Enka is often described as the most traditional of all popular music in Japan, usually considered distinct from the very broad J-pop category that includes “non-Japanese” musical genres such as rock, dance and hip-hop.
When enka singers visit the U.S., they often draw intimate crowds of older Nisei and Shin-Issei. However, when current enka sensation Jero, aka Jerome White Jr., comes to San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts on March 28, a very different and much larger crowd is expected.
This is because Jero is not the typical enka singer. The 29-year-old has been described (inaccurately) in English language news as a “U.S. rapper.” And while he wears hip-hop clothing, performs hip-hop dance and is African American, Jero performs largely orthodox enka music, he does not rap and he is also Nikkei.
White’s late grandmother, Takiko, was a native of Yokohama. She married his grandfather, Leonard Tabb, an African American U.S. serviceman, at the end of World War II. Jero’s mother, Harumi, was born in Japan, and grew up there until the family moved to Tabb’s hometown of Pittsburgh when she was 13. Growing up in Pittsburgh’s largely black and working class Perry North neighborhood, Jero, whose parents divorced when he was young, was nonetheless exposed to Japanese culture as far back as he can remember.
“I was very, very proud of my heritage growing up,” Jero told CNN. “Just to have a mother and grandmother who could speak in another language… none of my friends had that.”
Jero taught his friends at school how to count in Japanese; however, as he told the Washington Post, he largely did not discuss his deepest Japanese cultural passion, enka music.
With roots in soshi enka, Meiji period civil rights and political satire songs, modern enka, popularized in the post-war period, is often described as “Japanese blues.” While the music uses Western harmonies, it often also incorporates Japanese instruments. And many of its songs have a dark tone, along with a sense of yearning, obligation and impermanence that is distinctly Japanese. When it was popularized, enka fell on the older side of the ’60s generation gap.
Jero does not remember when he first heard enka, but it was a regular part of his childhood. His grandmother played enka records and videos sent by relatives in Japan, and she hummed the melodies while cooking.
The young Nikkei felt a special connection to the music, and he learned hiragana and katakana so he could read enka lyrics and liner notes. By the age of 6, White himself was singing enka (as evident in home video footage viewable online) and dreamed of doing so professionally. When he was 15, he traveled to Japan for the first time as part of an international speech competition.
“I fell in love with the country and decided… everything I want to do with my life is in Japan,” he told CNN. “The day I landed, I went to karaoke [and sang enka]… Of the two weeks I was [in Japan] I went to karaoke every day.”
Jero went to Japan again on an exchange program in college and then, when he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with an information technology degree, he moved to Japan, where he initially taught English before becoming a computer engineer.
While his mother had great difficultly growing up biracial in Japan in the ’60s, Jero says speaking Japanese on a daily basis was his biggest challenge living there.
“The Japanese are welcoming to foreigners,” he said. “I don’t feel I had experienced any discrimination as an African American in particular, but sometimes generally as a foreigner — people assumed I couldn’t speak Japanese and were surprised when I did.”
While working in the tech industry, Jero participated in numerous singing competitions and was eventually scouted and signed. While initially encouraged to wear a kimono or a suit, as is the norm for enka performers, he chose instead to dress in the hip-hop style he wore in everyday life.
“I wanted to get more young people involved,” he explained, “and I also wanted to be able to go up onstage and perform the music I love without changing the way I look… I wanted to [perform as] me.”
His debut single “Ocean Snow” features a conventional enka melody with a slightly stronger, more pronounced beat. The video has a hip-hop music intro, which lasts a few seconds and is absent in the album version of the song, and it features Jero and two background dancers busting hip-hop moves. The lyrics describe a lost love and tears that “disappear like ocean snow,” before the protagonists asks if he/she should “throw this body of mine into the ocean.”
The song became the highest charting enka debut of all time, drawing both enka’s traditional older audience as well as many younger fans. In addition to success as a singer, Jero has become something of a media personality and has appeared in the film “Donju,” based on a Kankuro Kudo play, as a delivery man named Akira.
Jero’s March 28 San Francisco concert will mark the beginning of his first official U.S. tour. The concert is being hosted by the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California.