Asian Artist Spotlight – Rina Sawayama


Rina Sawayama in charcoal and pastel, drawn by Macy Doll.

Macy Doll

About the Asian Artist Spotlight

Growing up I always struggled to feel seen in the media I consumed, whether it was TV shows where nobody looked like me or the rock station we listened to in the car only playing music by all-white bands. While I love a good Green Day song, it was hard to not have any artists to look up to who reminded me of myself. With the exception of the time “Gangnam Style” became a sensation, I rarely ever heard songs by Asian artists on the radio. Eventually I realized that if I wanted to find the representation I was looking for, I’d have to hunt for it myself. I sought out artists from all sorts of backgrounds and genres, who poured their hearts out into all sorts of amazing songs. Listening to music made by people who’d experienced similar alienation and self-doubt helped me realize I wasn’t alone. Along with that, I found all sorts of songs that inspired me creatively or served as a great soundtrack for important moments in my life. I created the Asian Artist Spotlight with the intention of highlighting these amazing artists and helping other Asian people have access to the representation they deserve.

This Week – Rina Sawayama

Rina Sawayama is a British-Japanese multi-hyphenate. Sawayama is a singer-songwriter, model, activist, and actress (see her in John Wick: Chapter 4 next May). She is signed to Dirty Hit Records and released her debut album SAWAYAMA on April 17, 2020, a follow-up to her EP Rina released in October 2017. SAWAYAMA was incredibly well received, notably receiving many nominations for awards praising international albums. The self-titled album is a true standout due to the wide variety of music styles that Sawayama incorporates into the discography, and the diverse themes and experiences the lyrics are drawn from. From “Bad Friend” to “Snakeskin” to “Paradisin,” each song has Sawayama’s distinct imprint on it. Sawayama chose to air many of her demons on her debut album, including familial mental health and identity struggles, and the ups and downs of her friendships through the years. Many of the songs are powered by punchy guitar riffs or strong synth beats, creating an album that hooks you from start to finish.

Throughout her entire career, Rina Sawayama has been taking strides to combat anti-Asian racism. In 2016, she and Taiwanese artist John Yuyi worked together to create a series of images that highlighted harmful Asian beauty standards that Sawayama felt often objectified women.

One of the pictures from Yuyi and Sawayama’s 2016 collaboration.

Sawayama’s impact is most notable in the rule change her experiences inspired the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) to enact. Despite its wide success, SAWAYAMA was not considered for the Mercury Prize, which is given to the best album released in the UK as determined by the BPI. At the time, solo artists had to be citizens of either Britain or Ireland to earn eligibility, but Sawayama holds Indefinite Leave to Remain in Britain. Sawayama was born in Japan and moved to the UK when she was five, and wishes to maintain her Japanese citizenship as it allows her to easily visit her family. Since Japan does not allow dual-citizenships, Rina Sawayama would need to sacrifice her Japanese citizenship in order to become a British citizen.

However, regardless of her citizenship status, Sawayama is British. She has lived in the UK for 26 years and identifies as British. After finding out she wouldn’t be eligible for the award, Sawayama said to the BBC “‘I think a lot of immigrants feel this way – where they assimilate and they become part of the British culture… and to be told that we’re not even eligible to be nominated is very othering.’” SAWAYAMA’s snub caused backlash from fans on social media, who began to trend the hashtag “SawayamaIsBritish” in protest. The attention Sawayama and her fanbase generated caused the Brit Awards to change the criteria, giving British residents the chance to be eligible. Sawayama’s impact is paving the way for other immigrant artists in Britain, and bringing attention to issues within the music industry.

In 2018, Rina Sawayama came out as bisexual/pansexual and stated that all of the songs she had written had been about girls. Sawyama is very outspoken against biphobia, and has shared some of her experiences with it in her personal life. Many of the songs she has written are about loving other women, as a means of conquering her own internalized biphobia and embracing the queer community.

Rina Sawayama is an incredibly unique artist, from her wide variety of projects to the many genres she encapsulates in her music.


Wondering what to listen to? Check out my recs! All songs are on the playlist linked below in the order they are mentioned.

Looking for something a little more heavy? Try “XS,” a rock and R&B song that discusses the issues with capitalistic society and is packed with dynamic guitar riffs. Or listen to “STFU!”, a metal-inspired song where Sawayama unleashes her anger about the subtle racism she has experienced as a Japanese person. Also try Sawayama’s cover of “Enter Sandman” by Metallica, done for The Metallica Blacklist.

LGBT+ jams? Check out “Cherry,” one of Sawayama’s earlier and poppier songs written about her pansexuality. Also try “LUCID,” an upbeat party song from the deluxe version of SAWAYAMA that’s about loving your dream girl.

Want some self-love? Listen to “Take Me As I Am” and “Love Me 4 Me,” two of Sawayama’s songs about unapologetic authenticity.

Need some dance music? Try “Comme Des Garçons (Like The Boys),” an upbeat club song that criticizes toxic masculinity.

Lady Gaga fan? Check out Sawayama’s cover of “Dance in The Dark” for Spotify Singles, or her remix of “Free Woman” from Dawn of Chromatica.

My personal favorites? The live version of “XS” off the deluxe version of Sawayama, because the vocals are ethereal, and “Akasaka Sad” due to its addicting synth beats.