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Festival Feature: A Japanese Idol From Pittsburgh

(Ricky Carioti - Washington Post)
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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 28, 2009

Suddenly, out of the predawn fog, he was there, in all his hip-hop splendor: sideways red baseball cap, gleaming red and white Nikes, long silver neck bling.

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The TV lights were on. The interview chair was waiting for him. But when the Japanese ambassador arrived, wearing a dark suit and pink tie, the star placed his hands at his sides and bowed deeply.

Down by the misty Tidal Basin yesterday, this was no rapper. It was Jero, the mind-bending African American-Japanese pop sensation, who was doing a mini-media blitz for the National Cherry Blossom Festival. He performs about 4:15 p.m. today during the festival's opening ceremony at the National Building Museum.

Cherry blossoms and bling?

Jero -- Jerome White Jr., 27, of Pittsburgh -- is a dazzling mix of musical, national and ethnic cultures. Part Lil Wayne, part Wayne Newton, part Japanese torch singer, he looks like the latest American rapper. But he has hit the charts in Japan specializing in a kind of traditional, low-key romance music called enka.

He likens it to Japanese blues, but it seems more suited to Lawrence Welk than the juke joint.

No matter. It's packing his shows and landing him on Japanese television, and yesterday, before dawn, there was a gaggle of Japanese and American reporters waiting when he stepped out of a black SUV.

"He's a very big star," Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki said after doing a morning television interview with Jero to help preview the 16-day blossom fest. "He just appeared on the Japanese scene only a couple of years ago, but . . . very rapidly made his name.

"Not many Japanese expected an American to sing a Japanese song in that manner," he said. "But he came out and grasped people's feelings. . . . He really sings these Japanese blues with Japanese soul.

"If music really doesn't have borders," he added, "people will really like it."

They might like Jero, too.

It was striking to see him, decked out in his rap duds, bowing to the ambassador and to Japanese journalists. He looked serious, cooperative, patient and respectful as he gave interviews and posed for pictures.

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