Dressed in a light floral ensemble at her record label’s office in the upscale Aoyama district, J-pop starlet May J has a look that can only be described as “free-spirit chic.” Yet she seems more concerned with a side of herself that fans can’t see.
“I have to go to Iran and find my other roots,” she declares. “I want to debut in Iran, if it’s possible. I hope I can be a positive image for Iranians.”
Having spent her whole life in Yokohama, the mixed-race singer has yet to visit her mother’s homeland. But May’s abundant curiosity about Persian culture is evident when discussing her latest album, For You, and the stewardship of her music TV show J-Melo.
“The image for the new album is of a garden,” the 21-year-old enthuses. “I like flowery dresses and bright colors, and my songs from this album are really positive—something you’d want to hear in spring.”
For You affirms May’s status as one of the leading young stars from urban-contemporary label Rhythm Zone. Promulgating the themes of love, sunshine and peace, the new record embraces a positive message to combat what May believes is a national mood of melancholy.
“A lot of artists around my age sing sad songs about crying together, but I want to make people happy,” she says. “That’s what makes me different.”
The songs on For You were inspired by May’s 2009 tour of Japan, a ten-week, 40-show marathon that helped her pick up on the national vibe. One thing her music has yet to reflect, however, is her own unusual life story.
May “Jamileh” Hashimoto was born to a Japanese father and Iranian mother who refused to acknowledge her Persian roots. “My mum didn’t let me speak Farsi,” she explains. “She didn’t want me to because there wasn’t a good image [of Iranians] in Japanese schools at that time. She didn’t even tell me I was Iranian, so I thought I was American. I didn’t even know what ‘Iranian’ meant until junior high, when I overheard my mum speaking a different language to my grandmother. She said, ‘Oh, that’s our language, we’ve been found out!’”
May only began listening to Persian music in middle school. “We didn’t really have that environment [at home],” she says. “But now we have the internet, so I search for [legendary female vocalist] Googoosh, [pop star] Afshin and other hot Persian artists.”
May’s own career began at a Sony audition at age 14, by which time she had switched allegiances from childhood idols like Christina Aguilera and Whitney Houston to Canadian rock singer Avril Lavigne. “I copied everything, her looks and music,” she recalls. “MTV had a lookalike contest and I won!”
Her tastes changed again—this time to R&B—while studying at The American School in Japan. “I started singing in English because I was so bad at singing in Japanese in high school” she confesses. “But since my debut, I started listening to more Japanese music like Ayaka. Her lyrics capture your heart, and Japanese music lovers care more about lyrics than music, so I put a lot of time into them.”
Besides her own work, May J introduces Japanese music to fans around the world via J-Melo, a weekly show on NHK World that reaches more than 180 countries.
“I was just 19 [when I started], and I didn’t know about jazz or other genres, only R&B and pop,” she says. “We have all these amazing artists like [jazz fusion guitarist] Kazumi Watanabe that I got to meet and sing with, so I learned many things.”
The show also offers insights into what kinds of Japanese music are popular abroad. “I was surprised that viewers listen to enka!” she says. “I never listen to enka, even living here, but they understand even the deepest meaning… Requests have come from everywhere—Europe, the US, UAE, Peru and the UK—but the Philippines is number one.”
Next month, the singer will embark on her first solo tour, culminating in a show at Tokyo’s Shibuya-AX that she hints will include selections from the whole of her career so far. “It’s my very first tour, and I want to have big fun with my fans,” she says, “but it’s a bit of a secret!”
Might that secret involve including Persian songs in the set? Now that would be novel.
Japanese R&B singer. May 23, 7pm, ¥4,200. Shibuya-AX. Tel: 03-5738-2020.