‘STFU!’: Rina Sawayama talks raging against microaggressions

Photography by Hendrik Schneider | Creative director: Ben Ditto

Rina Sawayama returned this week with anthemic new track, ‘STFU!’. Raging, playful, wildly expressive – the artist calls upon icons of early 2000s rock and nu-metal to meet tired microaggressions with cathartic macro-aggression.

Rina turned heads back in 2017 with her acclaimed debut EP RINA. Her electric reinvigoration of early 2000s pop, combined with an incisive exploration of intimacy in the digital age, easily placed the project amongst the year’s best releases. In 2018, as an unsigned, independent artist, Rina went on to tour both the UK and US, packing out venues with her committed fanbase – lovingly referred to as “pixels”. Last year also saw the release of two singles from the artist; ‘Valentine’, an infectious pop track delving into the anxieties of romantic uncertainty, and ‘Cherry’ a soaring queer-pop anthem, and ascendant statement of the artists own bi/pansexuality.

Rina’s swelling success has been entirely down to her own inventiveness. This year, with ‘STFU!’ – the first single from her eagerly-anticipated debut album – Rina returns, and appears to have shifted gears a little.

Newly signed to indie record label Dirty Hit, and working once again with long-time collaborator and producer Clarence Clarity (music to every pixel’s ears), Rina successfully revives the spirit and sound of 00s pop-rock to bring forward a deft new sound. The track also marks new territory for Rina in subject matter – an explicit response to racist, fetishistic and infantilising microaggressions that the artist has encountered as a Japanese woman in the West.

The track is daring. Rina’s winding vocals, maniacal laughter, and deceptively sweet refrain – “shut the fuck up” – amount to the makings of an anthem for people of colour. 

“I was thinking a lot about early 2000s pop-rock and nu-metal; about No Doubt, Limp Bizkit, t.A.T.u. and Evanescence”

– Rina Sawayama

Speaking to Rina over the phone ahead of the release, she elaborates further on arriving at this new sound, the process of developing the track and music video, and her relationship to performance as a whole.

“We always start the process with instrumentals, and I’d been thinking for a while that we should write something heavier, something darker,” she explains, “Writing with Clarence Clarity is always an intense process – for this song I remember we started one day and stayed up until 11am the next. He worked on the main instrumental, I put together the melody. I was thinking a lot about early 2000s pop-rock and nu-metal; about No Doubt, Limp Bizkit, t.A.T.u. and Evanescence.”

She tells me more about her keen interest in this particular era of music around the turn of the millennium: “It’s a time in pop that was just so interesting to me! I remember, when I was younger, just being genuinely inspired by chart music. My wish has always been for pop to become more mainstream, so it’s actually exciting now seeing Halsey come out with ‘Nightmare’, and Grimes take on a bit of that sound too.”

Tonally, ‘STFU!’ leans into the sinister at first. Rina’s elastic vocals stretch over the track in accusation: “How come you don’t respect me? / Expecting fantasies to / be my reality / why don’t you just sit down and…” – before that threat of something violent is pulled back, and the song’s playful refrain kicks in. Rina plays with this contrast to fold the song’s aggression into something closer to humour.

“I wanted to play with stereotypes in the video, how Asian women aren’t often allowed to express anger or rage, or be dominant”

– Rina Sawayama

“For queer people, for people of colour, that rage is real,” she says, “And you can’t really talk about it or show that rage before you find community – and then you can laugh about it, humorise it. I wanted to play with stereotypes in the video, how Asian women aren’t often allowed to express anger or rage, or be dominant. So you see me as the girl from The Ring, but also sort of like a Countess left in castle for too long. And then I’m dancing, laughing. I think rage and humour can sit side by side.”

As with prior releases, Rina provides a blisteringly illustrative visual accompaniment to the track. Co-directed by Ali Kurr, the music video stares down microaggressions, and opens with British comedian Ben Ashenden perfectly cast as white boy #1. He’s a parody of a parody of a boy we’ve all known, sat opposite Rina n an eerily spare Japanese restaurant. The space is made claustrophobic by his barrage of racist comments, and after a minute of agony, the song breaks through. Previously silent, Rina’s character bursts with expression, calling upon cinematic references and dynamic choreography in her distinct style.

““It’s all very much in the spirit of drag – not taking things too seriously, not afraid of being ugly, that’s how queer people have always handled pain. Drag, ridiculous confetti! Give people the most extreme version of a feeling or an idea”

– Rina Sawayama

“Choreography and theatre are definitely important to me,” she tells me, “It’s all very much in the spirit of drag – not taking things too seriously, not afraid of being ugly, that’s how queer people have always handled pain. Drag, ridiculous confetti! Give people the most extreme version of a feeling or an idea.”

Interestingly, Rina makes the decision to let Ashenden’s character speak. The opening scene is only slightly focused on Rina’s reactions to the comments – mostly, we’re watching a privileged white boy talk himself into oblivion. It’s an absurdist kind of humour, and Rina invites us to be in on the joke.

The thing about this guy is, he makes these comments and he believes they’re compliments, it’s all meant to be flattering. For me, it was important that we didn’t just vilify him. I wanted to have this almost clinical setting, and really look at the nature of microaggressions.” 

“Racism and microaggressions aren’t a ‘PoC issue’, they’re an issue of whiteness”

– Rina Sawayama

She continues, “Most of the time with microaggressions, they don’t feel ‘bad enough’ to react to immediately, and a date is the perfect setting for that. But also, racism and microaggressions aren’t a ‘PoC issue’, they’re an issue of whiteness as well. And Ben just got it. He went to Cambridge as well so he knows that type of person who loves to hear their own voice, and intellectualise things and tell you how much they know about things. So it was cool to just look at that. I wanted to make people sit and rethink their own comments.”

With ‘STFU!’, Rina demonstrates once again that she’s an artist interested in world-building – continuing her play with narrative and signature incorporation of theatre and choreography, she is able to magnify her music into a full performance, a comprehensive story. Rina Sawayama is interested in the entire consuming experience of music, and ‘STFU!’ provides her audience with a lot to sink our teeth into. 

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