Arts and Entertainment

Rina Sawayama: The Big Sister You’ve Always Wanted

Rina Sawayama, a British-Japanese artist, represents Asian and queer communities through her genre-expanding music.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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By Cadence Li

“Rina Sawayama.” She was everywhere—plastered over social media, in my friends’ playlists, and in music news, and yet I never took the chance to explore her artistry. But, as a huge fan of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, I jumped at the opportunity to spend 15 minutes and three seconds basking in Sawayama’s glory. The result? I was awestruck by her impressive voice, raw and smart lyrics, and range of styles. In a quarter of an hour, she effortlessly transitioned from rock to pop to ballad and moved her audience, and me, to tears. After that video, I decided to take another hour to listen to her entire album “SAWAYAMA” (2020) (in lieu of my homework, which I only partially regret) and came to a conclusion as to why Sawayama is so highly praised: she’s simply the older sister you’ve always wanted.

Sawayama is a Japanese-British singer-songwriter. Born in Niigata, she moved to London at the age of five. Growing up between spheres of both British and Japanese culture, Sawayama, like many of us, struggled with fitting perfectly into two cultural boxes. As a child, she also struggled with her parents’ divorce, coming to terms with her sexuality, and keeping up with social and educational expectations. She later found her niche at Cambridge, where she joined local queer communities and a hip-hop music group and finally allowed herself to explore and accept who she really was. A few years later, Sawayama released some singles and her debut EP, “Rina” (2017), which helped her gain traction in the music industry. The release of her debut album, “SAWAYAMA,” on April 17, 2020 officially labelled her as one of Britain’s rising pop artists.

From her instrumentation to her vocals to her lyrics, Sawayama shines through her versatility. On her studio projects, she spans a large range of genres, from electropop to rock to R&B, and even falls into early 2000s pop territory on certain cuts. Songs like “Tokyo Love Hotel” and “Lucid” tote a unique disco pop glitz, while songs like “STFU!” have clear rock influences. And although she frequently experiments with her sound, her debut album is a cohesive body of work––a true testament to her expertise. She also has an incredible range, and her talent speaks for itself on beautiful ballad songs like “Chosen Family.” But at the same time, she adds an edge to her voice, which helps create an amazing dynamic throughout her discography. Most importantly, her lyrics are incredibly raw and relatable. On tracks like “Dynasty,” she openly shares her experiences with familial problems, asking her listeners to “Break the chain with [her].” On “XS,” Sawayama juxtaposes the words XS (extra small) and excess and intersects materialism, capitalism, climate change, and gender issues. Her wide range of themes of family, capitalism, sexuality, youth, and more reflect a complexity in her emotions and music. Sawayama uses her songs to highlight experiences, creating catchy music while also diving into deeper themes.

But beyond her incredible talent, the rising star also understands the lack of Asian and queer representation in music and actively strives to close that gap. As a pansexual and bisexual woman, Sawayama uses her platform to uplift the LGBTQ+ community. In her pop single “Cherry,” Sawayama opens up about her pansexuality, proudly representing her identity. She signed an open letter to the UK equalities minister in 2020, demanding for a ban of all forms of conversion therapy. More recently, Sawayama has worked to change music laws for British-immigrated artists. Last year, Sawayama was told she could not compete for British music awards such as The BRITs or the Mercury Prize because she wasn’t a British citizen, despite having lived in Britain almost her entire life and being legally allowed to remain in Britain indefinitely. Soon, the Internet blew up in support for Sawayama, especially after her interview with Vice, in which she called the rule “othering” while bringing up issues of immigrant assimilation. Later, Sawayama was able to meet up with the British Phonographic Industry, a music trade association that runs multiple awards, and convinced them to change the rules. Now, anyone who has been a permanent resident of the UK for more than five years is eligible for an award. Subsequently, Sawayama was nominated for the BRITs’ Rising Star Award and has opened doors for many other artists like her.

What makes Sawayama’s music so attractive is her raw portrayal and understanding of typical immigrant families and her individuality as a result. Oftentimes, there are cultural and linguistic barriers that make it difficult for children of immigrants to open up to their parents––especially about sexuality and identity. It can feel overbearing and lonesome, like you’re the only one struggling out there with no one to turn to. But Sawayama reminds you that you’re not alone and like a wise sister, tells you it’s all going to be okay.