Rina Sawayama has a new message for the problematic guys she’s been dating: “STFU!”
Gearing up for her first album drop since her 2017 debut RINA, today the 28-year-old singer-songwriter is releasing “STFU!,” an anthem for marginalized folk tired of sorting their way through a constant stream of microaggressions. Sawayama is as enthusiastic about calling out this bad behavior as the exclamation mark at the end of the track’s title.
Unlike much of Sawayama’s previous work, “STFU!” takes a more rock than pop approach, featuring hard guitar riffs, metal-head wailing, and some good old fashioned rock and roll drum beats. Think of a Marilyn Manson screamo track set with Gwen Stefani vocals, and you have an idea of the kind of genre mixing Sawayama has achieved with her latest single.
Along with the track, Sawayama is also sharing an arthouse-style video for “STFU!” (see below). The first minute and a half of the clip, directed by Sawayama and Ali Kurr, is dedicated to a cringe-worthy date, where Sawayama’s companion (played by Ben Ashenden) barely lets her speak. He pummels her with tone-deaf questions about her singing in English, or comments about how much Sawayama resembles Sandra Oh and Lucy Liu, until she finally loses it, slapping the gesticulating jerk aboutface, and morphing into a frightening, demon-like pop-rock goddess.
Billboard had a chance to catch up with Sawayama to discuss the new track and video, what’s to come for her new album, and navigating microaggressions in the woke-world of 2019.
“STFU!” definitely has more rock vibes than some of your previous work. Is this a new direction for the upcoming album?
I would say “STFU!” has the heaviest sound from the new record. I actually wanted to put this one out now because I was like, I haven’t really done anything in ages and I wanted to try and throw people off a little bit. Keep people guessing. Not necessarily that this is my new sound exactly, although I do love metal! I just want people to understand that I’m willing to take risks. The new album is more rock and roll for sure, but it’s also got a couple of dance songs. It’s meant to take you on a journey, so it’s got lots of variation, and “STFU!” shows that.
What’s the story behind behind the video and that dude you’re on a date with?
It’s a kind of satirization around the concept of microaggressions. I put together all the things that people have said to me about being Japanese into the script for him to act. It’s not aggression inducing on its own, but when you put it all down in one place, in a situation where things are meant to sound very flattering, I hope people realize how ridiculous and how offensive some of this stuff sounds. Microaggressions tend to stop the conversation.
I feel like I’ve achieved a lot and that I’ve done interesting things in my life, yet the conversation never reaches the point of discussing that because guys just want to talk to me about the cool Japanese restaurant on their corner. So this video is kind of deadpan, taking the piss out of people like that. I think that’s also quite a British way of dealing with it. In many ways making this video was really a cathartic experience for me.
What’s your take on those types of straight white guys who pretend to be socially aware but end up being even more problematic?
It’s interesting you bring that up because, in the end, it’s not about me. The video is really more about questioning people like him. Like, why did you want to say all these things to me? What makes you say them? And not just Japanese people, but any person of color, or anyone who is marginalized. They tend to do it to anyone who they find exotic.
True, you almost don’t say anything while he’s speaking.
That was intentional. I didn’t want to be angry in that scene. That scene was just to highlight him. I think we all have that hope that if you’re polite enough to them, they’ll realize how ridiculous they’re being. It saves you energy, being polite rather than being aggressive.
Easier just to nod and smile?
Exactly. “STFU!” is about the kind of people I met while I was attending Cambridge for university, people who grew up reading about people like me or seeing us on TV. A lot of times these microaggressions are caused by being very naive, or trying too hard to make someone feel special by talking about their parents.
I think it’s really easy to dismiss people because it appears they’re saying it with malice. On the internet there’s so much miscommunication because of that. I’ve had several people come up to me after a performance, they don’t really know about me but they come up to me and they want to speak Japanese to me, whatever words or phrases they know in Japanese. They are so excited that they’ve just met a Japanese person, one who was just on stage. It’s coming from an enthusiastic place, but obviously they don’t know my experience so there can be a lot of miscommunication.
Just a bit more awareness would be good. Ethnic identity, your relationship with your race or your parents’ race, it can be very, very personal. I don’t think people understand that.
Do you have these kinds of cringeworthy encounters when you go on dates with women?
The only people that have ever talked to me like that are pretty much all straight white men. I did think while we were filming, maybe I should cast a bit more widely. But at the same time I honestly have not experienced that from people of color or women or queer people, ever. So we kept it as is.
As a non white singer in today’s music ecosystem, do you ever feel like you have to jump higher, reach further, work harder?
I think so. The landscape has definitely changed, though. Even since I started doing music full time, a couple of years ago, there’s way more Asian artists in the West now. And it’s been amazing to see that. I think it’s a much better place now. Definitely when I started out I was like, “F–k this, no one that looks like me is doing what I’m doing.” But I feel like there’s more of a community now. And for me, being Asian, yeah, I do feel this deep fear of not succeeding. Haha!
But I think a lot of people can relate to that. I’m doing a non-traditional job in the arts, I’m just trying to keep it going. Even the fact that Crazy Rich Asians is so popular and was made with an all Asian cast, and there’s a Mulan remake coming with an all-Asian cast. There are more Asian people living in the West than ever, and they’d like to see themselves represented in media, and I think people are finally really recognizing that. So I’m hopeful for the future.