Bringing Her Joy Home

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Japanese R&B star A.I. is back in her native L.A., recording new songs and getting ready for her Aug. 24 concert at Club Nokia. (Photo: Sachi Nina)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Entertainment Editor

Some unexpected down time in what has been a breakneck schedule translated to some welcome rest for one of Japan’s most prominent pop stars. A native of Los Angeles, Ai Carina Uemura is more commonly and succinctly known in Japan simply as Ai, often stylized to the spelling “A.I.”

Fresh off a tour of more than 30 dates and with a new song featuring Chris Brown, Ai is in L.A. recording and prepping for her first stateside concert in four years. She will bring her “Independent” tour to Club Nokia downtown next Friday, Aug. 24, with her most ambition production ever outside of Japan.

“This is really exciting; everybody is so energetic and rehearsing so much,” Ai, 30, said Wednesday in a Rafu Shimpo interview. “We have a lot of dancers and other singers and my goal is to work hard and hope that everyone enjoys the show.”

Ai spent most of her childhood in her father’s home of Kagoshima, schooling and living the life of a fairly typical Japanese girl. It was during a visit to L.A.’s First AME Church that introduced her to the roots of the soul and rhythm & blues music she often heard being played by her artistic, free-spirited mother, Barbara.

For high school, Ai attended the L.A. County High School for the Arts, where she joined a joined a gospel choir to complement her dance studies, all the while feeling the growing verve to be a performer.

After landing jobs in ensembles that backed Janet Jackson and Mary J. Blige, the 18-year-old Ai joined the all-Asian girl SX4, but was soon offered a contract to make her debut in Japan.
With her aptitude in urban music instantly recognized, Ai became the first female artist to sign with the Def Jam Japan label in 2003. Her emotional 2005 hit “Story” has sold some 4.5 million downloads to date.

Coming home means the pop star gets to spend a little time with her mother, Barbara (seated), who rode with Ai in Sunday’s Nisei Week Grand Parade. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Ai has become nothing short of the homegrown standard for hip hop and R&B on the Japanese music scene. While many performers there have dabbled in the elemental music that arose from the intimate realities facing African Americans, none have enjoyed her reputation as the “real deal.” Her sense of fashion and dance have made their mark almost as much as her music, which has boasted collaborations with such American heavy hitters as rap patriarch Snoop Dogg, the Jacksons, Chaka Khan and Boyz II Men.

With her sultry, husky voice and a look that smashes the cutesy stereotype of the Japanese girl pop star, Ai’s pedigree and experience give her persona and her music an undeniable authenticity. She’s earned what countless Japanese singers have sought but few have been able to gather at any cost: real American street cred.

Unlike in Japan, however, when she’s in Southern California, she can be at ease in a cafe or walking down the street, without being mobbed by fans.

“It’s nice to come here and be able to relax a little, because not as many people know me here,” she said, quickly adding, “yet.”

Ai takes great care when discussing a possible foray into the American music market, fully understanding the expectations and challenges of an audience that can be instantly dismissive of poseurs. In Japan, she is almost an ambassador of soul, introducing the genre to an audience that might not otherwise have exposure to it.

“In Japan, many people don’t know what real R&B or hip hop is,” Ai explained. “When I was a kid, all my friends listened to J-pop music, while at home my mom was playing Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross and stuff like that.

“Whatever music they like, I think the best I can do is try to bring something new and different, maybe something they’ve never heard. As a performer, I think that’s one of the most important things I could ever do.”

Ai reached a new understanding of her mission and her fame following the devastation and massive casualties of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan. She said she understands how her stature puts her in a place to help effect change for the better. A ten-concert tour shortly after the disaster reportedly generated more than $200,000 in donations and Ai personally help collect and distribute bicycles and school supplies to students in some of the affected areas.

“Famous people are in a position to make something valuable happen,” she said. “If I can do something to help people, or to encourage others to do good things, that’s the best I can do for the world.

“I don’t want to ever regret not doing something I wanted to do, or not telling someone how I feel before it’s too late,” Ai added. “If you don’t love yourself or ever dream, you’re losing the best part of life.”

Ai’s “Independent” tour comes to Club Nokia Friday, Aug. 24 at 7 p.m. All ages. The club is located at 800 W. Olympic Blvd., in the L.A. Live entertainment district. Tickets are $44.50 to $104.50 and can be purchased at www.clubnokia.com or by calling (800) 745-3000.

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