National News

From Japan to Harlem, a Gospel Singer Is Born

Posted May 10, 2018 4:58 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — As a pop singer in Japan, TiA landed a recording contract when she was 16. She released a single and an album when she was 17, and another single when she was 18. But she started burning out, and by the time she was 27, she quit, tired of rehearsing, traveling and performing.

She moved to Manhattan, intending to find something to do that did not involve music, and rented an apartment in a Harlem brownstone that happened to be next to a church.

Through the wall, the singer — who uses a uniquely spelled single name professionally, TiA, as she did in Japan — could hear the church’s 12-voice gospel choir rehearsing during the week and singing at services on Sundays. The music conveyed the exuberance of exaltation, backed up with electric guitars and keyboards and drums. The effect was magnetic, and eventually she walked in and asked to join the choir, even though she had never sung a note of gospel music.

That was two years ago. She has become so practiced and polished that on Saturday, she will take part in a gospel competition in Newark, New Jersey, that draws thousands of singers.

“Singing gospel, I sing from the heart,” said the 30-year-old, whose given name is Tomoka Takayama. “When I was singing as a pop star, I had to pretend like I was a model. With gospel, it’s natural. I appreciate the music.”

There has long been a nexus between Japan and gospel music, and Takayama will not be the only Japanese-born performer on the stage in Newark Symphony Hall. A. Curtis Farrow, who started the competition in the 1980s, said that about 15 percent of the 11,000 singers who auditioned were Japanese or Korean. The regulars in recent years have included the Don’t Give Up Choir, formed after a powerful earthquake and tsunami in 2011 and the nuclear disaster that followed.

“The audiences go crazy when they see it’s not just black singers,” Farrow said. “For some reason, gospel as an art form has gotten this image that it’s only for the black community. We are great judges of it because we created it, but it’s being done by so many different people now, and that’s what it’s about, being inclusive.”

“We have to get out of being so insular,'’ he added. “It’s a global society now. God is global, and as a result, we have to be global.” Japanese visitors have flocked to Harlem for years, among them singers drawn by black gospel music. They hum along, clap and sway, even though most do not share the religious beliefs of the singers they emulate.

“It caught on because we go straight to the center of the soul,” said Vy Higginsen, who with her husband, Ken Wydro, wrote the book and lyrics for the gospel-infused musical “Mama, I Want to Sing.”

“African-American music, especially, has a way of penetrating mind and emotions, intelligence and love,” Higginsen said. “It doesn’t matter what your religious beliefs are, it’s the effect of the music on the body, mentally and physically. So they begin to feel exhilarated, they feel renewed, they come alive. And that is the power of it.”

Takayama did not know it when she walked into the New Hope Community Church on West 126th Street, but the minister, the Rev. Terrance L. Kennedy, has led gospel-singing workshops in Japan since the 1990s. Big-name gospel performers paved the way: Mahalia Jackson toured Japan in 1971; “Mama, I Want to Sing” played in 11 cities in Japan in the 1980s.

The 1992 comedy “Sister Act” also was wildly popular, although Kyoko Uchiki, who founded the Don’t Give Up Choir, said many Japanese didn’t see “Sister Act” as humorous.

“They didn’t understand what’s funny, but they were crazy about the music,” she said. “Japanese had the image, especially of the Catholic church, that it was more traditional hymns and very quiet. When they see and hear gospel music, it’s ‘Oh, my, it’s fun. It’s more like rock music, it sounds like R&B sometimes, it’s very exciting, it’s emotional.'” Farrow said it used to be different from anything that amateur Japanese singers had experienced. “As an art form, I get Asians who come over who’re singing, but they’re mimicking,” he said. “They’ve looked up Mahalia, but they’re mimicking. They’ve looked up James Cleveland” — a prominent gospel singer who died in 1991 — “but they’re mimicking.”

Not anymore, he said: “TiA represents that next level of Asian singers who are way past mimicking and are singing from the soul.”

Takayama, who was born in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, said she became disillusioned with the singer’s life in her mid-20s. “Everybody was telling her, ‘Sell more CDs,'” said Kohei, another Japanese performer who sometimes appears with Takayama and also uses one name, and who translated when Takayama switched to Japanese during an interview. “It was a business. She was losing her passion. There was too much pressure. That’s not art. She said, ‘That’s not me.'”

She quit after a concert in 2014. She flew to New York for no particular reason. “It could have been Spain. It could have been Brazil,” she said.

She went home to Japan after a week but soon returned and stayed for a few months. Then she flew back, intending to remain in Japan, but her brother had sold her designer handbags and her jewelry to a pawnshop, leaving her with little money.

“She was mad,” Kohei said, translating as Takayama continued in Japanese. “She was materialistic at that time, but now she thinks it was fine, that expensive stuff was not important.”

She flew to New York again, this time for good, and after a couple of months in the East Village, moved to the apartment in Harlem. “She was not going to sing,” Kohei said. “She was not here to sing. But her apartment was next door. The walls vibrated.”

The hard-driving gospel sound prompted her to start singing again, but not the choir’s powerful arrangements. “She was not sure it was OK to sing gospel because she was not religious,” Kohei said. “She said, ‘I am not ready for that because I am not religious.'”

She tried rhythm-and-blues, signing up for an open-mic night at the Village Underground in the West Village. She received a standing ovation.

Then she endured a long-distance emotional punch: Back in Japan, her dog — a chubby pug named Pom — died.

Six thousand miles away in Manhattan, she cried every day. To cheer her up, a pianist who had appeared with her in Japan came to visit. They went to Times Square. They went to Brooklyn. On a Sunday, the friend said, “Where should we go?”

She said, “Oh, next door. Every Sunday I hear it.”

Without auditioning them, Kennedy asked if they wanted to sing in a community concert a few days later. He said he considered Takayama a gift: She was not one of those sopranos whose voice had a wobble or whose top notes were shaky. He said she could deliver gutsy, powerful singing amid pounding rhythms.

“She didn’t just start listening to black music,” Kennedy said. “It’s apparent to me she was listening to black music before she came here. She’s able to do inflections and typical dynamics we do in gospel, using swells and crescendos or manipulating pitches, which is something you know by hearing our music. TiA can create a lot of sound.”

Kennedy and the choir are planning to tour Japan later in the year. She will go with them, not just as a singer but as a believer — while they are there, Kennedy said he would baptize her.