I cried this past weekend, from seeing and hearing the African-American singer JERO in San Francisco on the night of April 8th at the Mini-concert he gave for the Hapa Japan Conference held at UC Berkeley.
I cried because of one song in particular called “Harebutai.” This song, which can be named “Gala” but has the concurrent meaning of a Performance Stage that is a wide-open, sunlit, clear sky. Please refer to my earlier posting which addresses who Jero is, in the history of traditional Enka music in Japan. He is a huge star at present, in a genre that was relegated to the dust-heeps of Japanese music history, as something passe. Much like how we treat elders increasingly everywhere, Japan–even as people like to think of it as a nation that reveres elders, is increasingly forgetting and with this forgetting goes history.
Jero performs this song, dedicated to his grandmother, with a sensitivity that records an inter-generational intimacy, where he wants to acknowledge the painful past in Japan (and also in the present) that Japanese women endured, when marrying western men, and in particular, African-American men. Like my own mother who protected me often from racist brutalization in Japan when I was growing up, the hardships that these women, our mothers and grandmothers endured, are ‘forgotten’ because they are too traumatic and unacknowledged by most of our young. with it goes knowledge and history that could help us, as human beings, get through our struggles with race, sexuality, socio-economic class and gender relations, among other violent hierarchies of identity, that continue to determine much of our social relations, silences, rage, grief, and international politics, not to mention how these are reflected in our family and communal dynamics.
I cried when I experienced this song. At the evening get-together after the day’s conference events, Jero was there, offering his quiet, gentle, yet strong presence. I had the opportunity to tell him that he was living out my own dream as a dark-skinned singer in Japan, considered ‘foreign,’ singing the Enka music which kept me alive and comforted through many dark times in Japan. These songs, often of sadness and longing, are soulful for me, of my generation, growing up as outsider in Japan. In addition, the song “Hare-butai” was written by Nakamura Ataru, for Jero, with Jero’s thoughts and sentiments regarding his singing as a way of an offering to his deceased grandmother, who did not get to see him perform on the ‘Kouhaku Utagassen’ show that runs every New Years’ Day in Japan since the Postwar era, celebrating the best of Japan’s popular singing stars. This show is a testament to artists who have ‘made it’ in Japan and Jero’s grandmother would’ve been proud.
I have included my version of the English translation of the lyrics to 晴れ舞台 “Harebutai”. You can see get a glimpse of honoring and care and inter-generational respect that has gone into this song. It is no wonder that folks like me, and especially the older women of that generation alive today, cry upon hearing this song. It is healing. And even those of the younger generation now, who had forgotten about the Enka and considered it stupid, are now listening.
Jero’s popularity is not only that he is such an anomaly as a race and nation outsider, who has now been considered legitimate as a singer in Japan, especially in a genre not dominantly considered “American,” ‘Modern” or “Black.” His singing is actually outstanding and nuanced emotionally in perfect pitch. His Enka singing is really really good!! It is not just that. He is also known for his good character. But it is also true that many young people in Japan are increasingly identifying and admiring Blackness as a way to resist their homogenization into the general Japanese identity-systems and are creating fewer ways in which the youth of Japan can exist with difference. This dynamic creates problems as well, because the notion of challenging racism is a fairly new aspect of reality that is only in its infancy in regards to dominant Japanese society. Histories of racism are complex because of European race-science and its role in the rise of Japan as a nation that could be seen as legitimate by white societies in history, and also its relation to the tightly woven caste system that has ruled Japan for hundreds of years.
I give to you the song and translation with notes, of Jero’s song “Hare Butai.” The Music video here, of the song “Hare Butai” is *NOT SUNG by JERO* but by a pretty good singer. Because I could not find the music video of the song online, I have included this version (with the original music background) by another singer, to give you the song. The other videos are of Jero’s performances, including the popular ‘hip-hop’ moves that are a part of his Live performances.
“Hare Butai” was written by Ataru Nakamura for Jero, both of them contemporary singers in Japan.
The song’s composer is Ataru Nakamura, who writes beautiful melodies and lyrics from the standpoint of her marginalized and often brutalized experiences as an outsider in Japan as a MtF (male to female) transsexual, especially during her middle and high school years.
Jero (Jerome White, Jr.) is a computer engineer/English teacher, African American and Japanese, who decided to fulfill a promise to his deceased Japanese grandmother that he would perform enka – the traditional popular music of Japan – on the big stage.
When Jero performs this song in Japan, many people of my generation and older, especially mothers of the mixed-race children, or who were from poor families, for instance, who went through the tremendous hardships in war-time and postwar Japan where generational experience was dislocated and displaced by forgetting, cherish this song and often cry openly.
Indeed, during the recent mini-concert Jero gave in San Francisco at the Hapa Japan Conference at UC Berkeley on April 8, 2011, I cried, and almost the entire row in the concert hall who could understand Japanese, cried when we heard this song. As I have been working on publishing a manuscript about my relationship with my mother, as a mixed Black-Japanese boy being raised in 1950s Japan, I had begun to realize how much my mother has gone through in order for me to be able to live and how often women’s and other marginalized peoples’ and communities’ experience is relegated to the backroads of history. In hearing this kind of song, there is a healing and inspiration. I hope that other young people, who understand those whose backs we stand on, can take inspiration from Jero’s example.
Other videos to begin: a Reuters introduction in English, of Jero and a video of his live performance, complete with the hip-hop a la Japan moves, of his Debut Hit “Umi Yuki” which means “Ocean Snow.”
Here is a Link to an Interview with him from the Discover Nikkei website:
Live Performance of is DEBUT song "UMI YUKI"
Note on English translation of HAREBUTAI:
I have taken a bit of liberty with the translation to show the emotion that would be lacking in a literal English translation. I have translated ‘Oira’ as ‘young-one’ or “ol’ me.” It could be “Me—the young bumpkin” or something like this. It is a term used by people in the informal form, and is a term used often by people in the rural areas of Japan to refer to “I” and “self” and “we” and “us.” It is a very intimate, tender term, most often used by youth. So in other words, ‘oira’, all simultaneous include all meanings of Me, I, we, your children, your child, us young ones, we the outsiders, the younger generation, the forgotten generation or people (the rural people), little ol’ me, etc. in this context.
The Term “Hare” is also difficult to translate. It is usually translated as ‘clear weather.’ It is used to refer to a sky that is blue and open and sunny (as opposed to a rainy day, cloudy day, etc.). It connotes most adjectives in western languages that may describe the state of a clear blue, expansive, sunlit sky: unfettered. I have translated it as “clear sunlit, but we must include all other qualities simultaneously: Sunlit, clear, expansive, cloudless, blue, bright, etc.
In Japanese language, much like many languages, the meanings are embedded in the words themselves, unlike dominant forms of English, for instance, where it must be ‘inferred’ or ‘alluded to’ as a ‘metaphor’ or ‘simile’ etc. In Japanese, many of the words carry multiple meanings simultaneously. Therefore, in my translation, I played with the many meanings to give more of the texture of the song in my own interpretation, rather than giving a literal translation, which is always contested when crossing languages, cultures, histories, etc.)
The below is a Link to the video of his performance of ‘Hare Butai’ at the Japan Society in New York City.
Remember: This is *not* Jero singing the song, but is a well-done cover because I’ve not found this done by him in video online.
Gala (The Clear Sunlit Stage)
(Expansive, unfettered, clear-blue/open sky Space-of-performance)
Lyrics and music by: Nakamura Ataru
Dark curtains open to a tonight that seems similar to the colors of the news of the world, opens once again
Every time when in the blinding light I cover my eyes, I remember that smile.
Even as I intend to converse with you about the past, “I’ve forgotten” is all you’ve been left to say.
But Mama, we do know.
Bring it all here to ol’ me, Mama—all those forgotten pasts that
cry at night (like a burden) without even a light being lit.
Because for the kind gaze that you left behind in your homeland,
I want to show them my(our) form/ my (our) actions.
To see and then laugh listening to “The Echigo Jishi Song” so many times until
it’s worn out and torn.
Mama, because you laugh and say that only our songs are precious jewels
We young-ones can’t dilly-dally around.
Come on over here Mama, the dawn is close
It’d be great if you could see my debut, leaving it (for eternal posterity) on the clear sunlit stage.
The name that they announce while I bask under rays of the spotlights is
the name you’ve raised me with.
In place of the past you’ve long forgotten, Mama I’ll give room for your dreams.
Pretty soon the dark curtains will open. Just you watch!, my form/my actions.