演歌 Enka – (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enka is a traditional style of Japanese song, becoming intensely popular beginning in the 1940s. It’s tradition comes from different strands of more indigenous forms of Japanese ‘speech singing’ and ryukoka, Portuguese fado, and with its postwar Japanese sensibility, developed into modern balladry called ‘enka.’ Its melodies are decidedly American with hints of fado and ryukoka. Its themes are usually of sadness, separation and acceptance of loneliness. Naturally, as a child growing up bi-racially Black and Japanese in 1950s and 60s Japan, these enka were my friends who understood me, amidst the much of the racism both myself and my mother endured during those times in Japan.
Fuji Keiko 藤 圭子 sings: 新宿の女 Shinjuku no Onna (a Woman of Shinjuku) from 1969 (Yes, I was there then and loved this song! )
Translation of first verse:
If I were to be able to become a man
I wouldn’t throw women away.
For a butterfly of the neon lights
Kind words had been dyed into my heart
I was so stupid, I was so stupid
To be betrayed.
The night is cold, for the woman of Shinjuku
In February 2008, something quite remarkable sprang up in the Japanese music scene. It was because of a person who was thrust into the Enka music tradition with a new look, new image, and breaking the traditions of separation between genres, cultures, and race in Japan. A very young African-American/Japanese biracial singer, rose to number 4 in the music charts in Japan. He did not rise there with J-pop (Japanese popular music), but he did this singing a traditional enka song. Not only this, but in the introductions and instrumental interludes between versus, he dances in hip-hop with other back-up dancers. His dress is not the traditional kimono, but American hip-hop attire. It broke genres and codes and traditions, yet at the same time, it has re-introduced a traditional Japanese music genre to millions of young people who do not listen to enka and ignores it. There has been an enka revival.
Jero ジェロ, was born Jerome Charles White, Jr. in Pittsburgh, PA and grew up with enka; encouraged to sing it by his Japanese grandmother Takiko. I, being African-American/Japanese biracial, am very very taken and happy with Jero’s presence. I grew up with enka. I knew of other biracial kids my age in Japan who sang pretty good and wanted to be enka singers. But they were quickly admonished to give up those dreams. We live in different times. But as you can hear in the interview with Jero in the YouTube videos, the record company management struggled with how to put it forward. Yet I credit the fact that they did struggle and moved forward with it, taking risks to open Japan.
Part of the fear is always a ‘contamination’ of a ‘pure’ tradition. But most people who have reflected on history, politics, and power relations, and how cultural forms are introductions of a combination of forms that have always been multiple and from different cultures and times, this purity is nothing but a space to practice dominance and static forms of culture. However, it is important for me, and I think all of us, to understand that we also need traditions. Some traditions need to be respected and considered sacred. But this does not mean that there cannot be diversity in regards to that tradition.
Jero has broken boundaries, and as well, re-introduced enka back into Japanese popular culture. It is also an in-your-face adoption of another American art-form (his hip-hop dance and attire) which further introduces African-American-ness into the Japanese culture as well. This breaks much of the boundary between what is considered acceptably ‘American.’ For sure, in most nations other than North America, ‘American’ means white. Japanese indigenous hip-hop and rap culture are seen as reserved for the Japanese fringe and rebels. But this has slowly been changing due to artists such as Pushim http://www.pushim.com/index2.html and Rhymester http://www.rhymester.jp/ . As in other nations, hip-hop and rap begins as a musical form that resists and counters the homogenizing, flattening mainstreaming of what is acceptable and palatable as ‘normal’ and ‘good’ in a particularly dominant fashion. In Japan, as disillusionment and exclusions, resistances and radical thinkers exist and are marginalized, hip-hop and rap have also played the same role in providing music that resists all of those things.
Jero, for being such a young fellow, has some very wise things to say in the interview.