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African American an unusual pop star in Japan

INZAI, Japan - Jerome White Jr. wears a do-rag while crooning syrupy ballads - in perfect Japanese - about lost love.

INZAI, Japan - Jerome White Jr. wears a do-rag while crooning syrupy ballads - in perfect Japanese - about lost love.

Part-Public Enemy, part-Sinatra, part-schmaltz, it's an act the Japanese public has never seen before, and it is making him a star.

Jero, as he is marketed here, has a hugely successful debut single on the pop charts this spring and an album due this summer. When he makes personal appearances, as he did on a recent Saturday at the Big Hop mall here in the eastern exurbs of Tokyo, thousands of people show up, many of them to swoon. He does especially well with Japanese women, ages 8 to 85.

"I love the way he looks," gushed Sakura Takagi, a soap opera extra in her mid-30s who had traveled two hours by train to see him. "He looks very kind and you can tell he is pure of heart."

Jero, 26, sweet-faced and reed-thin, comes to Japan by way of a working-class neighborhood on the north side of Pittsburgh.

There, thanks to the records, videos and cassette tapes played by his Japanese-born grandmother, he got hooked on a melodramatic genre of Japanese folk balladry called enka. With no idea what the lyrics meant, he started singing them in fractured Japanese at 5. As far as anybody in the music industry knows, Jero is the first African American to sing this shamelessly maudlin music for a living.

Enka wallows in heartache. Accompanied by over-the-top orchestration, it is usually sung by an aging Japanese performer (male or female) in a kimono. Suicide is nearly always a viable option in its ballads of unrequited love, hopeless love, cheating love and relentless rain.

Enka became popular as a bathetic balm for the hard years that followed World War II. The Japanese sponged it up as they rebuilt their country into an industrial colossus. Enka was the sentimental mainstay of a million down-market karaoke bars. Until Jero burst upon the scene here in February, it was also a musical genre that had lost much of its buzz. It had the unhip odor of Elvis ballads in his years of white jumpsuits and belly fat. Most of the people who sang or listened to enka were double or triple Jero's age.

Jero, an accomplished dancer with a big, honeyed voice, seems to have stopped the music's slide. His marriage of hip-hop imagery with a rainy-night-in-Osaka sound is utterly new and way weird. Yet Japanese music critics and the Japanese public say it works for them.

"His singing has this quality that is different from the usual heaviness of enka," said Masakazu Kitanaka, one of Japan's best-known pop music critics. "He has something fresh and crisp. He is easy on the ears of those who don't usually listen to enka, and those who do think he is charming. I don't feel any incongruity for how he is dressed."

Then there is his ace in the hole: his late grandmother, Takiko, who met and married Jero's grandfather when he was a sailor based in Yokohama.

Japan is one of the world's most racially homogenous countries. Xenophobia is difficult to avoid. The Japanese and their politicians often associate foreigners with crime, litter, sloth and other unpleasantness.

Jero, who does not look at all Japanese, rarely gives an interview without bringing up his grandmother, who died in 2005. Older Japanese fans say that for her sake they can easily overlook his baggy pants, the baseball cap worn askew, and that do-rag.

"The fact that he treasures his grandmother makes me feel warm toward him," said Masako Osawa, 59, a housewife at the Big Hop mall.

In the end, though, there is his sound.

It's been slightly vivified by hip-hop but remains true to enka's treacle-soaked, my-woman-dumped-me roots. Jero often performs hip-hop dance moves before he sings and sometimes afterward, but never while singing. He stands still, clutches the microphone, looks heartbroken, and serves up the suds.

Jerome White Jr. was in the gifted program at Perry Traditional Academy, a public high school in Pittsburgh. He was "very small, very nice and a quiet person," recalls Isabel Valdivia, his Japanese teacher for four years.

The Perry North neighborhood can be a tough place to grow up. Most of its residents are working-class or poor, with a sometimes-uneasy mix of African Americans and Eastern European immigrants. As Valdivia explains the dynamics of the neighborhood, a passionate interest in singing enka music - and speaking Japanese - does not offer a small, skinny, shy African American kid a smooth path to popularity. So he more or less kept his mouth shut about enka, and found another way.

"Jerome was a gifted kid and he could think for himself," Valdivia said. "Normally, gifted kids don't dance, but he joined the dance team at Perry. It was all African Americans, and he was the first boy on the team. They performed with the band during football games. Other boys joined the team after he did."

In an interview in the Tokyo offices of his record company, Jero said none of his dancing friends in high school knew what he was up to at Grandma's house. "They knew my grandmother was from Japan," Jero said. "They didn't know I was listening to enka. My friends in Pittsburgh didn't know about it until my debut single was released. I called them and told them I was a recording artist in Japan."

For reasons he cannot explain, enka grabbed hold on his imagination: In all his dreams about making it big, he said, he sang only in Japanese.

At the University of Pittsburgh, he studied information science, but it was always a sideline. He first traveled to Japan at 15, for a speech contest. At 20 he was an exchange student at an Osaka university. After graduating in 2003, he was back again - to stay.

"I came to Japan as an English teacher," Jero said. "It was the easiest way to get over here."

While teaching, he sought out karaoke and amateur singing contests. A judge at one of them was from Victor Entertainment, which would become his record label.

Jero said he intended to stay in Japan for the long term and to sing only enka, to expand the genre's audience and keep it from "getting grayed out."

Fans always ask him why he doesn't wear a kimono onstage, as other enka singers do, he said. But "if I did, it wouldn't be me," said Jero, who performs in the hip-hop clothes he has always worn. "It would be perceived as something that was made up."