Photograph of Rina Sawayama with a crown spray painted over her head

Rina Sawayama Is the Radical Queer Asian Pop Sensation the World Needs

With a new album dropping today, the songstress again highlights the healing power of pop

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Words by Andre Lawes Menchavez

In August, Japanese-British pop sensation Rina Sawayama took the stage at the Summer Sonic Festival in Japan, performing in front of a crowd of over a thousand attendees. She took a break in her set of pop bangers to speak to the audience—“I’m bisexual, but if I try to have a same-sex marriage here, I can’t,” Sawayama said.

Her comment to the crowd of festival attendees, and the world watching through clips online, was in reference to the current state of LGBTQIA+ rights in Japan, where there is no national legislation protecting queer people from discrimination. Even recently, the Japanese court has declared the ban on same-sex marrigage constitutional.

“LGBT people are Japanese,” Sawayama said. “Love is love. Family is family. Let’s fight together.”

This call to action is just one example of how the magnetic Sawayama is positively impacting the music industry. The realm of mainstream pop music lacks diversity, more specifically of queer Asian artists. But Sawayama does more than just meet the minimum of a visible queer Asian figure, churning out bops that make queer bars rumble in pleasure. Between her radical queer statements in and out of her aural rolodex of songs that soundtrack the queer Asian experience, Sawayama is the icon we’ve been waiting for. 

Sawayama positioned the “modern capitalist monster” as the behemoth slain by her hit single, “XS,” from her 2020 debut studio album, SAWAYAMA.

On the surface it’s a catchy pop banger with a chorus that can’t escape your head, but listen closely and you’ll hear deeper messages in her lyrics that represent the struggles to escape mass consumerism. The edgy track tackles society’s reliance on capitalism and also how badly Sawayama wants to destroy it.

“I think it's important to look at yourself and be like, what can this time sort of teach us as people living in a capitalist society,” Sawayama said in an interview with Genius about the inspirations behind the song. “We've gotten used to this cycle, because everything is so convenient and in place and it's ridiculous.”

Capitalism and mass consumerism are issues that hit close to many queer Asian people. We’ve had countless times where major fast fashion brands have stolen from queer Asians—such as queer Asian knitwear designer Chet Lo’s collection being plagiarized by H&M or when Filipinx cultural weaving practices of Basahan were being co-opted by a white designer who sold the garments for $200 each which earned herself a profile by Vogue for it. We also face a lot of inhumanity in our home countries due to the exploitative presence of fast fashion companies in the lands we come from. In 2020, a study reported that the Asia Pacific was the “... largest region in the global fast fashion market, accounting for 29.7% of the total.”

For Sawayama, this hatred for fast fashion was also a huge inspiration to writing “XS.”

“No one has looked at the fashion cycle and gone, ‘Is that sustainable?’” Sawayama asked, hoping listeners will be more conscious about not only how much they consume, but how much larger corporations are consuming them.

That conversation, and the song itself, remind me a lot of the “rainbow capitalism” of the Pride season that we queer Asians know all too well. It also reminds me of how suddenly, on AAPI Heritage Month, companies bring out the hashtag #StopAsianHate and highlight their very few Asian employees on their social media—even though those same employees were likely spending the other 11 months of the year dealing with microaggressions. A study has even shown that Asian employees worldwide feel the “least included in the workplace compared to other demographic groups.”

When these “celebratory” months end and big companies remove hashtags and rainbow flags from their social media accounts, it’s evident that we live in a true capitalist society, as Sawayama creatively comments on. More so, it’s obvious that, to those in power, we are only important when we, as queer Asians, are profitable.

So, yes, “XS” is a definite hit. But the song is so much more than that. It’s a fuck you to capitalism, mass consumerism and a callout for change that so many queer Asian people viscerally feel and so little artists ever talk, or let alone sing, about.

It’s radical. It’s Rina Sawayama.

Sawayama will be releasing a new album, Hold The Girl, today, Sept. 16. 

The title song “Hold The Girl” is a vocally powerful title track that packs an alternative-pop punch with a spectral-like finish that breathed life into my queer Asian body. The song and music video showcased the allegory of hopelessness in moments you feel trapped with no way out, needing to simply be held and comforted in those times. It again emitted a feeling we queer Asians know all too well—the closeted life I once lived while in my culturally religious family echoed in my mind. That track being the namesake of the album gives me chills of anticipation for the release, excited for what other masterpieces Sawayama has in store in this next project that could evoke reminders of pain and healing as that title track did for me.

One of the album’s first singles pokes the devil’s stake at religion—and as a survivor of conversion therapy, I lived for it.

“I wanted to turn it on its head,” Sawayama said about the inspiration behind the song, “This Hell,” in another interview with Genius. “This narrative and trauma that a lot of people have about being shunned and told that they’re wrong from traditional religious-based beliefs. [I] poked fun at it a bit. And that’s how a lot of queers deal with trauma. It’s hard, but you just go, ‘Okay, challenge accepted.’”

The track, released earlier this year, was a direct callout to anti-LGBTQIA+ religious people and institutions across the world, evoking a message that if queers are destined to go to hell—at least we all have each other down there. Or as Sawayama puts: “This hell is better with you, we’re burning up together, baby!”   

The music video is a symbolic masterpiece featuring a queer wedding inside a chapel while Westboro Baptist Church-like protesters rallied against it in the background. The song has heavy country elements, a reclamation of the often conservative anti-LGBTQIA+ south. The music video culminates in a dance number where closeted members of the protest come out of the closet, accept their queerness and join Sawayama in a queer line dance as the music fades away. This example of Sawayama’s artistic genius shows how her music can create connections to narratives of our community, often underrepresented.

A majority of Asian Americans are religious, as the most recent data shows—my family being among them. I grew up in a religiously conservative Filipinx community where, upon confiding in the nun that resided as the principal of my school that I was gay, was then outed by that same nun to my parents. My parents threw the “it’s just a phase” treatment my way before sending me into two years of conversion therapy in the 7th and 8th grade.

So many queer Asian youth have to survive the circumstances of growing up in historically religious Asian cultures and the process of coming out for our community is culturally different than our white counterparts. Sawayama’s outspoken queerness as a pop figure, using her art to create cultural commentary about the complexities of our intersectional queer and Asian identity, is powerful. It’s a beacon of hope to so many youth like myself who struggled to survive the outings or the painful silence hidden in the closet. Many queer Asian youth weren’t able to withstand that pressure and became lives lost to intolerance, and hopefully with Sawayama as this outspoken figure, through her music our community strength will prevail.

Published on September 16, 2022

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Words by Andre Lawes Menchavez

Andre Lawes Menchavez (he/him) is a Filipinx, Indigenous and queer community organizer who uses journalism as a tool of activism, constantly seeking to lift up marginalized communities through his work. He received his BA in Law, Societies and Justice at the University of Washington and is about to graduate with his Master’s in Specialized Journalism—with a focus in Race and Social Justice Reporting—from the University of Southern California.

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Art by Ryan Quan

Ryan Quan is the Social Media Editor for JoySauce. This queer, half-Chinese, half-Filipino writer and graphic designer loves everything related to music, creative nonfiction, and art. Based in Brooklyn, he spends most of his time dancing to hyperpop and accidentally falling asleep on the subway. Follow him on Instagram at @ryanquans.