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Jero fulfills a promise to his grandmother

— Looking back, says the pop singer called Jero, the songs were a soundtrack to his childhood, the strange and sorrowful melodies enjoyed by his Japanese-born grandmother — traditional folk ballads he came to know as enka music.

In the early 1990s, Jerome White Jr. was a skinny mixed-race kid — three-quarters African American, one-quarter Japanese — who found respite from the tough streets of Pittsburgh’s North Side in the mysterious music that emanated from his grandmother’s living room. “It was in the background ever since I can remember,” he says.

As rap music blared from car radios outside, White reveled in nostalgic foreign-language songs from post-World War II Japan, painful tales of lost love and quaint, longed-for hometowns. Together, White and his grandmother Takiko watched videotapes of a Japanese variety show that featured the popular musical acts of the day, including enka performers.

That’s when the young boy made his grandmother a promise: One day, he was going to go to Japan and become a cross-cultural sensation, singing enka songs to wildly appreciative audiences.

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Fast forward 20 years, and White’s dream has come to life on cue: Now 29, known by the stage name Jero, he’s a Japanese pop music marvel. With his smooth voice and street stylings, he’s helped revitalize a once-popular enka genre, which he likens to the American blues, whose popularity had fallen on hard times.

White isn’t just any crossover artist. His 2008 debut single, “Ocean Snow,” soared to No. 4 on the Japanese pop charts in under a week — the best-ever performance for a debut enka song.

But the kid from Pittsburgh does it his way. While fluent in Japanese, White forsakes the traditional kimonos worn by many enka singers, instead performing in hip-hop-styled street clothes, the crooked caps and thick-necklace bling of his childhood. And yet his lonesome country ballads are all old-school — the contrast evoking descriptions of White as a bizarre blend of Lil Wayne and Wayne Newton.

His sold-out concerts are packed with teenagers who consider White a new cult figure. Among the young hipsters are the white-haired retirees, old women on hand for a sentimental evening of nostalgia for a Japan that no longer exists.

But here’s where the dream breaks down, the dose of reality the 9-year-old boy never considered: Those adorable old women in the crowd don’t include his grandmother, who died of cancer in 2005 at age 76 —just months before White’s career caught fire here. The irony plays out bittersweet, like the enka songs that often bring his audiences to tears. “I really feel it was her doing,” he says. “She was the source of my success.”

Sitting in his record company office, dressed in baggy jeans and a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball cap, White describes how he came to the faraway music: Singing it as a boy made his grandmother happy, and that, he says, kept him singing. She bought a karaoke machine so the boy could practice and would sit by and watch him perform, correcting nuances in his fledgling Japanese. She’d write out simplified versions of Japanese kanji and characters so he could better understand the melodies. White studied Japanese as a teen and visited here twice while in high school and college. In 2003, he moved to Japan full time.

Back then, he called his grandmother once a week. The old woman with only a fifth-grade education was impressed with her grandson’s newfound command of her native tongue. Mostly, she gave him advice about his new life in Japan, where she had returned infrequently since marrying a U.S. serviceman decades earlier, relocating to his hometown of Pittsburgh.

White didn’t experience problems many might have imagined. Although African American in one of the world’s mono-cultural societies, his fluency in Japanese helped him break the ice with strangers. He also felt at home in a country where American-style rap music has become popular.

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The last time White saw his grandmother was two weeks before she died. She was home in Pittsburgh, still telling jokes, deflecting the attention, keeping things light. “I knew it might be the last time I’d see her,” White recalls. “I just said goodbye, like I would any other time.”

Two months later, White had a recording contract. The years have brought new albums, countless new fans. And in 2008, he made the first of two appearances on the Japanese variety show “Red and White Song Battle,” which inspired his boyhood promise to his grandmother.

With his mother in the audience, White walked onstage wearing a T-shirt bearing his grandmother’s image. He said a prayer, asking her to watch over him. “I wanted her to be there that night,” he said. “And she was. My whole family was there.”

Still, White resists focusing on the audience during his sad songs, knowing he’ll see women his grandmother’s age, in tears, just like she would be. It’s just too painful, he says.

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Not long ago, he released a collection of enka songs from his childhood, including the first ballad he sang to his grandmother. During a recent interview, he sang a few lines of the song, about the loss of a loved one. When he finished, there were tears in his eyes.

john.glionna@latimes.com


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