Next up in my AAPI Artist Spotlight series I would like to introduce Rina Sawayama.
You might have heard of Rina’s song “XS” on TikTok.
Rina Sawayama is a 31-year-old British-Japanese artist that dabbles in various sub-genres of pop music and different genres altogether. She has coined the nickname of being a pop chameleon because of how she can incorporate and seamlessly create music that is indie-pop, electric pop, R&B, dance-pop, rock, and alternative.
She started her music career how most artists do– uploading songs onto the Internet. Rina would upload song covers onto MySpace and eventually formed a small band with local kids and used her high school’s tech equipment to produce songs. From that, she maintained her passion for music and started making music and touring till she was recognized for her talent.
What I find refreshing about Rina’s music is that she finds ways to highlight issues in society and tie that in with her Japanese culture into her music. She is an advocate for a variety of social justice issues such as sexism and uses Pop music, which often is stereotyped and often called department store music, to empower her and breakthrough those stigmas as a female pop artist.
Her debut album titled “SAWAYAMA” as well as her first EP “RINA” both showcases her persona as an artist. A Japanese woman who doesn’t hesitate to call people out and write about her past traumas and experiences while gift-wrapping it into earworm music that is digestible for her audience. She brings in a lot of influence from the 90s and early 2000s Pop scene in all her music and combines it with this R&B style voice. Similar to this ideology she has developed, the artists she was inspired by like Britney or NSYNC made pop music that lots of teens felt embarrassed to enjoy and now are considered to be iconic.
One of her most popular songs “XS” is about consumerism and capitalism and the phrase ‘XS’ is supposed to represent the excess spending and product manufacturing that highlights how as consumers we always want more and are never satisfied with what we are able to attain.
The mature topic of capitalism and over saturation of the market is balanced with a fun dance-pop track inspired by Britany Spears’ music, as shown through the lyrics:
“Gimme just a little bit (more), little bit of (excess) | Oh, me, oh, my | I don’t wanna hear “No, no” | Only want a ‘Yes, yes” have you dancing around in your room while making you reconsider the role you play in our capitalistic society.”
There is a pattern throughout her music where she writes lyrics that are deep and thought-provoking about our society while keeping this light pop danceability to it that makes her so unique. Time and time again she highlights that oftentimes while her lyrics carry such strong meanings since she is a woman making pop music she isn’t taken as seriously and the upbeat electric pop and R&B style overpower people from looking into her lyrics.
Along with social issues such as climate change or toxic masculinity, Rina also touches on how her experiences being Japanese in Cambridge, her pansexuality, and the feeling of otherness that she has had to navigate through her entire life.
Another song I want to highlight is “Tokyo Love Hotel”. In this song, she discusses the guilt she feels of using Japanese symbolism in her songs as well as calling out people for having this odd obsession with Japanese culture to that point where Japanese people can’t showcase their authentic culture cause it’s not what has been idolized in the West.
Her lyrics “And oh there’s nothing that I could say | That hasn’t already been said | You got that neon lights, golden guy | Falling for a stereotype| Has it all gone to your head?” bring forth this idea that whoever was into her wasn’t for her true self but of this idea of what a Japanese woman is meant to be like based off of stereotypes.
There is so much more to her music than what I can capture in this short post and I highly recommend checking out her music even if you are not a fan of the Pop genre. Rina writes lyrics that are genuinely an important part of her experiences and might resonate with a lot of people if given the chance.
In most cases, the mental image of Rina’s music people have when they first see her is quite different from what her music is at the core. Her bold and eclectic makeup looks and appearance almost make you feel that her music is electronic dance music (EDM) or alternative rock but in reality, she is a Pop artist and it’s a genre she has mastered.
Check out her discography on Spotify.