Tuesday, May 26, 2009

What's In Living Color

Robert Schwartz has an article in the new-format Newsweek on a possible significant change in attitudes toward musical performers of multi-national backgrounds. He has some good material for making the argument - the incontrovertible shock of the Jero phenomenon and success of Aoyama Teruma (Thelma) - but he just cannot get himself to say the magic word:

A New Look For Japan's Musicians

By Rob Schwartz - Japan's indigenous music scene is known for breeding cute, superplastic stars like Ayumi Hamasaki and Ayaka—über-pop princesses who routinely top the charts with their safely mainstream sound and image. So it was significant when a mixed-race singer known as Jero was named one of the country's best new artists at the Gold Disc Awards—Japan's Grammys—in March. Perhaps even more meaningful, Jero, who is three quarters African-American and one quarter Japanese, also won the award for best enka artist, topping the genre of traditional love ballads that are often about specific places in Japan. Jero, a.k.a. Jerome White Jr., grew up in Pittsburgh, singing such songs with his Japanese grandmother. "Since I started singing enka at age 5 or 6, I really wanted a career in Japan ... [but] I knew it would be a long shot," he says. Yet the Japanese have clearly embraced this 27-year-old performer who favors hip-hop garb yet sings songs meant to express the soul of Japan
O.K., so no one knows what the phrase "über-pop princess" is supposed to convey. Schwartz successfully avoids THE ISSUE. He presses forward

In the Japanese pop realm, Thelma Aoyama, who is part Afro-Caribbean, came out of nowhere to record the biggest single of 2008, "Soba ni Iru, ne" (I'll Always Be by Your Side). The song earned Aoyama the Guinness Book world record for most downloaded tune, with more than 8.5 million.
Ooooh, "part Afro-Caribbean" - that's good. If I only knew what knew what it meant to be part ocean - or where the Afro-Caribbean can be found on a map.

Come on Mr. Schwartz, say it. Say it. No wait, not that way!

Half-white and half-Japanese Angela Aki has also won quite a following; last December she performed on the all-important year-end TV extravaganza Red & White Singing Contest. Her latest single, "Tegami" ("Letter"), recently went platinum, selling more than 250,000 copies.

Go to all the trouble of skirting THE ISSUE -- that the immensely popular Jero and Aoyama are of Japanese heritage AND melanin-blessed -- only to crash on the shoals of "half-white"?

OK, OK it is not about purported (it is really more pink than white) skin color differences (Yes it is). Bring on the yellow oppressed!

Takeshi Nakagawa, the Japanese leader of the band Soul Flower Union, says the national obsession with ethnic purity even affected those virtually indistinguishable from the Japanese, like Koreans. Slowly, that's changing. "The taboo factor that surrounded singers of Korean descent in the 1980s is becoming a thing of the past," he says. "For this to continue, it is vital that the media not perpetuate the myth that Japan is a racially homogeneous society."
Excuse me, but what is this media that has been perpetuating the myth that Japan is a racially homogeneous nation? The same media that has given us:

Tsuchiya Anna
Kimura Kaera
Satonaka Chami
Crystal Kay & Sowelu (a two-fer here)

...and probably many, many more whom I do not know?

Politicians and ideologues perpetuate myths of racial homogeneity. The popular media sure as hell does not.

As for Jero and Aoyama, yes, it is good to see persons of Japanese ancestry with African features or an African appearance (Crystal Kay should be considered their predecessor but her mom is Zainichi, not Japanese) being given their chance at ubiquity. Nothing indeed detonates stereotypes about skin color faster than a homeboy in hip-hop casual singing enka --the most seriously uncool music on the planet -- to a giant hall filled with enthusiastically clapping Japanese pensioners.

And yes, who cannot love the delicious irony that Jero's surname is White, while the name of the author of the article is the German word for B---k?

1 comment:

Dave Perry said...

"The most seriously uncool music on the planet"?

Have you no soul?