Multiracial Enka Singer Jero ‘Helps Connect Cultures’

Musical Bridges — Natalie “Sweet” Johnson, a teacher of Japanese language, and enka star Jero, who is of mixed Japanese and African descent. photo by Vivien Kim Thorp/Nichi Bei Weekly

“I’m at a loss for words, it’s really humbling to be here,” Pittsburgh-native and enka sensation Jero told the audience at his sold-out March 28 show at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre in San Francisco. “I never imagined being able to perform like this in a foreign country.”

The 28-year-old mixed-race Nikkei paused and said, “Well, not a foreign country, this is where I’m from.” While he was born and raised in the United States, Jerome White Jr., aka Jero, has long felt his heart was in Japan. Born to a black father, an American, and a multiracial mother, who is black and of Japanese descent, Jero has been singing enka — a genre of Japanese ballads popularized in the post-war era — since he was 6.

Jero was introduced to the music by his grandmother Takiko, a native of Yokohama, at an early age and had dreamed of singing it professionally since childhood. Upon graduating college, he moved to Japan to attempt to achieve his lifelong goal and — after supporting himself by working in the IT industry — was eventually signed to Victor Entertainment. His first single, “Umiyuki” (Ocean Snow) was released in early 2008, and it became the highest-ever debut for an enka single.

While he sings orthodox enka, a genre popular mostly with middle-aged and older listeners, his cultural background and the hip-hop clothing he wears while he performs has piqued the interest of Japan’s young people.

The San Francisco performance, presented by the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California (JCCCNC), marked the beginning of his first-ever U.S. concert tour. Roughly half of the attendees were Nisei or Shin-Issei seniors — a demographic that typically accounts for more than three-quarters of the audience at a Bay Area enka show — with the remaining half composed of young and middle-aged people in about equal proportions. While still overwhelmingly Nikkei, the crowd was more diverse than a typical enka audience.

Although dressed in hip-hop clothing, often associated with an aggressive and confrontational aesthetic, Jero’s words and body-language were pure enka: humble, respectful and reserved.

“I’ve got a little bling,” he told the audience sheepishly, holding up his shiny rubix-cube necklace. “I bought it from the 99-cent store. I’ve got to keep the economy in mind.”

Jero performed an entirely Japanese set, mostly enka songs, which he introduced in English.

He told the audience about himself and his relationship to the U.S. and to Japan, explaining that he was a bit nervous addressing a crowd in English. He also spoke about some of his favorite English-language music artists when he was growing up, including Luther Vandross and Alanis Morissette.

He concluded a set with “Harebutai” (Gala), a song transgender singer-songwriter Ataru Nakamura composed specifically for Jero. The song, Jero explained, is dedicated to his mother Harumi and is meant to convey his respect and appreciation for the woman who raised him as a single mother and who endured hardship growing up as a mixed-race person in post-war Japan. At the crowd’s urging he returned for an encore performance of “Ue wo Muite Arukou,” known more commonly in the States as “Sukiyaki.”

A VIP reception was held after the concert, in which Jero met with each guest personally. Seniors were still the largest group at the reception; however, there were more middle-aged people and fewer young adults. Attendees were almost exclusively Nikkei.

Yasumasa Nagamine, the consul general of Japan in San Francisco, spoke, as did JCCCNC Executive Director Paul Osaki, who noted enka’s role in the Nikkei experience.

“When Japanese Americans were forced into [World War II concentration] camps, we could only take what we could carry,” Osaki said. “My grandmother took her record player and enka records.”

Miyoko Hicks, an 84-year-old Shin-Issei who attended the reception, said she was familiar with the songs Jero sang, both his versions and the original songs he was covering.

“His voice is very nice, and I think he really has a Japanese spirit,” said Hicks, whose own son is also mixed-raced. “I really wish my son took an interest [in his heritage] like that.”

Natalie “Sweet” Johnson, a Japanese-language teacher, who had previously never been to a concert, paid the $250 to attend the VIP reception because of the personal connection she feels to the singer, and his music.

“Jero is living out my dream… as a young African American bringing together all ages, ethnicities, and personalities together to enjoy… a common interest and inspire others to dare to do the same,” she said.

Jero has even made a difference in the lives of Johnson’s young students. “Jero helps connect cultures,” said Johnson, who started a Japanese program at Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland, explained. “I showed videos of him to my students and they were amazed, they felt like there was a real opportunity for themselves to connect.”

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