Kubota has chiseled good looks, bedroom eyes, dreadlocks and hysterical, fainting female fans. In other words, he's a star in Japan. His current, almost impossible dream: to be the next big thing to hit the rhythm and blues music scene in America. "When people look at me, I am not sure if they want to listen to my music," says the thirtysomething Kubota, who has been living in New York since 1994. "But when I sing in front of them, they change their attitudes."
He has released two English albums. The first, Sunshine Moonlight, was released in 1995 and fared reasonably well, with 30,000 copies shipped to stores in America. The second, Nothing but Your Love, had its second single, Masquerade, released in early March. To lend a little more verve to his R. and B., he has roped in some heavyweight collaborators, such as Pras, The Roots, Angie Stone and Raphael Saadiq. The result: an album that is part basement-funk, part hip-hop—and all slammin' grooves. "You can smell the soul," he says, "and you can feel the temperature like hip-hop. But at the same time you can taste something like sushi."
When he discusses the beauty of soul music and his attempt to imbibe the African-American history behind it, Kubota is like a kid in a candy store. But he also reveals a weariness over his attempt to convince America, and particularly its black musicians, that Japanese have soul too. "There are two different kinds of African-American people," he says. "One is very conservative: they believe that R. and B. or soul music is only for black people. The other type is ready to listen to any kind of music, or they are ready to listen to R. and B. music sung by non-black people." He believes there are too few of the second category working in the recording industry today.
But the buzz on the Japanese soul-master is growing. According to The Roots drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" (pronounced "Questlove") Thompson, Kubota's authenticity comes across, even if he does not mesh with conventional ideas of what a soul singer should look like. "I'm one of those idealists who thinks soul music comes from the inside. I don't think you have to be black or raised on collard greens, fried chicken and cornbread to be part of the soul experience." He says that when the group first heard of Kubota, they thought: "Oh God—a Japanese soul singer?" They stopped laughing after listening. "It definitely had soul in it," he says. "At that point, I was like: 'O.K., he can sing and he definitely has a good voice—I can work with him.'"
Stone, a singer-songwriter who has worked with Lenny Kravitz, D'Angelo and Mary J. Blige, also sings the praises of Kubota, whom she has known for three years. "Toshi Kubota is a talent to be reckoned with. None of us would work with anybody unless we felt that they were truly talented."
Kubota's favored '70s retro-glam ward-robe emphasizes the mood of the music he loves. But he hasn't gone entirely native. "When I go to clubs, I like to hang out with Americans, Japanese, different types of people," he says. "But even though I've lived in America for seven years, the only drink I drink is Japanese sake." There is a new description for the music industry: a sake-voiced rhythm and blues singer.