As a boy, Jerome White Jr. often spent weekends at his grandparents' house, where a melodramatic genre of Japanese music called enka would waft in the background.
White's Japanese grandmother, Takiko, had met his grandfather, an African-American serviceman, at a dance during World War II. And it was in their Pittsburgh living room that the 6-year-old and his grandma sang the postwar songs of love, loss and hardship.
Even though he didn't understand the enka lyrics at the time, his Japanese singing pleased his grandmother, who died in 2005.
"I loved her very much," says White, now 27. "It just made me want to learn more songs and practice more."
Enka had an unwavering hook on White, and it has made him a superstar in Japan, where he's known as Jero. Named best new artist last year by Japan Record Awards - the Japanese version of the Grammys - White made his first major U.S. appearance Saturday at the opening ceremony of the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington before a diverse audience of several hundred. They cheered and waved, and some even held up signs bearing his name.
Minoru Furuyama sat in the front row with his wife, their 18-year-old daughter and a friend. Furuyama says they came solely to see White's performance.
"He's got a beautiful voice," says the 55-year-old from Rockville, Md. "He's got the empathy or the soul for enka."
Furuyama grew up listening to enka and says the ballads of unrequited love and heartache are a "very universal kind of message."
White has helped reintroduce enka - long a favorite of older generations - to the Japanese, breathing new life into its melodies by incorporating touches of pop or rhythm and blues.
Most striking is his wardrobe. Traditional enka crooners perform in a suit or kimono, but White sings in masterly Japanese while dressed in baggy pants, a do-rag and a cocked-to-the-side baseball cap.
Seeing an African-American artist sing a "kind of perfect way of enka" in hip-hop fashion - "that's totally sort of an amazing contrast to us," says Hideo Fukushima, public affairs minister at the Embassy of Japan, which invited White to perform at the festival.
White said he hopes to make enka more appealing to younger audiences.
"This has been a big part of my life since I was a kid, and I'm fulfilling my dream," White says. "I'm just hoping everybody can ... have even a small ounce of interest in it."