When I meet Rina Sawayama at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, London is boiling in its first prolonged heatwave since 1976. Temperatures have almost reached 90 degrees, and the 150-year-old pub—one of London’s most historic LGBTQ venues, also known for being where Princess Diana, disguised in male drag, went dancing with Freddie Mercury—is bathed in the kind of blistering sunshine that makes your eyes water.
As we meet, it's obvious to me why the British-Japanese R&B pop singer’s team suggested the location be RVT. Sawayama is gearing up to launch her new single, "Cherry," but she is keen to talk about something else instead: her pansexuality.
“I will always want to be honest about my own experiences,” Sawayama emphatically tells me once we’re safely tucked away in a mercifully cool corner of the pub.
Feted by Vogue, the Guardian, The Fader, and Noisey, Sawayama first burst onto the scene as a tangerine-haired, cyberpunk-influenced musician slash model. Tracks like “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome” and “Where U Are” explored romance and alienation in our internet-obsessed society to critical acclaim; “I know you're sad and lonely / But I got one hundred tabs / Open in my mind but closed for business / Just so you're aware,” she croons on “Tunnel Vision,” a track off her debut mini-album, RINA. Pitchfork crowned it one of the 20 best pop and R&B albums of 2017.
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Sawayama’s latest single is best described as a dizzying sugar-rush of confessional pop, with an emotional gut punch lurking in its aftertaste. “Down the subway / You looked my way / With your girl gaze / That was the day / Everything changed,” she sings over joyful synth twinkling. But, as with many Sawayama songs, there’s a bittersweet catch, albeit one set to a hook catchy enough to make Max Martin cry with jealousy. Just as the protagonist of “Cherry” feels that rush of queer desire, she’s flooded with shame: “Even though I’m satisfied / I live my life / Within a lie / Holding on to feelings / I’m not used to feeling / Cos ooh they make me feel alive.”
“I love the format of the late 90s sound and I love the melodies, but obviously back then it was a lot to do with ‘me and this boy and the boy breaks my heart,’ you know?” Sawayama says. “Why can’t you do a bit of politics? I love disguising it in that way.” She takes a long, considered sip of her sparkling water. “Definitely this song, ‘Cherry,’ is my most personal but political.”
Sawayama previously called herself bisexual, but now identifies as pansexual. She’s never spoken on record about her sexuality before, but she figured it was clear to anyone listening to her songs: “I’ve always written songs about girls. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned a guy in my songs, and that’s why I wanted to talk about it.”
So why talk now? Pop music has a long history of female stars releasing songs about girl-on-girl action without actually committing to coming out. Think Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” or the recent controversy over “Girls,” which featured four singers—Rita Ora, Charli XCX, Bebe Rexha, and Cardi B—only one of whom, it later emerged, was actually bisexual (Ora). Sawayama could have easily dropped her single without mentioning pansexuality, but she wanted to take it as an opportunity to discuss her identity.
“For me there’s still a lack of representation,” she says. “I just think the reason I wasn’t so comfortable with my sexuality was because there was no one on TV or anywhere that I could point to and go, ‘Look mom! This person is what I was talking about!’”
Her voice grows quieter and more considered. “The truth for me is that it’s so great I’m able to identify as queer, but realistically, there’s still a lot of shame—from parents or from past experiences.” Like what? She remembers the earliest instance of what she describes as “shame moments.”
“I must have been eight or nine,” she says. “It was with another girl. Basically, we were kissing.” Her mother noticed and pulled her away, Sawayama says. “We never discussed it, ever.” When an older Sawayama told her mom that she was going on dates with girls, she remembers her responding with: “Why would you say that to me?”
“Whereas if I was like, ‘Oh I’m going to go on a date with a guy,’” Sawayama elaborates, “she’d be like, ‘Oh that’s great, what’s he like?”
Sawayama was born in Japan and moved with her family to leafy northwest London when she was five. “My parents really fought over money a lot,” she remembers. The marriage eventually ended in divorce in Sawayama’s teens. “We went from doing quite well to doing not quite so well at all. I was sharing a room with my mum until I was 15.” Her mother was setting up her own business as an interior designer, and her work ethic was relentless, Sawayama says. “She would go to bed at 10PM, wake up at 2AM and work through the day.”
The strain of her parents’ separation drove Sawayama to reading. “I just became a massive nerd,” she says. “It was a self-help situation with the books.” She studied PPS (politics, psychology, and sociology) at Cambridge but was “suicidally depressed” as a result of near-constant bullying from her housemates, a group of posh girls from the college sorority.
“I felt like the whole time I was there, I was the ugliest person there,” Sawayama says of the university. “I felt so ugly and so—not just in the sexual sense—just so undesirable. Like I wasn’t meant to be there. Even though I deserved to be there, I felt like a number.”
Cambridge has a reputation for being notoriously un-diverse, both in terms of ethnicity and class. According to new data, one in five of its colleges admitted fewer than 10 Black students between 2012 and 2016. Over 60 percent of its student population is white and British, with many—but not all—culled from the upper echelons of private schools in the UK. “I mean, you’re told your whole life, ‘That’s the pinnacle of intelligence: It’s Cambridge,’” Sawayama says, “and you get there, and you’re just like, Wow, this is bleak.”
Amid the gloom, Sawayama managed to discover a pocket of freedom at the Cow, one of the only LGBTQ venues in the town. “I was always at the Cow,” she says. “Cambridge, in a way, was so transformative because it was the first gay night I frequented and felt so comfortable in.” She made a small circle of queer friends—“we all had a tough time at uni and were kind of marginalized,” she says. Her best friend, Tom Rasmussen, went on to co-found a drag night named Denim that later transformed into an Edinburgh Fringe-conquering drag troupe.
Sawayama is currently dating a man, and has clearly thought long and hard about the implications of publicly coming out as pansexual while still in a heterosexual relationship. Nevertheless, that’s why she wanted to write “Cherry”: “It’s the truth for a lot of bi and pan people—they don’t feel authentically queer when they’re in heterosexual relationships, and that is what the song is about.”
It’s still common for people to argue that LGBTQ people in straight-passing relationships—like a pansexual woman dating a man, for instance—shouldn’t come to Pride, or shouldn’t even be in queer spaces, full stop. But, as Slate writer Dana Sitar notes, "A queer space that says I’m only welcome without my partner isn’t welcoming all of me. It’s no better than the rest of the world that blissfully ignores my queerness as long as I’ve got a man on my arm. I’m finally free to be gay—but at the expense of who I actually am."
Sawayama is quick to stress that biphobia she's experienced differs from homophobia and other forms of discrimination that result in physical violence. Sometimes you can even be your own worst enemy. “Truth be told, for me to put this single out and be out was very nervewracking,” she says hesitantly. “Again, the biphobia was real in me. I was like, Why are you doing this? You don’t need to do this… It was just like, No, I need to get the story out there. I just need to get myself out there and not worry. Because a lot of these people must be going through these feelings.”
"I think it’s possible to queer the world with pop music."
It’s understandable that Sawayama feels the pressure. As a Japanese-British woman in Western pop, she is blazing a very specific and singular trail. Other than early 2000s R&B singer Coco Lee (of “Do You Want My Love” fame), there are few East Asian women in the genre who have found lasting fame or industry success. Even singers like CL—a K-pop superstar in her native South Korea—have struggled to make it in the US.
But it feels as though the tide is slowly turning. Emerging musicians like Mitski, Hayley Kiyoko, and Yaeji may operate in different genres—indie rock, unabashed stadium pop, and house music respectively—but all have been embraced by a younger and more multiculturally-minded generation of fans.
It isn’t lost on Sawayama that we’re meeting two weeks before the premiere of Crazy Rich Asians, either.
“Me and Yaeji hung out the other day and were talking about this,” Sawayama says of the new wave of Asian—and more specifically queer Asian—music. “We’re so protective of our space, even who we decide to sign to, who we decide to release through, or who we decide to work with. It’s really important to us. Because as queer Asians, there’s not that many of us and we really want to get it right.”
A large proportion of her fanbase—or Pixels, as they call themselves—are queer and/or Asian themselves, and it’s clear that Sawayama had them in mind when deciding to come out. “I don’t want to straightwash myself to represent as Asian. It’s more important to me that I’m representing queer Asians, rather than just ‘Asian,’ because that’s just stripping a whole side of me.” For someone who sings with about everything from Instagram likes to her citalopram prescription, that was never going to do.
“I think it’s possible to queer the world with pop music,” Sawayama adds. “You see people like Troye Sivan and Hayley Kiyoko and all these amazing out musicians. I think as a collective force, it’s possible to infiltrate the mainstream with queerness, rather than just be buried deep underground.”
Given that Sawayama is now part of those ranks, I don’t think it’ll take long.