Rina Sawayama Shares How Drag and Queer Creatives Saved Her: My Team Is a 'Lovely Queer Family'

The singer graces the cover of Billboard's Pride Issue to talk about identity, music aspirations and becoming the next big name in pop 

rina Sawayama
Rina Sawayama. Photo: Zoe McConnell

Rina Sawayama is one of the next queer artists set to make it big in mainstream pop, but her path to stardom has been anything but easy.

In speaking with Billboard as the covergirl for their pride issue, Sawayama, 30, shared that while she studied at the University of Cambridge's Magdalene College, it was a "horribly patriarchal" environment and often felt isolated as a Japanese-British person. However, she found solace with other queer creatives on campus.

Notably with a drag band named Denim, Sawayama was able to combat feelings of isolation and depression during this time and Billboard wrote she "credits that scene with saving her life." In her current music, Sawayama continues to use drag in a meaningful and artistic way as she shared that it was a major inspiration for her breakout, debut album Sawayama.

rina Sawayama
Rina Sawayama. Zoe McConnell

"I'm inspired by drag because people wear their trauma and insecurity and celebrate it or make a character out of it, and that's really what I wanted to do with the album," said the pop singer.

Sawayama added, "I wanted to talk about these things that have caused me so much pain — so much expensive therapy bills — and make it into something that just sounded like a pop song, to make people want to really listen over and over to what was being said."

rina Sawayama
Rina Sawayama. Zoe McConnell

While she was given a safe space in college by a queer community, the Japanese-British songwriter hopes that she can offer her fans who are queer, people of color, or who have other diverse identities, a safe space at venues as she begins to tour this fall. With support from her team, she plans on making that possible.

"I feel like my entire live team is queer. It's like a lovely queer family," said Sawayama.

With having her debut album release in the midst of a pandemic, there have been few chances to perform her music live for her fans. The singer shared how important it is for herself, and for the fans, to get a chance to experience the music live.

rina Sawayama
Rina Sawayama. Zoe McConnell

"I think a song is complete in terms of its writing when it's performed and fed back to you through the audience, when you hear them singing it," said Sawayama. "It's almost like a comedian testing their material. For me, it's important how people's bodies move to the songs because as a pop writer, you're essentially carrying people on this journey."

As she continues to trailblaze her way through the music industry, she has left lasting impressions with many as she received praise from musical queer icon Elton John, who sang with the emerging artist on a new version of her song "Chosen Family," a vulnerable ballad about finding community in queer friendships.

"Rina is a pop-art chameleon. Her debut album is a clever and confident kaleidoscopic odyssey that zips and zooms through a compendium of pop music genres," said John. "She exuberantly changes gears from track to track and keeps the listener guessing where she's going to go next."

While the world will be seeing plenty more of Sawayama in the future as she has been working on new music to come, she opened up about career aspirations to become an icon herself. If that time comes, she may consider dropping her surname.

"I think it's important for people to instantly recognize that it's a Japanese or Asian-sounding name," she said. "But in the future, I'm definitely not counting off dropping the surname — if I become iconic enough."

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