Upon entering the world of enka, besides your usual Itsuki, Hikawa and Sabu-Chan, I kept seeing word of Jero (ジェロ), also known as "The first African-American enka singer". That in itself was interesting - to know that enka has become so international - but what was really amusing was the fact that he's known for appearing on stage in more casual attire with cap askew and sneakers rather than a proper suit or kimono. Of course, his record company wasn't too thrilled on that idea initially and would rather him dressed more appropriately (by enka standards), but he managed to convince them that it (what you see now) fits his persona better. Seeing Jero like that in his hip-hop, ghetto-esque get-up makes one assume that he's a typical rapper, but his smooth and fruity vocals as he croons kayo classics puts him in the same league as a number of the more straight-laced enka balladeers.
Last night, Jero made an appearance on "Kayo Concert", this time dressed slightly more formally save for his trademark sneakers. The theme for this week was winter, so naturally he sang his debut hit, "Umi Yuki". I had heard it a while back, but it never fully registered in my mind until now, and boy is it one cool song with its funky beat and the roar of the electric guitar. It's not so much of enka as it is R&B, and in the MV above you get to see Jero with two other fellows doing a hip-hop dance routine to it. Not surprisingly, Ryudo Uzaki (宇崎竜童) was the one responsible for creating this rock-tinged fusion. The lyrics were done by Yasushi Akimoto (秋元康), and they are definitely on the enka side as they seem to talk about love lost.
Born as Jerome Charles White, Jr. in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Jero had an interest in enka since he was young due to his grandmother's influence (she hailed from Japan) and studied Japanese while in high school and college. When he moved to Japan, he had been working as an English teacher and a computer engineer. It was only until he had promised his grandmother that he would perform on the Kohaku did he veer on to the path of becoming an enka singer. Eventually he was discovered after getting through on "Nodojiman" and winning a karaoke competition, and a few years later in 2008, he debuted with "Umi Yuki", which was very well received. It peaked at 4th place on the Oricon charts and had stayed at 1st place on the enka charts for 12 consecutive weeks, and it is a certified Platinum record. This allowed Jero to bag the "Best Newcomer" award at the 50th Japan Record Awards, and the song managed to be the overall winner at the 41st Japan Lyricist Awards. With that many accolades under his belt in just that one year, Jero earned a spot on the Kohaku, as he had promised grandma. Unfortunately, she wasn't able to catch his performance as she had passed away 3 years before. Quite sad, really, but I bet she would have been immensely proud.