The Courageous Class: Fall 2018



Courageous Class member, Rina Sawayama, who is an advocate for multi-cultural acceptance, and singer-songwriter.


Courageous Class member, Rina Sawayama, who is an advocate for multi-cultural acceptance, and singer-songwriter.

Having been born in Japan, Rina and her family emigrated to the UK when she was five years old. While the original plan was to only stay in London for five years, after her family were given an indefinite visa they, somewhat uncertainly, decided to stay. “I changed school, like, seven times before the age of 12 because my parents just couldn’t make up their minds,” Rina recalls. Her family also decided that, although she was living in London, her primary school years should be spent embedded in her home country’s culture by sending her to Japanese school.

The singer’s secondary school wasn’t, she’s keen to point out, a performing arts school. “But it was a state school that had a really good performing arts department. I was always doing drama, dance and singing. I was even lead tenor in gospel choir — the only Asian in gospel choir,” she says fondly. It was also a place where students’ differences were celebrated.

Unfortunately, university wasn’t anything like the utopic experience of secondary school. “I didn’t realise how cliquey it would be,” Rina says, clearly still frustrated by the situation. “I spent my whole childhood moving schools and I didn’t really like that mentality.” The college within Cambridge that she had applied to also turned out to be one of the most traditional. “The most notorious drinking society is from that college. They used to drink vodka and goldfish and throw it back up for the initiation. It was crazy stuff. Even the girls were so misogynistic. They really fostered this culture of misogyny within their own female circles. There was just hard-core bullying.”

Nevertheless, these years spent in mental health purgatory, while certainly difficult, were the catalyst that helped create the artist that Rina Sawayama has now become. While at university she had shirked her Japanese heritage for fear of further being picked on, she learned to embrace where she came from by re-immersing herself in the J-Pop of her youth and playing video games. She also took solace in the pop music from when she grew up, with acts like Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake becoming cathartic escapism.

The amalgamation of these experiences makes up the foundations of RINA, the singer’s exceptional debut mini-album. Over eight tracks she traverses topics of identity, mental health and society’s relationship with technology through a personal, albeit academic, lens. With nods to the productions of 90s and 00s pop stalwarts Max Martin, Timbaland and The Neptunes, Rina, alongside collaborator Clarence Clarity, crafted a soundscape that pays homage to the past while gleefully rushing head-on into the future.

Rina’s approach to songwriting isn’t the only unique aspect about her musical career. Despite offers, she’s still unsigned and in control of every aspect of, well, everything. Her work in modelling has allowed her to fund things so far and taught her valuable lessons about how the music business is structured. There’s also a trepidation about how new artists are often left hanging by traditional record label structures. “I know more people who are musicians who have been signed and then dropped and it’s really taken a toll on their mental health or it’s really knocked their artistic confidence than the people who have succeeded. That really scares me,” she admits. “Being unsigned, you’re able to have more artistic integrity and are able to decide when you actually do want to do different things and expand in a way that you’re in control of.”

“It’s about connecting with your true self. Whether that’s connecting
with your ethnic identity or connecting with your sexual identity.” –RINA SAWAYAMA