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Don't Dream It, Be It: Jero's Enchanting Enka Legacy

Posted by Kelly S. Osato, February 1, 2012 11:33pm | Post a Comment
In Japan, you'd have to living under a rock to not know Jero (or ジェロ) and prior to 2003 an event listing like the concert poster pictured below might have drawn attention for all the wrong reasons (see: Other).

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There is certainly nothing inherently other about Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania native Jero, Jerome Charles White, Jr., but he stands apart from the pack in that he has, before the age of thirty, achieved living his dream of becoming the first successful African-American Enka singer in Japanese music history.

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Jero grew up among a str
ong influence of Japanese culture and began singing Enka at an early age due to his Japanese grandmother Takiko's enthusiasm for the genre. She had met Jero's grandfather, an African-American serviceman, at a dance in Yokohama during World War II. They married, had a daughter - Jero's mother Harumi - and eventually moved to Pittsburgh, his grandfather's hometown. Though his parents divorced when he was still very young Jero was reared under the cultural influence and familial guidance of his Japanese grandmother and his Japan-born mother in a mixed-heritage household.

jero enka singer japan black history month afircan american mixed heritage traditional japanese music pop vocal
Jero attended the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in information technology, and later moved to Japan to further his lifelong Japanese language studies and work as a computer engineer. He hadn't initially imagined making a career for himself as an Enka singer, but nevertheless he worked towards his goal of fulfilling a promise that he had made to his grandmother of one day performing in the annual
Kōhaku Uta Gassen song show broadcast every New Year's Eve in Japan. Amazingly, he achieved real success as a result of appearing on the show and subsequently competing in other singing contests. Unfortunately, in 2005 Jero's grandmother passed away before she could see her little protogé achieve fame as an international Enka superstar in 2008, reinvigorating the genre by melding it with modern hip-hop and R&B.

Enka, for those who have never heard of the vibrato-framed strains of Japan's most beloved (and somewhat unfashionable) sentimental ballad stylings, think of some modern, er, post Pacific war pop vocalists singing tearful songs of unrequited love and missed connections. Now imagine that these songs somehow speak to you about your life, moving your spirit into a slow emotional tailspin that is somehow also characterized by a deep sense of nationalistic pride way down in the darkest depths of your heart (I fully realize that this exercise will seem a wee bit of a stretch for some of the Americans reading this). Now, an Enka song is not gonna be about a truck or ni**as in Paris, but if it makes you feel proud to to be an American and deathly depressed that you never gambled with a kiss on the one that (in theory, because if you're exercising your imaginary Enka vibe correctly you've been pondering heartache waay too much) got away then you've nailed the sentiment. If you've seen Kill Bill then you've pretty much heard Enka, or at least something like it.

As to the Enka singing style, well, perhaps Jero could fill in the rest. Here he is singing an old standard「宗右衛門町ブルース」("Soemonchou Blues") on a televised, all-star by request Enka revue:



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Japanese (13), Black History Month 2012 (11), Jero (1), Pop (16), Jerome Charles White Jr (1), Enka (1), Black History Month (122)