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Rina Sawayama Wants Her Success To Make Space For Asian Women In Pop Music

On her first album, Rina Sawayama blends metal and pop and tackles serious issues."It was such a risk to be a musician that I didn't want to do fluffy pop songs and hope it cut through," she says.
On her first album, Rina Sawayama blends metal and pop and tackles serious issues."It was such a risk to be a musician that I didn't want to do fluffy pop songs and hope it cut through," she says.

Rina Sawayama's self-titled debut album is a complex work of pop music, often calling to mind early 2000s R&B, nu-metal, and shuffling between genres in the same song. In the same way she flips through sounds, Sawayama also sings about a lot of complicated topics: her parents' messy divorce, her identity as Japanese British person and her burgeoning understanding of systemic racism, which she says she experienced while studying psychology, sociology and politics at Cambridge University.

"It was only in hindsight that I was like 'Oh, that's the phrase to explain what was going on. That's why the university kept checking my visa, even though I've lived here for 20 years. That's why I get put on the international student register when I'm a home student,' " she says. "All these things that made me feel very uncomfortable at the time and made me feel a little bit othered and like I wasn't deserving."

NPR's Michel Martin caught up with Rina Sawayama shortly after the release of her debut album, but before the death of George Floyd — a killing that led to international protests calling out racism and police violence in the United States. They spoke about Sawayama releasing her debut album later than the pop music industry standard, skewering racist tropes against Asian women in her music videos and how her mother feels about the album after cautioning her daughter about pursuing music. Listen to the radio version in the audio link above, and read on for highlights of the interview.


Interview Highlights

On Asian representation in pop music and her motivations

When I was starting out, I was very, very fixated on what I represented to people. At the time, I remember looking around being like "There's not a single Asian pop artist that I can name." Hayley Kiyoko was sort of coming in a bit, but I was like "I can't name people who have pushed their Asian-ness to the fore and made art out of it." Even just in the process of writing this album, there's so many artists now. I definitely felt the pressure for me to reach this next level of representation. I feel like the first step was me talking about the fact that there's no representation, and then the second step was just being as successful as possible doing something that I would be proud of. It is so stereotypical, but it is so fueled by thinking about what I and my mom would be proud of me doing. Because it was such a big risk to be a musician that I didn't want to sit around and do fluffy pop songs and hope it cut through. I knew that it took something like this to cut through, because there's just so much music out there now. Like so many things in life, it's driven by parental approval; so annoying.

On "STFU" and channeling her everyday frustrations

It was honestly one of those songs that came very, very naturally. The hook and the difference between the metal elements and the sweet JoJo-y 2000s R&B elements, that was already there in the instrumental that me and [producer] Clarence Clarity did. It wasn't something that I was like "Oh, I really want to write this song." But I guess all that anger was stored up inside without me knowing. I'm sure a lot of people can relate, any marginalized people, like "Yeah, I guess I should dig up all those annoying things that happen to me every day that I have to suppress to keep going with my life."

On releasing her debut album later than the traditional pop star trajectory

I battle with inner demons of ageism every day, which sounds really stupid, but I'm turning 30 this year, and I just released my debut record. For a pop act, also female, I don't think that would have happened 10 years ago. I've always told myself "Oh I'm too old to do this" or "People don't reach success when they start this late." And I always looked at 17-year-olds like "Why can't I be like Britney [Spears]?" I feel like the vision of the record — and the music videos — has been helped by what I went through in my early-to-mid 20s.

On "Dynasty" and exploring family trauma in her music

I wanted to write about familial pain, intergenerational trauma, and try to make it into a pop song. I really wanted to write an honest, damning portrait of my family that has been torn apart by money. On my dad's side, there's a lot of exchange of love with money and that sort of skews people's perspective of love, and I sort of didn't understand what love was for the longest time. I didn't understand that the parental love that you're supposed to get is not meant to be conditional on you doing something. It was a very mixed portrait when I was growing up. So I wanted to cut through the mustard and set the tone for the album. "Won't you cut the chain with me?" That's the question, that's the essay title of the record.

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