Imani Jess is an American artist who signed her debut album DAY BY DAY in 2014 at is from the japanese indie label GOON TRAX (a subdivision of KADOKAWA)
I discovered that album on a random Japanese music website, and witnessing a Black artist signed in Japanese label came off as such an intriguing instance that I felt compelled to listen to it……and..WHAT A BLAST!! I needed to learn more about her and desperately searched for more information. Unfortunately, back then I only managed to find a tumblr page -that didn’t seem updated anymore-, and eventually concluded that IMANI was another victim of the ‘Japanese debuting artist curse’ (you know, those artists debuting with groundbreaking debut album that end up vanishing in thin air *hi SNoW!*) and pretty much lost hope on finding any more info about her…
Flash forward 6 years later in 2020. After a series of circumstances, Ronald discloses to me that he’s actually friend with IMANI(!!), and she would be totally open for an actual interview! I didn’t think twice..!
I thought it would be an interesting occasion to provide to Arama readers a small peep into the lifestyle of a Western artist striving into the Japanese music industry. Check out for the interview with IMANI down below the jump!
Hasawa: Could you please tell us about your background and how you managed to create a place for yourself in the Japanese music scene?
Imani: From as early as I can remember I had always participated in the church or school choir until the end of middle school. However, in high school I wasn’t able to participate in the choir or musicals because of my commitment to cheerleading, so I joined the stage crew instead. I thought it was still an awesome opportunity to be a part of producing entertainment. That’s when I decided that I wanted to major in mass communication.
I originally came to Japan to study at Temple University. The Tōhoku earthquake hit right as my final semester was ending so my Mom was really worried and wanted me to come home. Yet for the longest time, I felt that my journey in Japan wasn’t over and I thought Tokyo was safe enough to return to. Eventually I returned a few months later, but I had no job, no money, and no Japanese skills.
When I returned to Tokyo, my Aunt put me in touch with one of her old hometown friends who had brought his music career to Japan. He performed at a lot of weddings, corporate parties, and supported several Japanese artist. He said that I had “a look” and asked me if I would be interested in singing. I told him that even though it was always a dream I had when I was little, I had not performed since middle school. Even though I was out of practice, I thought it would be cool to take a crack at it at least once to see how it goes. Basically that’s how I started in Japan and it hasn’t stopped.
Hasawa: What’s your favorite occupation in the music process : writing music for others, singing, composing…?
Imani: My favorite thing is performing back-up. I know that might sound crazy to some people, but I genuinely enjoy it. I’ve never been super enthusiastic or craved being the sole center of attention on a massive stage. Just like my time being stage crew for the high school musicals, I just really enjoy being a part of entertainment in any way I can. Helping the main artist shine is just really fun.
Hasawa: Despite the relative short time ever since you stepped inside the Japanese music industry, you already got the privilege of working with prominent Japanese artists, that are fairly famous in the West (The Oral Cigarettes, SKY-HI, Tetsuya Komuro…). I can hardly imagine the same thing happening in the Western music where the glass ceiling has never been more stiff...
Imani: Since high school I have been a big fan of Japanese pop and rock music so it’s truly been an honor working with so many people I used to listen to back in the day. I know there might be a few foreign singers here that never had much of an interest in the genre so their take might be completely different. Since my career started here, I actually had no immediate intention of branching out to the US. Remember, I sort of jumped in fingers crossed hoping for a valuable experience. As of now, I’m pretty comfortable where I am. However, if there ever is an opportunity to perform in the US or work with artists around the globe, I would totally love to.
“Call it what you will, but I do think I attribute a lot of the opportunities presented to me were based on the fact
I am African-American.“
Hasawa: Do you think the fact that Japanese music professional are more kin working with “outsiders” is (one of) the reason that the Japanese music industry managed to maintain some sort of freshness? It is often argued that the appeal of the Japanese music industry is that it is so different from the Western one, do you think this phenomenon reinforces this statement?
Imani: As a fan myself, I understand the draw to Japanese pop music. It is has a very distinct sound and there is just something about it that makes it special. Call it what you will, but I do think I attribute a lot of the opportunities presented to me were based on the fact I am African-American. Of course there are a lot of stereotypes about us, but one of them is that we are naturally very good performers. Not saying that we aren’t, but that also takes away from the work and experiences people put in to be great. This is a stigma placed on Black people in general here. Sometimes it can be stressful, but I must say my mere presence in certain spaces grabs people’s attention. And just like industry, it’s who you know and how you work those connections. Honestly, I don’t think that I would have been able to do all the work that I have done in Japan over in the US. I like to tell people that in Japan, I am a medium-sized fish in a pond, whereas, in the US, I’d be a shrimp in an ocean. I’m very well aware of some of the privileges and advantages I have just based on my upbringing, looks, and of course the talent.
I do notice that depending on the project, a Japanese producer or artist will want to work with a non-Japanese person because there is a specific sound they would like to achieve. There seems to be a good enough balance to keep the sound within that sweet spot for a Japanese audience, but still add the vibe from the west. With everything being so easily distributed now, it’s easy to work with songwriters abroad. It seems there is also a growing demand for English lyrics and such. Perhaps some groups want to reach a broader audience in the future so who knows how that unique appeal will hold up. I hope it does because that’s what definitely drew me into in the first place.