Usa from Japanese mega boy band EXILE hopes to connect the world through dance

Usa from Japanese mega boy band EXILE hopes to connect the world through dance

From jumping with African Masai to grooving with Native Americans, EXILE's dancer Usa gets primal in a new project called "Dance Earth"
exile usa boy band
Usa found some of the trickiest dance forms while visiting countries in Africa.

Since debuting in 2001, hip-hop boy band EXILE has slowly grown not only into the most dominant boy-band in Japan today, but also into one of Japan’s independent success stories by running their own management firm.

They have increased in numbers too; on March 1, 2009 they merged with boy band J Soul Brothers to become a 14-strong unit.

With their dark-tans, slick hair and surly looks, EXILE have stood out from the crowd of usual feminine J-pop boy bands like Arashi and V6.

They have also excelled in dance. 

Looking dapper in a grey suit, unbuttoned white shirt and trilby hat, EXILE’s lead dancer, Usa, takes a seat at EXILE’s company offices in the trendy Nakameguro district.

A shy and quiet character, he’s taken advantage of the fame of the group to explore the roots and essence of dance all around the world in a project called “Dance Earth.”

“This is my life’s work,” he says. “Dancing choreographed dance in a group for an audience, it’s really different from dancing freely. I’ll be in trouble if I say too much," he says, "but to be honest I like dancing freestyle more.” 

exile usa boy bandUsa all spruced up for a rare English interview in EXILE's trendy management office.

Cuban inspiration 

The EXILE troupe -- Usa himself sees them more as an ongoing project than as a boy band these days -- was founded on the basis of hip-hop dance.

Hiro, formerly of Zoo, teamed up with Usa, Matsu and Makidai as the J Soul Brothers in 1999, with Sasa on vocals.

With new vocalist Atsushi and Shun joining in 2001, EXILE was born.

For Usa, who frequently shows off his individual techniques in the group, the success allowed him to travel the world and when visiting Cuba for a magazine article he was suddenly struck by the global power of dance. 

“I felt the sense of people connected with each other in spite of the differences in skin colors, nationalities, or languages, and it made me realize that all peoples in the world have their own dance, and that led me to have a dream to ride the rhythms all over the world,” he says. 

“There is a John Lennon Park in Cuba, and I sat next to a bronze sculpture of him with the song 'Imagine' in my head. I wasn’t a big fan of the Beatles and went back to my room to read the lyrics. I was impressed by the powerful message that the world should be as one, and I came to realize that dance is a universal common language,” says Usa.

Keeping the image of love and peace in mind, Usa then began "Dance Earth," a project that would take him backpacking to 13 countries, exploring the various origins of dance, from aboriginal to modern.

exile usa boy bandUsa found himself tested in a dance battle in Chicago.

Native American beginnings

Usa began his mission in a spiritual heart-land of native Americans, Sedona in Arizona.

“I heard that, when we go back to the roots of the Japanese, we can be said to originate as part of the Mongolian race, so that made me wonder first about dance styles that have remained for thousands of years. Since I wanted to explore communication with the earth, I felt that it was the Native American people who knew the meaning, so that’s where I started,” he says.

“Dance Earth” came out as a book in 2008 and DVD in 2009. Then in early 2010 Usa embarked on his second journey for the just-released book “Dance Earth: Beat Trip,” with a DVD to follow next year.

This time he stopped by Ibiza, Tanzania, Kenya, Bali, India, Jamaica and Chicago.

“The toughest dance so far was in Senegal,” he says. ”Because, normally, you dance along with the music but in Senegal the dancer acts as a conductor and determines the tempo of the music. I need to give a cue while I’m dancing and I control how the rhythm goes from there. If I fail to give a cue, the drummer gets lost and the music stops there, so that kind of tension was very powerful.”

“On the other hand, the most natural was the jumping by Masai in Tanzania. When people get happy, the first thing they do is jump, so I felt the origin of dancing in there and it was fun to see that, and it was the easiest thing to do for me,” he says.

exile usa boy bandOne of Usa's themes is to connect with the primordial desire of all ethnic groups on earth to dance.

Understanding Japanese dance

Usa reveals that learning about dance forms throughout the world has made him reconsider the meaning of Japanese dance.

“Now I’m really interested in doing Dance Earth Japan, such as Awa-odori or Eisa in Okinawa, so from now on, I want to take in those rhythms in my body and become a dancer who can show Japan through dance to the world,” he says.

“I feel a little rushed now, because the more I travel, the more I feel that the earth is big and it’s filled with lots of different kinds of beat. I have this extremely huge dream that, in this life of mine, I want to ride all of these rhythms and connect with people all over the world, so, I can’t slow down and need to keep things up to make this dream come true.”

Aside from being teased because his name means ‘stinky’ in the native American language spoken in Sedona, Usa says the experience of backpacking was very positive experience.

“I become like a chameleon and I thought the more dangerous the situation is, the more I feel like wanting to enjoy it because people wouldn’t want to attack someone who’s walking on the street while dancing, even a very bad gangster wouldn’t do that. I think it’d be easier to take money from people who look scared!” 

Not that he doesn’t like a challenge. “I had this dance battle in Chicago, I rode the beat and played the game in their field, but I really felt in my bones that I lost. So now, I’ve done a lot of training and I’m in good condition, so I want to make revenge,” he jokes.

exile usa boy bandUsa takes some rest while in India.

Bringing world dance back to EXILE

EXILE themselves were born from American hip-hop dance, which caused many dance troupes to take to the streets of Tokyo to practice. 

Usa tacitly admits that the strict choreography of the group restrains him, but he also hopes to bring his experience from his journeys back into the group.

He also believes that it’s the desire that is more important than any skill.

"When I started dancing, I knew only two steps, but I could keep dancing all night at a club or disco just with those two steps, so, you can learn skills one by one later and what’s really important is that your heart dances,” he says.

Usa began dancing aged 15 in Yokohama where he grew up. “My father is a funky guy, my parents met at a disco and then got married. We used to have home parties on weekends so there was a lot of rock, hip hop, reggae. I was into soccer then, so, I wanted to go to bed early on Saturday because I had a game on Sunday, but I couldn’t, it was too noisy. I almost started to hate music and dance, actually,” he reveals.

Having watched the likes of MC Hammer and Japanese dance group Zoo on TV however, he changed his mind.

“I was going to graduate high school and needed to decide what to do next. My teacher said going to college was not an option for me so he gave me a job catalog. I couldn’t find a single job I wanted to do, so I thought what to do to be a better dancer and then the answer to me was going to New York. So for that kind of simple reason, I made my mind what to do next,” he says.

Saving money in part time jobs he went to New York for six weeks but had to return when the money ran out. 

exile usa boy bandUsa in full color in Bali.

From a baby to soul brother to an exile

One of Usa’s early dance groups was called Baby Nail and he recalls long periods of wondering if success would ever come.

“Even when I was not selling anything, I was talking with my friends, 'what would you do if we’d sell a million records tomorrow or what would you do if you’d become famous so quickly and couldn’t walk on the street any more?'”

Baby Nail led to a opportunity to join Hiro of Zoo for a new project called J Soul Brothers in 1999. After two years they changed their name to EXILE and in 2001 their debut single “Your Eyes Only” had an immediate impact, peaking at no.4 in the Japanese charts.

The group began with a clear R&B style, but in recent years has become a mainstream pop group. 

“In ourselves, there is a lot of influence of different kinds of hip hop and R&B, but when we look back at our past, the music we were listening to when we were a lot younger was J-Pop, so we realize that we need a good balance, and we want to make something that everyone can enjoy. It’s not that we are doing what we don’t want to do, but we have those different kinds of faces in us as a group.” 

exile usa boy bandEXILE pose on the red carpet during the MTV World Stage VMAJ 2010.

Chart and award dominance

By 2008 EXILE had become a juggernaut, two number one singles that year combined with nearly 1.5 million sales of their “EXILE Love” album.

At the Japan Gold Disc Awards they took home “Artist of the Year,” “Album of the Year” and “Best Music Video.” The MTV Video Music Awards Japan gave the “Album of the Year” and “Video of the Year” and in 2009 Billboard awarded them again as “Artist of the Year” and “Album of the Year.”

“I felt that we made a progress little by little,” says Usa.

"Finally a lot of people listen to us now, as we hold up a theme, 'Love, Dream, Happiness' (also the name of their self-founded management company), I need to be a person who won’t stray from that message, and I need to watch my behavior in everyday life in order to stick to my beliefs, so it’s about that kind of sense of responsibility."

An eternal theater troupe

The decision in March 2009 to increase the members of EXILE from seven to 14 was a surprise for many. Why did the band need so many members and wouldn’t it be impossible for fans to remember all their names? Or was it just a sign that the older members can’t keep up, with leader Hiro now 41?

“I think it made us more powerful and gave us more potential,” says Usa. When we had our stadium tour this year, we had 1.1 million people come in total, so I felt it was a right decision to have 14 members, and it was good for our fans too,” he says.

exile usa boy bandUsa's second book is out now -- don't expect it to be the last.

“I could tell that everyone there, even people in the back, they all were enjoying the show.”

Usa says that their current theme is "EXILE Generation" and now they will be focusing on their legacy.

He hopes that when the founding members call it a day that EXILE itself will live on, like a theater troupe.

“It’s not that Exile would stop to exist when we stop dancing and singing, EXILE will keep going as a group, we’ll be passing it on to the next generation, since there has not been a group like that, I want to make it with this one.”

 

Robert Michael Poole is a specialist on the Japanese music and entertainment scene.

Read more about Robert Michael Poole