Since becoming a star in Japan in 2008 for his interpretations of enka, or Japanese ballads, singer Jero is now poised to make his New York debut at Japan Society on June 9 with Let’s Enka! with Jero, where he will perform a selection of karaoke-accompanied enka classics and talk about his childhood, his trailblazing success, the challenges he’s faced and his love for the uniquely Japanese genre of music.
Born Jerome Charles White, Jr., the 30-year-old Pittsburgh native was born of mixed Japanese and African American heritage. He was exposed to enka and the Japanese language as a child by his grandmother, a native of Yokohama. Jero’s first single released in Japan, “Umiyuki” (“Ocean Snow”), entered the top five of the national pop charts, which helped the fledgling vocalist win Best New Artist of 2008 at The 50th Annual Japan Record Awards.
Following his Japan Society debut concert, Jero will participate in a rare meet-and-greet with fans, selling and signing his CDs as well as special Jero tote bags, the proceeds of which will be donated to JERF, the Japan Earthquake Relief Fund, set up by Japan Society in the wake of 3/11. In this exclusive interview, I caught up with Jero on his difficult pre-stardom days in Japan, the turning point that encouraged him to perform in America, and his role as a global envoy of enka.
Your New York debut will be held at Japan Society. How did this come together?
I received an e-mail for the event asking me to perform. I forwarded the e-mail to my manager and there you have it!
Tell us a little about your previous live performances in North America. What were your expectations and how were the shows received?
My very first performance in the U.S. [in 2008] was at my alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh. Two years later, I was given the opportunity to perform in L.A. and San Francisco. I actually was against performing in the U.S. because I wasn’t sure how it would be perceived by the U.S. audience, as all the songs are in Japanese. I received a lot of positive feedback after those performances, which gave me a confidence I never had before.
You’ve said before that you would like to keep performing on the Japanese New Year’s Eve music program Kohaku Uta Gassen every year and continue to get younger audiences listening to enka. How do you feel this has been going so far, and how do you feel about introducing enka to a younger generation of fans?
Every chance I get, I would like to perform. Because the enka audience has decreased every year, outlets to perform have also decreased. I feel that in order to keep this genre of music alive, the younger generation of Japan needs to be exposed to it more often. I am happy that I am able to keep my current younger fans and gain new ones.
How about your dream to one day climb Mount Fuji and visit South American countries?
I still have yet to achieve that. I definitely will try to make this happen in my early thirties.
Since your recording debut in 2008, you’ve released over half a dozen albums in Japan so far and appeared in a score of commercials. How are you adjusting to such a busy schedule?
My current schedule is nothing compared to my first year as an enka singer. I worked morning until night every day with one day off a month. I had no idea what day it was or where I was at times. It was a bit difficult to remember names and faces. Now, I have time to myself—time to work hard and play hard. I am able to focus on one thing at a time.
Your albums are available in the U.S. on iTunes, which is a rarity for Japan-based pop stars, much less enka singers! Tell us a little about how this decision was made, and what kind of feedback you’ve received from your songs being available in the world’s biggest music market.
The decision was made before my first U.S. concert. We wanted those interested in listening to be able to download the music outside of Japan. Those interested in world music seem to like it, which is a great feeling.
Foreigners who live in Japan all have their highs and lows. How does this intensify when you’re a celebrity there? How does this impact your social life there? Does it make things like dating or going out in public difficult?
I honestly don’t consider myself that much a celebrity. Compared to some of the prominent J-pop artists who (I imagine) can’t go out without being mauled by fans, I am able to do what I want without bodyguards or supervision. I shop, drive, have dinner with friends when time permits, and I don’t have any problems. I thoroughly enjoy it.
What things about Japan make you want it to be your permanent home?
Definitely my career. Becoming an enka singer has been my dream since I was five years old. If by some unfortunate event that I am no longer able to sing (knock on wood), and I don’t have a bride or any children, I just may move back to the U.S.
What are some of your favorite examples of Japanese pop or contemporary culture?
I don’t keep up much with the fads. I have been much of an “ol’ skool”-er since the beginning. It’s the same with music in the U.S. I can listen to ’80s and ’90s R&B all day long. I do enjoy Japanese commercials, though. They are entertaining and creative.
Can you share any memorable celebrity encounters that you’ve had in Japan?
I definitely remember meeting all of my favorite enka artists, but thanks to my career, I was blessed with the opportunity to meet John Legend, Chanté Moore and En Vogue. They were people I never thought in a million years I would meet. I am diehard fans of all of those artists.
You fought hard with your record company to keep your hip-hop styled image from the outset of your career. What kind of discussions did you have about this, and what do you think helped convince them that this was the right move?
This is actually incorrect. I am assuming you saw this on Wiki? My record company actually embraced it from the beginning. It was indeed a risk because we were not sure how the traditional enka audience would perceive the fashion, but after hearing my story and my background, I was embraced by the community with open arms. I definitely do not regret it.
Are there any vocalists or collaborators you’d like to work with in the future?
Anyone who is willing to do a collaboration with me, I am all for it. I enjoy performing and making good music, and anyone who is wishing to do the same, I would be more than happy to participate.
In what way has the enka arrangements of your music changed over time?
It has been four years since the release of my first single, “Umiyuki.”Because of its modern arrangement compared to that of traditional enka, a lot of the younger generation of Japan appreciated it. I have stayed true to my own style of arrangements since.
How do you think your style might change in the future as a recording artist?
I honestly don’t know where my career will take me. I just hope I can continue doing what I love and having fans to support me.
Have there been any “Jero imitators” or other young enka performers that have sprung up in Japan since you came on the scene?
A lot of comedians have appeared on TV imitating me singing and dancing. It is quite flattering.
As an American, do you feel like you’re some kind of ambassador of U.S. culture in Japan, or do you feel these days like you’re bringing more Japanese culture back home through these international tours?
I definitely feel more of an ambassador of Japanese music to the U.S. I am constantly telling someone what enka is and how I came about singing it to friends and family. The funny thing is that I don’t get tired of talking about it.
What other projects do you have in the works?
In addition to last year, I had a live house tour at smaller venues featuring an all-genre theme. R&B, J-pop, jazz and enka. Because of a lot of positive feedback, I will be doing another tour with the same theme. It gives my current fans and hopefully new ones an opportunity to hear me sing in English and other genres.
I am also participating in the musical Tick, Tick…Boom! The musical was written by the creator of Rent, Jonathan Larson. The musical will feature two other Japanese cast members, starting in September.
I will celebrate my fifth anniversary as Jero next year, so I plan to have a lot of fun with different projects and tours.
What else do you want to accomplish in music and life?
With my music, I just want to continue to grow as an artist and continue to make good music that people all over the world will appreciate. In life, I hope to own my own business someday unrelated to music.
Let’s Enka! with Jero will be held Saturday, June 9 at Japan Society, 333 East 47th Street (between First and Second Avenues) at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $28/$22 Japan Society members. For more information, visit http://www.japansociety.org/event/lets-enka-with-jero. Jero will also perform at the Japan Society 2012 Annual Dinner on June 7; click here for details. Visit Jero online at http://www.jero.jp/pc.
Thoughts on this article? Leave a comment below, and follow me on Facebook and Twitter.
Want more from this Examiner? Click the “subscribe” button above for free alerts to his newly published stories, and visit his Music and Performing Arts Interview pages here. Visit our Music Examiners Facebook page at www.facebook.com/MusicExaminers.