Rina Sawayama is the modern pop star we deserve
Rina Sawayama has been influencing pop since the day she appeared on the scene with “Sleeping in Waking” in 2013. But that wasn’t until her 2020 album. SAWAYAMA, which topped all of the notable ‘Best of’ lists last year, that we started to really appreciate it. She explored the depths of herself, shattering Rina into the stereotypes that both define and distort her: Woman. Queer. Asian. Pop star. But like everyone else, the Japanese-British singer-songwriter is more than a culmination of names. And she’s ready to talk about it, both in her music and in the way she engages with the world. With a 2000s Christina Aguilera voice, a touch of awkward pop-punk pop phase and reverberating nu-metal vocals in the background, Sawayama brings the depths of her life experiences to her music, creating a nostalgic sound with a explicitly relevant topic. matter. Rina Sawayama is our modern pop star, contrasting melodic rhythms with intoxicating subjects, exploring the scope of 4/4 sexuality and fetishization. Dance music with depth.
In an effort to break down stigma and hatred, Sawayama’s dialogue extends beyond his music to the topics that matter. She operates her platform to discuss Asian hate, Black Lives Matter, trans rights, and even memories of Asian female fetishization (also addressed directly in her video for “STFU”). Today, she is the face of Coach’s new campaign, Pride Is Where You Find It. Without IRL events this year, the brand is redefining pride as a state of mind. It’s a fitting sentiment at a time when we question celebratory “heritage months” in favor of a year-round ally for under-represented communities. In addition to the campaign, the Coach Foundation made donations to the Hetrick-Martin Institute, the Albert Kennedy Trust, the Point Foundation, and the CenterLink community of LGBTQ centers as part of its Dream It Real initiative.
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“I’ve never worked with an all-female queer slash team. It’s rare, ”Sawayama tells me of Zoom after a long day of filming with Coach. Inclusiveness is a big part of her job, and despite her voice exhaustion, she’s compelled to discuss it. Read on to see what artist has to say about the biggest bisexuality misconceptions, Elton John, and what to do if a man fetishes you, with exclusive behind-the-scenes footage from his campaign shoot.
What is your personal history with Coach?
I feel very honored to join the Coach family. I got this necklace when I was young, I think I was thirteen. My sister gave me a Coach Necklace and I literally wore it everyday until I lost it last year and it broke my heart. It’s very 2000s. It’s crazy to think that I’m campaigning while celebrating pride, which is important because we can’t do festivals and things.
You have a song called “Chosen Family,” which is especially important to LGBTQIA + youth. What was it like meeting yours?
Without them, I would not have lasted my university studies. I was really struggling in college and that’s where I found the family I chose. They were also struggling, being bullied or ostracized, and they all found themselves weird. I was very stressed. Finding them was very important. It saved me from a situation where I was being bullied in college. And at so many times in my life, they are the ones that I will seek advice from, and also, they are each on their own path to queerness and following their hearts. And we try to be there with each other to talk about things that we can’t talk about with our biological families.
Is Elton John part of the family you have chosen now?
It was he who said “you are part of my chosen family!” He calls me all the time and it’s so sweet. He just calls me, very briefly, he’s everything: “I just saw you in this magazine and I just wanna say I’m so proud of you.” I really think it relates to the song and values the idea of the chosen family. And I know people of all ages who connect with this idea and find it so important that they have one.
As a queer Asian, you subvert what a pop icon image looks like. What does it do?
I think there is this incredible wave of people who can tell their stories. I think it’s also the democratization of music in general, the fact that you don’t have to be a big label to release music. This means that people like me or Dorian Electra can do our version of pop without having to jump over obstacles like we would if we released music in the 90s.
Can you describe a time when you felt like you were stuck in the industry because of your sexuality or your Asian identity?
I think all of these things are invisible. A sort of glass ceiling. When I first started in music there were only a handful of Asian artists, especially in pop. And even now a few years later I see so many more people and it’s amazing. I love that the pioneers of the first ones that were visible, the fact that they are Asian is not the main thing. They are just part of this very diverse landscape. Be respected for what you do and your skills. In “STFU”. for example, all of this dialogue was taken from a conversation I had at a wedding. I was frustrated that no one asked me what my skills were or what I do for a living, things that I find more interesting than just my ethnic identity.
Has this changed over time?
It is slowly changing. Behind the scenes, I don’t think there are enough queer people in the top management of the labels. This is therefore not at all diverse but it’s happening slowly. That’s why I try to do my best to make things more diverse and I can ask. I think it’s up to each artist to verify himself. Surprisingly, a lot of queer artists won’t have teams representing them, so I think it’s important to keep that under control.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about bisexuality or pansexuality?
Oh my god, where do I start? Just because you’re in a heterosexual relationship doesn’t mean you’re not queer. I think that’s one of the main things. Or just because you’re in a gay relationship, that doesn’t mean you’re not bisexual. I think it’s also important to point out that some people have preferences and some people may prefer to have sex with men and then have sex with women, and that’s absolutely fine. I’m really trying to eradicate this idea that you can’t make up your mind or whatever. I think if you identify as gay or lesbian, I think a lot of people I know who identify as gay, that’s the box they match 80 or 90 percent of the time. But because there are these labels, they feel comfortable with them, but some people may discriminate against those who do not strictly fit into them, making it difficult for people to express their real identity.
You also talked about Asian hatred and discrimination and internalized racism. What was it that helped you get past that and embrace that side of you?
It is a daily process. I don’t think you graduated from it. I think you learn to accept that you can’t change everyone’s minds, but what I can do is make art and music that I’m passionate about. And I’ve been talking about anti-Asian hate or Asian female fetishization since I started my career – ever since I really noticed it. It’s really important to me because I think it’s important for artists to express themselves when they see it.
When Asian hate was really bubbling up in America, I didn’t see enough people posting about it, like people who love the art of Aikido or who might refer to dragons. You know, people who like anime or Asian culture, but they didn’t talk about it. So it’s very important for me to talk about it in my music or my interviews because it’s something that really fascinates me.
Do you have any tips for Asian women when they are undergoing fetishization?
Oh my gosh, I haven’t quite figured this out on my own yet, to be completely honest. I actually talked to people about me so they can prevent it from happening. So many times I have been to a party where I meet new people where it happens to me and it was always my friends who stepped in and said, “This is not right.”
I remember I was at a party right after Trump’s inauguration, and there was this guy at the house party who was so weird. We were hanging out and getting to know each other just on a friendly basis, and then someone else joined in the conversation and he said, “Sorry, you don’t speak English,” and he just left. It was therefore weird. So my friends all stepped in and kicked him out of the party and we went bowling so that was great. Let your friends know that this is a big deal for you and say “this is good, this is good” – this is not good. It’s not for the people who are hassled to fix the problem, with everything, with BLM. It is not for them to fix the problem.
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What was teenage Rina like? Did she have a Myspace?
She had several Myspaces because I had a group. I recruited on the back of Enemy, the magazine, which it is so dangerous to think about now. I went to meet them in a garage. I was so fearless it was wild. It was bad because I hated my parents and my mom. From 7 in the morning, we had screaming and screaming arguments, then I would go alone to Paris to see concerts. It was definitely a rebellion. I wouldn’t go to school. I had so much fun and partied 13-16 so now I’m a grandma. By the time I got to college, I was done partying.
Your music embraces this awkward 2000s era of emo pop metal. We see that aesthetic rekindled with Gen Z. How does it feel to see music and style being considered cool again?
It’s great, but also weird because it’s like, “were you alive through this?” Because they’re obsessed with the 90s but weren’t alive in the 90s.
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