Jero and Ziyoou-vachi: Stepping Out the R&B Box in Japan

6.4.12 ShaSha LaPerf 4 Comments

In Japan, there are a few blasian entertainers that have made quite a name for themselves. One of the earliest is Crystal Kay, who is Korean and Black. With more ten years under her belt, she's still going strong. Japanese and Black performers Nesmith and ELLY are now familiar faces of the EXILE family; Nesmith as a vocalist/dancer for EXILE and ELLY as a dancer for the 3rd Generation of the J Soul Brothers. Although it's pretty awesome that these three blasian performers have made a name for themselves in Japan, they're also artists performing under and R&B/Pop umbrella. In Japan, R&B is still considered "black music" despite the longevity of Japanese R&B artists. So perhaps it's not that surprised to see blasian artists as a part of this world.

However, Japan has some other blasian artists who have taking roads much different from these three and are making waves in others worlds outside of R&B. I'm not well versed in the two genre I'm going to cover so bear with me a bit. But I really wanted to give some spotlight to these folks.

Jero, the Blasian Enka Singer


From Tokyo Hive

When I first heard about the "black" enka singer, I thought it was a joke. Although there are some young, popular enka stars who are trying to make enka "cool" for the younger generations, enka was rarely presented as a genre accessible to the mainstream and certainly not something you would find non-Japanese people doing. Plus Japan has a fair amount of novelty acts. It's pretty common to find music and videos from "talento" including foreign ones. Even talento and general embarrassment Bob Sapp released a single in Japan (the horror...THE HORROR!!! @_@).

So it was pretty easy to be skeptical of this other young black man, who looked more like he should be performing with the Teriyaki Boyz instead of doing enka. But as soon as he opened his mouth, you knew he was the real deal.

Jerome White or "Jero" is from Philadelphia. He learned about enka through his grandmother. Over the years he honed his singing skills as well as his Japanese skills. In 2008 he made the debut with his song "Umiyuki":



Yes that is the official video. It's a strange mix of enka music and a dancing Jero with his homeboys. It was certainly something I hadn't seen before. Neither had Japan. They ate it up, especially younger audiences. As I've mentioned several times before on this blog, many young Japanese people are fascinated with "black culture" and that includes Jero's style of dress and dance. Jero was able to blend Japanese and black culture together in such a way to appeal to younger audience while performing the enka that some of the older generation would like. It's easy to write Jero off as just another case of culture appropriation, but I get a sense that Jero truly enjoys singing enka. Here's an older interview where he explains why he's an enka singer.



Jero insists that his clothes are something he wears all the time, but it also feels a bit like a "costume" as Jero almost always in baggy jeans with a hat and doo rag. LOL then again I prefer that look much more than this "church on Easter Day" outfit:



And to be fair, it's pretty common for enka singers to wear elaborate outfits or costumes. Jero's clothes are very tame compared to Kiyoshi Hikawa.

"Umiyuki" reached No. #4 on the Oricon charts. That same year Jero released a cover album, which debut at No. #5 on the charts. Since his debut, Jero has appeared in several commercials, a musical, and even got a cameo in the movie Donju. He also performed at the Kohaku Uta Gassen, or the "Red and White Competition," an event on New Year's Eve which brings out Japan most popular artists for that year. Jero has released 4 cover albums and three original albums, the most recent one was release in February.

Initially I though Jero would just fall into one-hit wonder land, but the guy has done damn good for himself over there.


Ziyou-Vachi, The First Blasian ? Group

From Japan Times
 
Ziyou-vachi is a more curious case. It's a fairly new group, so there is very little information about them. I had to rely on my dying Japanese skills to get some info, LOL. Ziyou-vachi was recently signed with Sony Music records and likes to keep things on the mysterious side.

Ziyou-vachi--or "Queen Bee"--is a 4 member band from Hyogo Japan with two Japanese and black members, one being the lead singer Avu-chan. The other is her sister Luli-chan who plays the drums. Yashi-chan and Gigi-chan make up the remaining two members. What makes Ziyou-vachi especially interesting is that Avu-chan is transgender. Although I couldn't find information to completely confirm that Avu-chan has completely transitioned, I will use "she" and "her" when talking about her. Avu-chan also keep people guessing but by purposely putting on a "male" and "female" voice when she sings sometimes.

In 2011, Ziyou-vachi released two albums. Their first album featured the song "Hi no Tori":


I have to say I'm not really of fan of Avu-chan's voice at all--too nasally for me. But there videos are loaded with a cool energy that I kinda like and the song isn't too bad.

So the question mark I put at in the title for them is because I'm not sure of how this group should be classified. The group doesn't seem to follow a visual kei look or style of music. Apparently they are closer to a subculture named oshare kei. Compared to the somewhat darker image of visual kei, oshare kei's music is more upbeat and performers are more prone to wearing brightly colored clothing. I'm not familiar with oshare kei (LOL honestly I didn't know it existed until last month) or visual kei, so I can't say for sure what category they fall under.

Ziyoou-vachi certainly knows how to put on a show. Just take a look at their live performance for the song "Desko" which was featured in the Japanese movie Moteki:


 Like Jero, Ziyoou-vachi is performing in a genre that definitely isn't on the radar of non-Japanese people. And not many transgendered artists get some spotlight with the exception perhaps of Ataru Nakamura (who interestingly is also popular for her enka-styled songs). I suspect that Ziyoou-vachi won't be as big as Jero or Crystal Kay, largely because they are a niche genre.

Like Jero, the outfits and personality fueling Ziyoou-vachi are can just be costumes, however their style is probably more suited for their genre. I believe some of Jero's initial fame was based of him being a "black American enka" singer which could be a result of marketing through the record company and not necessarily his idea. Either way it worked well from him and Jero has easily able to show that he has skills and longevity.

Ziyoou-vachi, despite them having two blasian members, one of them being transgendered, seemed to be marketed as more of a "mysterious" group and probably blend much better with their music style then Jero. But perhaps this may hinder them from becoming a mainstream group; they might not really stand out from the rest. I'm wondering what would happen if their record company, put a lot of work into promoting Ziyoou-vachi and even milked the fact that their are two blasian members. Could Ziyoou-vachi become a mainstream group? Sony has done with a lot of artists including Crystal Kay (though she's on a new label now), Kubota Toshi, and Hirai Ken. But again, the group falls under a more niche category of music and style. Plus the group themselves seem to enjoy keeping things quiet, their website profile is pretty vague.

Seeing that Ziyoou-vachi received some exposure from being on the "Moteki" soundtrack and have already performed at the popular Fuji Rock Festival, their music alone could easily take them into the mainstream. We'll have to give them a bit more time.

So that's Jero and Ziyoou-vachi. I can't say I'll be out running to buy new music from them, but I have to praise them all for having the courage to take on genre that we hardly even see any foreigners in and strive in them. I get a sense that they're all doing these things because they do like them and it's not to be the next novelty act. Of course I'm still a much larger fan of R&B and hip-hop, but it's always nice to see others doing something outside the box. Maybe they'll inspire some others to take a similar route.

4 comments:

  1. Excellent post as usual. I always learn so much when I visit your blog!

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  2. Ok, I totally love Ziyoou-vachi and could totally work out to their songs. I agree with you that they're probably not going to become mainstream but they seem to be growing a nice fanbase. As for Jero, I have so many of his songs. My favorite being Eisa. Thanks for the info.

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  3. Recently, I said that I thought that I wouldn't be able to go a Cherry Blossom festival because of the main one being in 2 hours away from where I live.Well I still never made it to Macon,but I was able to attend a smaller scaled one on a fluke where at a college. It was my 1st one and really enjoyed myself. I'm looking forward to another one.

    Ironically, I was asking one student who was working on the Japanese display about Enka music along with other interesting things about Japanese culture and out of the blue she mentioned JERO! She referred to him as her " baby" and just loves his music. Japanese or not, I really didn't think that I would meet anybody who would know who he was. It was really surprised that her first "love" of an Enka singer was Jero.

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  4. I wish more American/Western media would take note of what people of color are doing in other countries. It would be nice to see Jero or Ziyoou-Vachi getting some spotlight on BE or MTV, just giving them full interviews of their experiences in the music industry in other countries.

    On a random note, Ziyoou-vachi has released an a track list and album covers for thei second album: http://www.tokyohive.com/2012/04/ziyoou-vachi-releases-jacket-cover-track-list-for-hebihime-sama/

    I'll have to keep note of the release date to see how they do on the Oricon charts.

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