This piece originally appeared in the Strand Magazine's April 2020 "The Female Empowerment" Issue
All Photos: Hendrik Schneider, Edited: Amika Moser
I came across Rina in the most gen z way possible – scrolling through Instagram. Her single “STFU!” had just come out and was widely praised across social media. The enthusiasm I felt seeing a face that resembled mine turned into a full-fledged fan girl obsession as I indulged myself with everything from her earlier works to her Youtube series RINA TV.
Rina Sawayama has worked from the bottom up starting her journey into music with her hip hop group Lazy Lion back when she studied at Cambridge University. She officially debuted as a musician in 2013 with her single “Sleeping in Walking”. Rina has since then released multiple singles and an EP titled “RINA” in 2017 that includes iconic bops such as “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome” and “Alterlife”.
However, 2019 was definitely the artist’s best year yet. Not only did she release the hit single “STFU!”, but she signed to Dirty Hit Records, joining the likes of The 1975 and The Japanese House. Rina was also named one of Japan’s Vogue Women of the Year alongside influential Japanese women like actress, Hana Sugisaki, and the infamous organizing consultant, Marie Kondo. When asked about the occasion, Rina felt honoured and thankful for Japanese encouragement. “I did this documentary in Japan that was aired six months ago,” Rina tells Strand. “That was the first time I’ve ever done proper Japanese press and it was really cool. I was really scared that people would hate me from that documentary because I was quite outspoken, but the response was incredible – Japan gave me huge support.”
What gravitated me towards her initially was how relatable her music was. “I want to develop my songwriting in a way that still talks about wider issues while still trying to keep it quite personal,” she says. Her single “STFU!” does exactly this. Through her powerful, metal-inspired number, Rina tackles microaggression towards east-Asian people in the most realistic way possible. The “STFU!” music video adds to this kicking off with a hilarious yet hauntingly familiar first date between Rina and a white man at a Japanese restaurant. The man continuously blasts ignorant remarks asking Rina if she has been to the Wagamama’s in Heathrow and how he’s writing a “fan-fiction piece but from the perspective of like, a little Japanese woman.” Rina explains: “the whole dialogue was kind of born from conversations that I’ve had, and other friends have experienced,” She raises the point that racism takes all forms and that just because an offence disguises itself “casual racism” doesn’t mean it should be excused. Through “STFU!”, Rina creates a safe space for the East-Asian community to deal with the aggression through humour.
Her first single of 2020 “Comme des Garçons” touches on the topic of gendered confidence. The song stemmed from a discussion with producer and song-writer Nicole Morier on a male politician’s loss during the US primaries, “she was talking about how interesting it was that this guy lost but he had this attitude that he was born to win it.” This idea of male confidence is what Rina taps into.
Her debut album SAWAYAMA scheduled for release on 17 April examines another theme that hits closer to home. “I think the overall theme is family and identity, but I want to discuss that topic in a way that hasn’t been discussed before,” Rina claims. “I come from a single-parent family and I never understood the other side, so it was interesting to put that into song.” She uses this album as an opportunity to explore where she sits between the black and white in the world and her family.
The singer-songwriter adds that her childhood and teenage years greatly shaped who she is today. Rina was exposed to both Japanese and British culture moving to the UK when she was young due to her father’s work. Attending an UK-based Japanese school then transferring to an English one gave Rina access to the best of both worlds. She was influenced by Japanese television and music but was also familiar with pop musicians like Britney Spears, “I guess all of it kind of formed into my songwriting now”. However, Rina admits that being a part of two cultures was never easy, “I felt I was very torn between two worlds, but I think the act of songwriting has brought it together.”
When asked about her favourite track on the new album, Rina struggled finally stating that although she’s proud of the full album, track 8 is one of her biggest “songwriting feats”. The song in question “is about being a bad friend,” she says.
Rina is one of many East-Asian artists that has risen to the spotlight in recent years. “A couple of years ago I felt that we’re not represented at all and that’s already changed,” she states. “I’m really happy to see more faces that look like me,” she says naming the media collective 88rising and indie-pop musicians such as Mitski and Japanese Breakfast. And it’s clear that artists like Rina are extremely influential. “It’s already spawning a whole generation of young people who are Asian and who are inspired for music as a career.”
Although the music industry is making significant advances in inclusivity, there are still areas that could be worked on such as sexism. Discussing her personal experiences, she states that she was lucky to have a team around her who are politically aligned with her and “all about inclusivity and diversity”. However, Rina brings up instances where she has seen it around her and how institutionalized sexism is engrained in the industry from banter to actual maltreatment of women. The example she gave of her tour manager shows this clearly, “She’s the point of contact for like months and the venue will be like ‘who’s this? Is it your friend?’ or just won’t talk to her with any respect.” Rina also addresses how female musicians are often undermined for their work, despite being business leaders. “Every single pop artist is like a CEO and they employ people so don’t think they’re stupid.”
This idea of how artists treat music as a business is what Rina wishes she knew when she was starting out as an up and coming musician. When listing tips and tricks for aspiring artists she provides great advice “if you want to make a job out of your music then treat it like a job – treat yourself like a business rather than an artist.” Rina also highlights the importance of networking and collaborating with as many people as possible to achieve your goals.
A strong businesswoman and an amazing artist, Rina has certainly used this advice to make her dream a reality.