U.S. enka singer takes Japanese soul by storm

by Masami Ito

Decked out in his broad-brimmed baseball cap, silver necklace and jeans, the young man stands alone on a black stage. With his voice full of emotion, he begins to sing in Japanese:

“All alone in Izumozaki No shelter from tomorrow Cold winds pierce through the heart Bitter words fade into the water Just as the ocean snow’

This is Jero, the first African- American enka singer in history.

Jero’s love for enka (popular postwar Japanese melodramatic ballads) goes back to when he was a child. Raised by his Japanese grandmother and half-Japanese mother, he grew up listening to enka legends Hibari Misora and Harumi Miyako — and began singing enka for his grandmother when he was 5 or 6 years old.

“I’m doing something I love to do, I’m doing something I feel like I was born to do,” Jero told The Japan Times in a recent interview. “(Enka) was something that I had loved since I was a kid . . . and it stuck with me through grade school and college, the whole time I kept up on it.”

In February, Jero made his major debut with “Umiyuki (Ocean Snow),” a recording that has already sold 250,000 copies and has had 500,000 downloads. The promotion video for the song cleverly combines hip-hop and enka — a wall covered in colorful graffiti with Jero performing his hip-hop dance steps between verses makes a striking contrast to the all-black stage when he is singing.

“I think the reason why a lot of people have grown to like (“Umiyuki”) is because it’s something different, but the base of it is still enka — which I’m really happy about,” Jero said. Like other enka songs, “Umiyuki” too is a sad love song — as the main character stands alone on the edge of a cliff, mourning the hopeless situation of a broken heart. But in order to get a true and deeper understanding of the song, Jero visited Izumozaki in Niigata Prefecture.

“I actually saw snow falling from the sky into the ocean and it was cold and it was the dead of winter,” Jero recalls. “It was a very good image to see. It helps me keep the image in my head whenever I’m singing.”

Luckily for Jero, he says he has had a lot of support from established enka singers and listeners for his style, which mixes his own unique vocals with the traditional genre.

Jero admits, however, that on very rare occasions he has been exposed to negative opinions.

“A lot of people (who are negative about me) are thinking ‘he’s just a one-hit wonder’ or ‘he really doesn’t like enka’ . . . ‘(or) why are they making him dance like that, he looks like a fool,’ ” Jero said.

“But I know I can’t please everyone, and I just take it in my stride and continue to do what I want to do and what the majority wants me to do and what they want to hear.”

According to Jero, the hardest adjustment post-debut was the grueling schedule. At the same time, though, he is well aware that “everything could just stop at the drop of a dime.”

“I think as an artist you always have to stay new and you always have to stay on top of things, try new things all the time — I keep that in my head,” he said.

And as an artist, too, Jero says he hopes to contribute to attracting young listeners to enka.

A more short-term goal, though, is to get a spot on national broadcaster NHK’s must-see New Year’s Eve song contest, “Kohaku Utagassen.”

“I’ve been watching ‘Kohaku’ since I was age 1 — ever since 1982 — and that was a big part of me, listening to and watching enka,” Jero said.

“I know a lot about ‘Kohaku’ and how important it is to any artist to be on it. That’s the main reason why I want to be on that show for years to come.”





Irishman excels at age-old biwa



Aussie geisha speaks out



Learning the sublime ikebana lessons of nature



In the wake of Hokusai



Inking her own mark