Music

Singer Misia explores the language of music

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

Singer Misia possesses an astonishing vocal range of five octaves but equally impressive is her humanitarian work abroad.

The artist, who asks to go by her stage name, has been working tirelessly on a wide range of humanitarian causes on the African continent since the early 2000s, using her music as a vehicle to bring communities together.

“A musician in Africa once told me that ‘music is language,'” Misia says. “In Africa, where different languages mix, music becomes a language in its own right that helps people to connect.”

The singer first visited Kenya in 2007, and recalls how amazed she was to discover just how much music meant to Maasai communities in the country as well as neighboring Tanzania.

“There are more than 50 countries in Africa and each nation has its own culture,” she says. “They have their own music and their own traditions. It’s incredible.”

Charmed by African culture, she has visited 13 countries on the continent in the past 12 years.

African adventure

Praised for her knowledge of the continent, Misia was appointed honorary ambassador of the seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development, which was hosted by the Foreign Ministry in Yokohama in August. She had previously been appointed to the role in 2013.

Center stage: In 2004, Misia became the first female solo singer to hold concerts in Japan's five largest domes. | MARTIN HOLTKAMP
Center stage: In 2004, Misia became the first female solo singer to hold concerts in Japan’s five largest domes. | MARTIN HOLTKAMP

In 2010, Misia co-founded an organization called Mudef — a portmanteau of Music Design Foundation — in an attempt to promote biodiversity and universal education in Africa. She remains a board member to this day.

In July, Misia published a picture book titled “Hāto no Leona” (“Leona’s Heart)” with a storyline based on her experiences in Africa, including visits to Kenya, Mali and Zambia.

Art director and writer Ellie Omiya, who is also on Mudef’s board, contributed a variety of vibrant illustrations that capture Africa’s spectacular landscape.

The book follows the exploits of a young female lion named Leona as she travels around Africa with a pelican as a companion. Leona has a heart engraved on her forehead. The pair come across a number of different animals during their trip and are introduced to a range of cultures and languages they haven’t encountered before. It’s an African safari that encompasses the entire continent.

The places the pair visit are actually locations Misia has visited herself, and the singer hopes readers will vicariously take away a deeper understanding of Africa through Leona’s travels.

The young female lion is modeled after a Japanese girl who died when she was just 18 months old due to an illness, Misia says.

“The (little girl) taught me the meaning of life,” Misia says. “I found out from her situation that there are many children like her who die at a young age. In producing this book, I want to show readers the reality of what life in Africa is like.”

Part of the revenue from the book will be used to support children suffering from illness in Japan and Africa.

Humble beginnings

Born in Nagasaki, Misia grew up on Tsushima Island in the prefecture. Her parents were both doctors and had relocated to the island in order to ensure the community had access to medical services.

“I would run around and play (when I was young), surrounded by nature,” Misia recalls.

She remembers hearing gospel music for the first time at a church on the island and quickly took a liking to soul.

Dynamic diva: Misia sings at a performance during the seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development in Yokohama on Aug. 28. | © RHYTHMEDIA INC.
Dynamic diva: Misia sings at a performance during the seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development in Yokohama on Aug. 28. | © RHYTHMEDIA INC.

She began taking voice lessons from a foreign instructor when she started high school in Fukuoka, and auditioned for singing roles whenever she could.

Misia rose to prominence in 1998 following the release of her debut album, “Mother Father Brother Sister,” which became the seventh best-selling domestic debut album of all time, and sold more than 2.5 million copies.

In 1999, she toured the country and later won several music awards, including best new artist at the Japan Gold Disc Awards.

Her 2000 ballad, “Everything,” was picked up as the theme song for popular Fuji Television drama “Yamato Nadeshiko” starring Nanako Matsushima and sold around 2 million copies.

This single elevated her to stardom, and she eventually became the first female solo singer to hold concerts in Japan’s five largest domes — Tokyo Dome, Nagoya Dome, Osaka Dome, Sapporo Dome and Fukuoka Dome — in 2004.

In the mid-2000s, Misia started experimenting with innovative electronic music in her shows. Around the same time, she recognized the need to travel abroad and went on several tours to venues in Asia.

The singer — who, according to several sources, was born Misaki Ito — says her stage name reflects a desire to share her music with people in Asia.

In 2005, Misia performed with U.S. contemporary soul singer Erykah Badu at Expo 2005 Aichi Japan, singing a song titled “Love the Earth.”

Social stance

Misia is a woman of principle and has been committed to social causes since she was young.

In 2005, she participated in a conference in Japan called Global Call to Action Against Poverty and later helped to organize Africa Benefit Live Yokohama, an event aimed at raising awareness on social issues relating to Africa ahead of the fourth Tokyo International Conference on African Development in Yokohama in 2008.

After a little encouragement from U2 frontman Bono, who is well-known for his charitable work, Misia visited Kenya for the first time in 2007, and visited Kibera near Nairobi, which is one of the largest slums in the world.

She spoke with children at the Magoso elementary school in Kibera, and was moved by listening to their dreams.

Misia talks about her experiences in Africa during a lecture at Fukuoka's Seinan Gakuin University — where the singer is an alumna of — on July 26. | © RHYTHMEDIA INC.
Misia talks about her experiences in Africa during a lecture at Fukuoka’s Seinan Gakuin University — where the singer is an alumna of — on July 26. | © RHYTHMEDIA INC.

Misia says she was shocked to learn just how many children in Africa die as a result of poor hygiene and a shortage of medication. Indeed, 5.3 million children in Africa died before they reached the age of 5, according to a 2019 UNICEF report.

She was happy to find out later that her visit sparked interest in some children, pushing them to work toward realizing their dreams, with studying in Japan being one of them. And Misia was able to help one child achieve precisely that by covering her tuition fees.

After seeing the number of children in need at the slum in Kibera, Misia established a project called Child Africa in 2008, which engages in assisting children’s education and health care in Africa and other parts of the world.

Musical interlude

In 2008, Misia completed a massive tour in Asia, holding stadium concerts in 13 cities, including five cities outside of Japan: Taipei, Shanghai, Singapore, Seoul and Hong Kong.

Misia is open to collaborating with other musicians or producers around the world. She produced a song titled “Life in Harmony” featuring biodiversity as a theme in August 2010 with renowned Canadian producer David Foster.

Misia sings during a ceremony to celebrate 100 years of the Japan-U.S. Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington in 2012. | © RHYTHMEDIA INC.
Misia sings during a ceremony to celebrate 100 years of the Japan-U.S. Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington in 2012. | © RHYTHMEDIA INC.

In September 2010, she was appointed honorary ambassador for the 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity by then-Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in appreciation of her commitment to social issues. The conference’s protocols were later adopted by delegates in Nagoya and “Life in Harmony” subsequently became the meeting’s official theme song.

Misia was on tour when the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami struck in March 2011, and some of her concerts were canceled in the wake of the disaster.

However, she decided to continue the tour in Tokyo in an effort to show her support for the people of Tohoku. As part of the show, she sang a touching rendition of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” together with a choir from Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, an area that was devastated by the earthquake and tsunami. The song was included on the album “Misia no Mori: Forest Covers,” which was released later the same year.

Also in 2011, Misia launched a conservation effort titled “Misia’s Forest” in Ishikawa Prefecture, which was aimed at implementing environmental programs for children.

A year after the disaster, Misia was appointed Cool Japan envoy by the Cabinet Office, singing “Ashitae” and “Everything” at a ceremony to celebrate 100 years of the Japan-U.S. Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington. Her performance, which she says was a token of appreciation for the support that the U.S. extended to Japan after the March 11 disaster, received a standing ovation.

Misia sang the same two songs as part of her set on NHK’s year-end “Kohaku Uta Gassen” special in a live broadcast from Namibia’s Namib Desert.

Misia later prayed for world peace in front of the statue commemorating the 1945 U.S. atomic bombing of Nagasaki during her second Kohaku appearance in 2015. She made a third appearance on the showbiz extravaganza in 2018.

In 2013, a song by Misia titled “Maware Maware,” which features celebrated Senegalese drummer Doudou N’Diaye Rose, became the theme song for the fifth Tokyo International Conference on African Development.

“Maware Maware” was named the theme song for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, and its 3D music video was shown in seven countries around the world.

Last year, Misia completed a nationwide tour in celebration of her 20th anniversary since her debut. She performed at Blue Note Tokyo and appeared at Fuji Rock Festival in 2018, one of the country’s most renowned summer music festivals.

Challenges in life

Misia says her love of charity has been shaped by her childhood.

“My interest in social issues probably stems from the extensive peace studies that were given at school in Nagasaki, as well as being brought up in a family of doctors,” Misia says. “The ‘message of life’ was never far from me as a child.”

She says she wants to continue confronting serious global issues, focusing on the eradication of medication shortages, educational shortcomings, child abuse and so on.

“Some of these issues exist in Japan as well,” she says. “We have to continue thinking about the message of life.”

More recently, the singer has given lectures and talks at universities such as Osaka University, Seinan Gakuin University and Sophia University, with an aim to let young people know more about the situation in Africa. “The first step is to know about Africa,” she says.

The singer aims to tackle a variety of social issues. In December, she will join Yumi Matsutoya and other musicians to perform at an LGBTQ charity live event titled “Live Pride” at the Tokyo International Forum. The event is being organized to help create a society in which LGBTQ youths can be themselves.

Although Misia has attracted millions to her concerts as a performer and has influenced countless young people in her role as an activist, the singer doesn’t let the fame go to her head.

“My philanthropic activities are all possible because I’m a musician,” Misia says. “I just want to bring a smile to the faces of children and young people through the power of music.”

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