Saturday, April 11, 2015

Meeting Tiffany Toriumi.

Last Friday I had the most amazing conversation (I guess career advisers would call them "informational interviews"?) with a woman named Tiffany Toriumi. She is a black woman like myself, and for 7 years she lived in Japan working as a jazz singer.

While I was in New Orleans my friend Nyasha asked me what I would be doing if I could do anything in the world, and I responded that I would be living in Japan, working as the lead vocalist for a band. Maybe even be a songwriter. Then to my surprise, she responded, "Oh! I know a woman who did something like that. Would you be interested in talking to her? Let me give you her contact info." ...Like what?! Seriously?! This thing that I figured was just a figment of my imagination, someone has actually achieved? And you randomly happen to know said person?

Cut to last week, when I went to meet Tiffany in her office. She was extremely warm and open, and was eager to tell me anything that I wanted to know. She didn't study jazz at MSU officially, but while she was a student here she linked up with people in the jazz studies department, found herself a mentor, sat in on classes, performed, and did all she could to learn how to sing jazz and practice her craft. After graduating, she spent some time performing regularly in Lansing and Detroit. But while she was getting a consistent amount of gigs night after night, she was disheartened at the fact that her funds didn't match how hard she was working.

So, on the advice of her mother to "move somewhere where you can make something happen", Tiffany took a chance and moved to Tokyo. For the first two years teaching English was her day job (as is common for most native English-speaking newcomers to Japan), while she pursued her passion at night. She went to jam sessions, jazz clubs and open mics, just singing and connecting and collaborating. She met her Japanese husband, who was a drummer, through these activities. You know who else she met through this route? The VP of Sony. Yes ma'am. The vice. president. of. Sony. Music. Japan. Long story short, she was signed to a label, put out 5 albums, and traveled throughout Japan performing jazz for the next five years. She also performed at Club EVANS in Korea:

And she even made a cameo in the 2008 Japanese drama 'Ashita no Kita Yoshio'. She can be seen and heard in episode 1, singing a jazzed-up version of Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" from 38:13-43:20.

However, despite having what many would deem a "dream job", she came to feel so stifled and frustrated by the business side of the entertainment industry (and she probably missed home too) that she got out of her contract, moved back to the States with her husband, and eventually found a job at her alma mater coordinating diversity programming. She sings in a band now, but not at the same scale as she did before.

I was sitting there listening to all her anecdotes and her advice and her answers to my questions, and all I could think was, Wow. What a unique and awesome story this woman has. And what luck, what a blessing that I have the opportunity to speak with this woman who has already been where I want to go, and done what I want to do. Truly, I was blown away.

Toward the end of our meeting I let her hear a clip of me singing "Ue o Muite Arukou" and she told me that I have a beautiful voice. (Hey! A professional singer affirmed that I don't suck! That's gotta be a good indication, right?) "You have to do this," she said. "You want to, right? And you can speak Japanese. So you have to do this, you have to go for it! You'll do great!" Tiffany helped me see that like her, there are tons of foreigners in Japan who are working as artists (both signed and independent), making music, and doing extremely well for themselves! She even offered to put me in contact other people she knows in the Tokyo jazz scene. It was like I was hearing about a whole other world for the first time, a whole other life that's out there waiting for me to live it. This wistful fantasy I've had of being an artist in Japan can become a reality, because people are already over there doing it! It's possible!

I hadn't thought about writing about this encounter until yesterday, and so now I'm kinda kicking myself for not getting a picture of us together as proof (darn the 21st century and its "pics or it didn't happen" pressure!). I feel like I've met one of my heroes, even though I hadn't known about her until now. While Tiffany didn't diminish any of the amazing things that she'd done, she talked about her singing career in Japan as if it was something she did in her younger days. A risk she's glad that she took, an experience she's glad she didn't miss out on, something that's the stuff of fond memories and tons of stories─but something that is nonetheless behind her. However, I don't care how humble or modest she may try to be; Tiffany Toriumi is a hero and a wonder to me. Thank you for taking the time to talk to and encourage a searching, curious student with dreams such as myself. You've given me so many good things to chew on, the most important of which being, hope.

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