London – Most artists would find it intimidating to ask a musical icon like Elton John to do a duet with them – but that doesn’t seem to be the case with Anglo-Japanese singer Rina Sawayama.
“I just asked him and he said yes!” Sawayama said via video chat from his London home. Of course, the fact that John was once a vocal cheerleader for the singer and her 2020 debut album “Sawayama” helped, a record that put the 30-year-old singer on the verge of a pop breakthrough. major.
Together, Sawayama and John reworked the album’s penultimate track, “Chosen Family,” an ode from Sawayama, who is pansexual, to her LGBTQ support network. Naturally, John had a deep appreciation for the sentiment.
“(John) loves it, he and his kids sing it at home,” Sawayama says. “For him, it means something different (because) he lived through the AIDS crisis. (But) it’s a subject that really connects us both.
Sawayama laughs as he remembers guiding John’s voice around his own studio. “He’s such a pro, he was so open to directions,” she said, adding that she now considers him a close friend.
“We chat quite often! He’s adorable, ”she continues. “Whenever he sees something positive about me in the press, he calls and congratulates me. He is so kind to say that I am his chosen family and I feel the same. It’s beautiful.”
The collaboration with John has been a major highlight in Sawayama’s trajectory so far. After starting her pop career at age 26 – “technically old,” she says, with an eye on the industry’s youthful standards – Sawayama has built a cult following (she calls her fans her “Pixels”) with her 2017 mini album “Rina”. But just like “Sawayama” was released in April of last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world to a halt. Sawayama was left in limbo, with no concerts and no real way to celebrate her success. “It’s hard to have pop star moments sitting at home in my leggings without makeup,” she says.
Nonetheless, the impact of “Sawayama” is undeniable. It has been aired over 100 million times, with The Guardian, New York Times and the BBC all placing it in the top 10 of their best albums of the 2020 list. In October, Sawayama made his American television debut in “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” performing a moving choreographed version of his single “XS”; and last month, she was nominated for a Rising Star award at the Brit Awards after a campaign to change the rules for eligibility for music awards.
Born in Niigata, Sawayama kept her Japanese passport and remains in the UK on indefinite leave. Although she lived in England for 25 years, her status made her ineligible for major music awards ceremonies in the UK.
“It was exhausting,” she says. “It’s a feeling that I know a lot of immigrants have, that they come to a certain place and then realize that this place is not for them.
After Sawayama hesitantly pointed out the issue, initially regarding the Mercury Prize – “When you talk about these things you can be ashamed of yourself” – the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) trade association changed the rules. His later appointment sounded like a justification.
“It was very moving. I know some people would be like “Why do you think you would even be nominated anyway?” But all the doubts and shame are gone. I thought, ‘I deserve to be here.’ “
Sawayama’s reputation for challenging the consensus goes beyond fighting for recognition as a British artist. She has an infectious personality and is refreshingly unfiltered for a pop star.
Take his thoughts on the #StopAsianHate movement, which has arisen following a spike in violence against Asian Americans amid the pandemic: “It’s like any kind of attack – why f – do (Asians) need to do something about this? Black Lives Matter is not up to Black. It is not for Asians to unravel Asian hatred. This horrible anti-POC sentiment is something the white community needs to address, not us. I just want to see anyone who has taken advantage of any Asian culture, ever, to talk about it. You benefit from our food, our culture, our art, our fashion, our movies – you have to speak up. “
Fittingly, “Sawayama” is a daring record, as notable for its sweeping dynamics as its lyrical themes of family history and identity. Sawayama plunders her pre-teen musical loves, variously summoning J-pop, Britney Spears, NERD, Evanescence and Korn. It’s a chaotic mix that, along with the instinctive us pop of Sawayama, sort of works.
“I got miserable watching what other people were doing, so I decided to go back to what I loved growing up. No genre was forbidden; I didn’t want it to look like something that already existed, ”she says.
The nu-metal roar of “STFU!” overturns convention, tackling the occasional racism she experienced as an Asian woman. “Bare-metal was often lame, straight white men were angry,” Sawayama says. “It’s great to turn the situation around with an Asian woman angry at a white man, talking about my experiences. I take so much joy in satirizing things like this.
Sawayama was only 5 years old when her parents left Niigata for London due to her father’s job in the mid-1990s. Naturally, she has very few memories of her life in Japan. “Just good times and naps,” she laughs. “But my mother would illegally download Japanese TV and movies in England, and she always fed me Japanese food. She made sure that I was always as Japanese as possible.
Still, the family’s transition from Japan to England was difficult. “It was easier for me than for my family,” she says. “But growing up with this secondary anxiety has been very difficult.”
Struggling to assimilate into English life, Sawayama’s parents broke up, resulting in financial hardship and Sawayama sharing a room with his mother, straining their relationship. Not quite compatible with his peers, Sawayama suffered from depression, especially during his years studying politics, psychology and sociology at the University of Cambridge. Sawayama’s mother, disapproving of his life choices, finally asked him to leave the house.
This complex education is tackled head-on throughout “Sawayama”.
“I had grown up with a lot of anger towards my parents and still wouldn’t let go of some of it,” she says.
Before writing the album, Sawayama visited his grandparents in Japan to try to find out more about his parents. “It got me to think of them as humans, and everything just became less emotionally charged,” she says. “The album became a thesis on the family. I feel like I rewrote my own family album. “
Sawayama says she no longer has a complicated relationship with her Japanese heritage, although the same cannot be said for those around her. “I don’t think I’m doing it, but the world is doing it,” she said. “I struggled with that when I was younger. But I don’t do it anymore. The record’s success validated that it is okay to write about these things.
Her attachment to her roots is the reason she kept her Japanese passport, even if it means she cannot vote in the UK. “In a metaphorical sense, it’s my connection to Japan,” she says. “But on a practical level, my whole family lives in Japan. I’m afraid to think about what would have happened if I had given up my passport just to qualify for a reward. “
What Sawayama wants, however, is an amendment to the Japanese citizenship policy, which does not allow Japanese nationals to hold dual citizenship after turning 20. “I think Japan needs to change its dual nationality laws. I think it’s archaic and old fashioned. It doesn’t make Japan less Japanese if you allow dual citizenship. “
Sawayama has not returned to Japan since 2019, but says she will surrender as soon as circumstances permit. Besides seeing her family again, she just wants to walk the streets which always feel like home.
“I can’t wait to meet Japanese people,” she says. “I miss it so much. It breaks my heart. It’s the only place I can go where I look like everyone else and be invisible that way. It’s heartwarming.
To learn more about Rina Sawayama, visit avex.jp/rinasawayama.
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