Rising Son

Enka singer Jero's trailblazing persona earned him the Berkeley Japan New Vision Award.

Valentina Fung/Staff

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Jerome Charles White, Jr. is the kind of performer who waves at babies during his concerts. He's polite, humble and serious - but not too serious. He's reserved, but not awkward. He is a silky-voiced crooner, but he has a degree in engineering.

All in all, White is charming and, in spite of what his do-rag, Nike kicks and hip-hop bling might suggest, he is precisely the type of guy you'd want to meet your mother - especially if your mother happens to be Japanese.

On Friday night, White looked into the crowd in Wheeler Auditorium, bedazzled "P" on his fitted cap glinting, and zeroed in on the small child who had been babbling at him.

"Konichiwa," he said, smiling and bowing slightly. "Hi. How are you?" Normally staid moms in the audience were reduced to tittering fangirls.

It was obvious throughout his appearance that White, better known as Jero, is genuinely grateful for every man, woman and baby who comes out to see him belt out Japanese classics in the enka style. At a press conference earlier in the day, he had said that his fans are "more female, (in their) 40s, 50s and older," which was certainly true of Friday's audience. What went without saying was that his fanbase is located almost exclusively in Japan.

That's because, while White can (for now) come back to the US and "just be Jerome" - a young, part Japanese, part African-American man who grew up in Pittsburgh - in Japan, he is a celebrity. Actually, according to Professor Duncan Williams, chair of UC Berkeley's Center for Japanese Studies, Jero is a "superstar," whose contributions to the perception of Japanese culture earned him this year's Berkeley Japan New Vision Award, a prize last received by Clint Eastwood.

Williams said in an email that White has "opened up the possibilities for fluent Japanese speakers around the world breaking into the entertainment and other industries in Japan."

According to Professor Christine Yano, he did it by "being more Japanese than Japanese." Jero sings enka, which is as traditional and uniquely Japanese as music gets.

Yano, who teaches anthropology at the University of Hawai'i, literally wrote the book on enka. In "Tears of Longing: Nostalgia and the Nation in Japanese Popular Song," she compares the style to American country music. They don't sound alike, but occupy a similar cultural space: Both enka and country music are popular with older people and people living in rural areas.

White preferred to call enka "the blues of Japan," though in terms of sound, it's more of a cross between the love ballads of the '40s and '50s (think Frank Sinatra) and those of the '80s and '90s (think Luther Vandross - who happens to be White's favorite American singer).

"If I spoke with younger people, they would say, 'I don't like enka - that's for old people,' but if you go with them to karaoke, they'd sing it," Yano said.

The lingering question is then, of course, why enka? Jero is credited with doing a lot for the genre, revitalizing enka's appeal to younger fans. And there's no doubt that his rise from software engineer competing in karaoke contests to nationally known recording artist is an incredible story.

But, somehow, it's still difficult to grasp what, exactly, would motivate an American kid to devote hours of free time and risk ridicule, all in pursuit of an unlikely career as the Japanese equivalent of a country singer.

When White explains what drew him to enka over, say, hip hop, he explains: Enka is "poetic" and evocative.

Mostly, however, he talks about how his Japanese grandmother always had it playing in the background, and how much he loved her. Becoming an enka singer has been his dream since he was five years old, and he wishes that his grandmother could have seen him perform in Kohaku Uta Gassen, the popular enka singing competition. He says he wants to honor her heritage. It may sound like a publicity yarn, but the thing about White is that you absolutely believe him.

Sure, in a sense, Jero is, like most celebrities, a product. According to Yano, Jero can be popular precisely because he has that connection to Japan through his grandmother, and "his management company plays that up."

At the same time, White's willingness to heed the advice of his management attests to his sincerity. It's a contradiction that makes his career so interesting from an academic standpoint. It was no accident that Jero's visit coincided with the Hapa Japan Conference, which explored issues facing mixed-race individuals with Japanese heritage. Jero's career alone could be a case study in ethnic self-identification and cultural performance.

In any case, White's "just happy to be here." His commitment to continuing the genre traditionally, rather than trying to update or infuse it with elements of American music speaks to the depth of his love for enka.

An American pop star might get antsy after recording two albums of covers. They might want to branch out - try on a different style. Jero has recorded three albums with "Covers" in the title, and his fourth album, Best and Rare, is composed mostly of covers as well.

"If all of a sudden they came up to me and said, you know, we'd like you to sing an R&B song, then that's something I'd have a problem with," White said.

White wasn't interested in becoming a star when he decided he wanted to sing enka - it was more a way of preserving his heritage, and passing that experience on.

"A lot of people are becoming uninterested in Japanese music, period," he said. "If the newer generation doesn't start listening to it, enka might disappear someday, and I don't want that to happen."


Contact Jill at [email protected]

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