Toshi: Beyond Barriers

In 2000 you might remember seeing a video on BET’s Midnight Love that featured this Asian cat singing soul music. His name is Toshi, and while he might be a hazed memory to you, he is hysterically famous in his native Japan, and he is famous for being a soul singer.

Toshi was introduced to soul music as a youth in Japan when he took advantage of a soda company’s promotion and exchanged 12 bottle caps for a free album. Unable to read the English on the album cover or play the album because he didn’t have a record player, Toshi was left only with the image of five Black men with afros - The Stylistics. Needless to say, Toshi eventually got that record player, and from the Stylistics to The Dramatics to Stevie Wonder he became enraptured by soul music. By the time he was in junior high school he had his own band, and by the time he was in college he was touring clubs.

Toshi has nine releases to his credit in Japan, and more than 20 years experience performing soul music, but the unusual image of an Asian man singing soul music left Toshi’s first American release, Nothing But Love, lost in translation. Toshi’s latest, Time to Share, boasts production from Orthodox & Ransum, the team responsible for giving Musiq his sound, as well as Buckwild and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Guest appearances include Mos Def and Angie Stone.

Allowing himself a short break from touring with Anthony Hamilton, Toshi, who is still mastering speaking English but who sings English fluently, spoke with Alternatives in his surprisingly syrupy accent about his new album, women, and his efforts to change our thoughts of what soul music can look like. Alternatives: Would you call your first album a success?

Toshi: No, it wasn’t successful.

AHHA: Why do you think that was?

Toshi: The contents of the album were fine, but it was tough dealing with Americans. I’ve learned that when dealing with Americans, including record label people and club promoters, it’s important to hang out with them and [effectively] communicate with them. A Japanese person doing this kind of music is sometimes a little to fresh for Americans.

AHHA: What will be the mark of success for Time to Share?

Toshi: Hearing my music on American radio.

AHHA: Do you think that being Japanese will be an asset or a hindrance in you reaching that goal?

Toshi: Both, because people have an image of what soul is, and a Japanese guy singing soul music is strange to them. At the same time, I hope it could be seen as unique and different. I know it’s not going to be easy to get rid of those types of stereotypes and prejudices, but I hope my music helps.

AHHA: What’s the first single off the album?

Toshi: A song called ‘Breaking Through’. It’s a song about a relationship between two people who have different backgrounds and they need to break through the barriers. I think it’s a very funky song.

AHHA: Is the subject of that song kind of a parallel to your relationship with the American audience?

Toshi: Could be, I never really thought of it like that.

AHHA: Do you write the lyrics for your American albums in Japanese first?

Toshi: Sometimes. I get the idea in Japanese, and the producer or lyricist helps me with the English.

AHHA: Are their any distinct differences between your first album and this current release?

Toshi: Basically I’m doing the same thing. The production is a little different.

AHHA: Your music speaks a lot of love and relationships. Are you currently involved?

Toshi: [chuckles] Always.

AHHA: Have you found there to be big difference between Japanese women and American women?

Toshi: I don’t know, lately they are very similar. Ten years ago a Japanese woman was very shy and quiet, where an American woman was very aggressive. These days they are both aggressive and creative. These days they are the same.

AHHA: Do you think that is a good thing?

Toshi: Some people say a woman being too aggressive isn’t too cute. I think it is fine, they are attractive to me. Japanese woman, American woman, European woman, and African-American woman, I really love them all [laughs].

AHHA: It seems that the young people of Japan are really attracted to the urban arts of America, would you say that’s true?

Toshi: Yes that’s true. It’s in fashion. Years ago, soul music was just an African-American thing, but it has hit our streets through Hip Hop. People want to hear Hip Hop, and people want to wear baggy jeans. The advance of technology, the internet and computer, has helped Japanese young people to listen to and create Hip Hop music.

AHHA: Did it take a lot to sell your parents on your career choice?

Toshi: Yeah, they hated the idea at first because they wanted me to be a Japanese business man or something. Now they are very happy for me.

AHHA: What was your most difficult challenge about making this new album?

Toshi: It wasn’t so difficult. The first album was kind of difficult to deal with the producers, but this album I know what I want and the producers I choose understood me easily. It didn’t take us a long time to find mutual ground, so this album was pretty easy.

AHHA: Do you use a translator in your sessions?

Toshi: No, I don’t need it because it’s music.