In our first instalment of the Empowering Women in Music series, we talk Rina Sawayama, a Japan-born London-raised Y2K, cross-genre sensation speaking up for both womenkind and Asian artists in the industry.
While born in Niigata, Japan, Rina Sawayama spent her life in London. Her first pathway in life was not music as she studied Politics, Psychology and Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Shortly after graduating she decided that she wanted to purse her musical passion. It’s fair to say that I am extremely happy, she definitely made the right choice.
Rina’s musical range is vast; one minute you’ll be crying along to ‘This Time Last Year’, and the next you’ll be recreating her extravagant make-up looks and dancing around to ‘XS’. Her lyrics are catchy and honest; she is a woman who embraces all aspects of her life in order to bring her music to life.
So, what is it that makes her music stand out?
After signing with Dirty Hit Records, Rina released her 2nd studio album in April 2020. The album itself is a compilation of songs that seem almost like they have been plucked out of Y2K. Yet this isn’t just an ode to 2000; it has been recreated down to the very last detail — and we’re all here for it. Not only do we get iconic 2000s pop vibes, but Rina even manages to incorporate elements of nu-metal throughout the album; most notably in ‘STFU!’ that begins with heavy and distorted electric guitars that leads to a stripped back piano and vocal pop chorus.
Over the years, we have seen her manipulate the classic pop song and mix it with genres that have inspired her, such as hip-hop, nu-metal and electronica. The most prominent reflection of these genre merges is in her most listened to track ‘XS’.
‘XS’ seamlessly combines 3 different genres into one song. The opening begins with a chordal synth opening, which is promptly interrupted by the crashing descending guitar riffs that “intermittently ‘flare up like an underlying zit’”, bringing together her nu-metal influences. The song is subsequently followed by a pop fusion which seems as if it had just landed straight from the 2000s; clutching a Nokia 3310 and paired with fluffy kitten heeled mules.
Whilst indulging in her music, it is clear that Rina is not afraid to purse topics of conversation that women in music have had to face for so long. In ‘Commes Des Garçons (Like The Boys)’, a track said to be inspired by a conversation that Sawayama had “about the arrogance of would-be presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke”, she tears down male privilege in an almost parody-esque song reminiscent of Balance Ton Quoi by Angèle.
Lyrics like “Don’t fuck with me, hoe // Take you down like judo” bring us to the inherent misogyny that drives many male musicians to excessively and continuously refer to women as the H-bomb. Her music video, a Y2K blitzkrieg of lo-fi production, green screen and aestheticism, toys with ideas of drag as she dresses as a man, exaggerating her muscles as she repeats “I’m so confident”.
“Excuse my ego // Can’t go incognito // Every time you see me // It’s like winning big in Reno” – Commes Des Garçons (Like The Boys), Rina Sawayama
From both her interviews and her music, Rina doesn’t hide that she advocates for a sex-positive and LGBTQ+ inclusive musical space. During her song ‘Cherry’, we hear Rina publicly announcing her pansexuality, in a song that encourages people to love themselves and lead their most authentic life.
In discussing her sexuality with VICE, Rina explains how she never felt comfortable within her sexuality as she never found any representations of pansexuality within the media. She states “I just think the reason I wasn’t so comfortable with my sexuality was because there was no one on TV or anywhere that I could point to and go, ‘Look mom! This person is what I was talking about!’”.
Although Rina speaks heavily of the struggles she has faced, she has found joy in coming to terms with her sexual identity. She has viewed many experiences within the queer community as “transformative”, finding solace and acceptance in gay bars whilst at Cambridge.
Rina’s openness with her sexuality resonates through-out her music, providing a safe and accepting space for many of her fans. For me, ‘Cherry’ has provided a space where those who identify as bisexual and pansexual are able to feel seen and heard. As Rina states “It’s the truth for a lot of bi and pan people—they don’t feel authentically queer when they’re in heterosexual relationships, and that is what the song is about.”
In expressing her sexuality through her lyrics, Rina has provided a platform for those who identity as bi and pansexual, which has hardly been elevated in the media thus far.
“Even though I’m satisfied // I lead my life within a lie // Holding onto feelings // I’m not used to feeling” – Cherry, Rina Sawayama
Loving where you’re from
In an interview with i-D, Rina opens up about her struggles with her identity and her family’s financial difficulties (such as sharing a room with her mum until she was 15). Rina moved to London from Japan at the age of 5, and although she wanted to sustain her Japanese heritage, she often found herself conflicted.
“I wanted to be white, and I wanted to be English, and I wanted to be part of everyone else”.
Although she once shied away from her heritage, Rina is now actively embracing it, speaking up about the importance of diversity within her work.
“My goal is to try and level the playing field for young Asian girls”.
Rina has supported and been involved with “Angry Asian Girls”, an online collective that strives to build a community where APIAs (Asian and Pacific Islander Americans) can feel empowered and united. The company aims to combat the stereotype of the “docile, voiceless Asian woman with a smile” that has plagued society.
Rina shows us what she has had to overcome in order to accept and love herself, whilst utilising all of her influences and applying them to her music. Not only does her music empower us, but so does her story. From embracing her unique identity to unapologetically championing her musical influences, Rina Sawayama is an empowering women in music.
Want to learn about more empowering women in music? Check out our Spotify playlist.