few hip-hop moves, and emotes with baseball cap askew, covering a do-rag; with diamond studs glistening in his earlobes; sporting untucked button-down plaid shirts or loosely-fitting fleece jackets, unbuttoned or unzippered enough to reveal a cotton T beneath; and topped off by baggy jeans and lace-less high-tops.
Heretical for the staid world of enka, some might think; a breath of fresh air, many others would argue.
How did this all come to pass? How did Jero get this way? Why did he choose enka? And why has enka, apparently, chosen him? Especially considering the hip-hop fusion?
Well, the story repeated in (by now) hundreds of interviews, goes that his consuming passion for Japanese Country & Western came by way of his grandmother. An influential figure in Jero’s adolescence, much like Barack’s grandmother was during his. And not unlike Barack, as a mixed race kid living in a lower, working-class neighborhood in the states (in this case Pittsburg, Pennsylvania), Jero was relegated to the margins. As such, he often sought refuge in his grandmother’s home and, there, ended up sampling enka tunes on her records and cassettes.
Early on he may have fractured the lyrics, but by the time he had graduated from the University of Pittsburg, and with a three month stint under his belt as an exchange student at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, he was more than adept at handling the mic in karaoke competitions. Which is how his big break came.
Armed with a degree in information science, Jero moved to Japan in 2003 to work as an English teacher -- one of the major (and most lucrative) means by which foreigners come to spend time in the ReDot. When he wasn’t teaching, he appeared on Nodo Jiman (“Proud of My Voice”), a song-fest on NHK (the public television station), as well as entering karaoke and amateur singing contests. And it was at one of the latter that he caught the attention of a judge, who, coincidentally (or not), also happened to work for Victor Entertainment.
Victor signed Jero up for development, which, in the rigorous, competitive, corporatized world of Japanese music, meant two years of voice lessons. (Hard to believe, as bad as so many entertainers’ voices are. On the other hand, enka is one of those genres where good singing actually dwells -- likely the result of all those years of company-enforced training). While studying voice, and with no guarantee of ever recording a track, Jero toiled at a day job as an information engineer. The homie from Pittsburgh, paying his dues.
In February 2008, he got his break -- and his ship was finally launched -- when Victor (ironically) offered him a song called Umiyuki (roughly, Ocean Snow / Snow Sea), the promotional video for which looks and sounds like this:
Now, if you know anything about enka, that opening street prancing and unison dancing might strike you as incongruous, but once the song settles in, it’s actually no different than any other enka piece worth its salt (which is to say, the accumulation of shed tears). The lyric centers on love unrequited and/or lost (“Darling, no matter how much I love you / You never love me back”); it posits deliciously boundless despair (“Following you to Izumozaki /The Japan Sea of Sorrow /I’ve lost your love and I’m standing on the cliff”); it trucks in the intoxicating logic of suicide (“Darling, shall I throw myself in?”); it operates though lugubrious metaphor (“From the freezing sky /Snow falls down to the sea / Drifts on to the waves and / Vanishes without a trace … The tears that fall are just snow on the ocean / which never settles”).
With lines like that, the song’s gotta be a hit.
On the other hand, there was nothing sure-fire about the communicator. Would Jero sell to the Japanese public? In watching him make the rounds on the wake-up shows and afternoon talkies (the so-called “Wide Shows”), what is clear is that the young artist has all the right moves. He is personable, intelligent, relatively articulate, and, above all, humble. For instance, in this video here, during the post-song interview (which, as is true in any other country, is so important for connecting with and building a fan base), Jero speaks like a native singer would. He immediately “admits” to the host: “I was really nervous, but it was fun to sing (and then I became relaxed)”, suggesting that he felt just like any average, everyday person would with a camera thrust in their face. When asked pointedly about his attire, he explains: “It wouldn’t look right for me to wear the traditional dress of those who normally sing enka” he says, trying to reassure all those purists who might fear the impending corruption of their heretofore rule-governed, tradition-bound art.
When quizzed about his Japanese roots he responds: “I sing enka because my grandmother’s influence was so strong and because I loved her greatly”, thus, showing that he is family-centered and above all, beholding to and respectful of his Japanese roots. When queried about his “dream”, he replies: “I promised my grandmother to become an enka singer and to appear in (the annual New Year’s) Red-White Singing Contest”, thus tugging on the heartstrings of those who now know the back-story of his grandmother’s passing three years prior. And when asked about the sort of food he likes, (as all foreigners who come to Japan are invariably asked -- an implicit “can you really fit in a country where the cuisine is so different than in the West?”), Jero makes a beeline to two of the most unpalatable items for many foreigners (and even some Japanese): “I love eating natto (fermented soy beans) and