Japanese-British pop star and 'John Wick 4' actress Rina Sawayama on changing awards show rules with Elton John's support: 'Either I get blacklisted for speaking out, or I get nominated'

Elton John and Rina Sawayama (Photo: Harley Weir)
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It’s awards season, and Rina Sawayama — who was just handpicked by Sir Elton John to play his 31st annual Elton John AIDS Foundation Academy Awards Viewing Party this Oscar Sunday — is sitting onstage at the Grammy Museum discussing her critically acclaimed sophomore album, Hold the Girl. The Japanese-British singer-songwriter and John Wick: Chapter 4 star reflects on one awards controversy that led not only to the EJAF opportunity and her appearance on Elton’s 2022 all-star album The Lockdown Sessions, but to sweeping reform of several music industry honors in the country she calls home.

“So, I applied for the Mercury Awards, because I've really wanted to win the Mercury Award ever since I was really young,” Sawayama begins, referring to the prestigious Mercury Music Prize awarded annually to the best album released in the U.K. by a British or Irish act. “We submitted our application, and there was one bit that said, ‘Please submit your passport picture.’ And we emailed them and were like, ‘Well, this is a Japanese passport, but she's been living here for 26 years. Is that OK?’ And they were like, ‘No.’”

When the 2020 Mercury shortlist was announced and the pop singer’s debut album Sawayama, which was widely expected to be nominated, was passed over, it made headlines in a few “snubbed” press stories. Sawayama confesses that she “really didn't know what to do” at first, because she “felt really arrogant to bring it up; I just felt awkward about it. I was disappointed and sad and thought, ‘Maybe if I get a British passport…’ I really did go down that road. But then I was like, ‘No, f*** that. That’s so stupid.’”

So, Sawayama decided to tweet about her ineligibility for the Mercury Prize, BRIT Awards, and other major U.K. music honors due to the fact that she is not a British citizen. (Japan does not currently allow for dual citizenship.) “It was like, either I get blacklisted for speaking out, or I get nominated,” she chuckles. “But you know, I'll never win because there are much, much bigger artists who win it. So, it was a risk worth doing.”

While Sawayama did fear that she might just be “screaming into the abyss” when she posted, instead, “#SawayamaIsBritish" quickly trended on Twitter in the United Kingdom. “The hashtag blew up, basically, because of ‘Pixels,’” she recalls, referring to the nickname adopted by her devoted fans. And one especially high-profile Pixel, Elton John — who had been playing Sawayama’s songs on his Apple Music radio show, and had declared Sawayama “the strongest album of the year so far” — took to Instagram to protest these xenophobic regulations.

“I’m happy to hear that the @bpi are reviewing the rules that led to Rina Sawayama’s well-deserved album being snubbed from this year’s @mercuryprize list of nominees,” John wrote on Instagram, after the British Phonographic Industry publicly addressed the public uproar. “Rina has lived in Britain for 25 years with a right of U.K. permanent residency. Her talents have been shaped by a cross-cultural mix of musical influences and Britain is a richer place with her creating music here. We need to recognize artists like Rina because they reflect the beautifully diverse world we all share.”

In February 2021, Sawayama scored a major coup by finally convincing the BPI to change the eligibility rules for the BRIT Awards and Mercury Prize. (Now, any artist who has been a resident for five years and has remained in the U.K. can be nominated.) And in a truly global career moment, five months later, her updated duet version of the Sawayama track “Chosen Family,” featuring Elton, was played as the very last song of the Closing Ceremony at the Olympics in her family’s homeland, Japan. Two years later, Sawayama still can’t believe that she now can consider Elton a friend, peer, and Pixel.

“Having this collaboration with Elton is insane. The fact that he said yes to the collaboration is insane. The fact that we recorded it together is insane. The fact that we did a video together is insane. It’s all a bit insane. It really hasn't sunk in. I would love to say that yes, I can process everything, but I'm constantly in a head-spin. There will be one day every two months where I will just cry, and I think that's my way of processing it. I'll just have a complete meltdown and be like, ‘I can't believe this is happening!’ And then I'll get it out of my system and be like, ‘OK, cool,’” she laughs, remembering her first conversation with Elton, when he interviewed her for his Rocket Hour radio show. “I just opened my FaceTime, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, Elton's on my phone!’ But then we chatted and I was just like, ‘Oh, you're just like one of my friends.’ It just felt really easy.”

Thing haven’t always been easy for Sawayama. “I've lived a pretty tough childhood,” she says. “I immigrated with my family when I was 5 to the U.K., and at the time the U.K. was not a very good place specifically for Japanese immigrants – I mean, Victory England Day used to be called ‘Victory Over Japan Day.’ There would be really offensive things said about Japanese people… and I think my parents really struggled with that. There was a lot of bit of turmoil with my family because my father was the breadwinner and my mom didn't really speak English that well, and then they separated.”

After Sawayama’s parent split and her father returned to Japan, she and her mother “shared a bedroom until I was 15 in our little apartment in London. I didn't have my own room, which is so crucial for your creative development. … Me and my mom fought a lot because we were too close — just proximity-wise, we were way too close. And, you know, not having money is very, very stressful. I went to a Church of England school, a very posh school, and the climate of how girls were spoken about back then was incredibly different. The climate of how queer people were spoken about was also very different in the late ‘90s and 2000s,” recalls Sawayama, who identifies as pansexual. “I survived that, but there are a couple of things happened in that era that I'm still kind of not ready to get quite specific about what happened; I think I will be ready [to talk about it] one day. But a lot of things built up, and by the time I was in my early twenties, I had very, very severe depression and generalized anxiety disorder. And I just didn't leave my house for like, two or three years.”

Sawayama eventually underwent extensive therapy, for which she’s an outspoken and enthusiastic advocate, and while she says, “I still have issues with my mental health, for sure,” her songwriting, particularly on Hold the Girl, has helped her “process it a lot.” She says that second album, written mostly during a period of soul-searching that coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, has “a lot to do with parenting yourself; that's kind of the central theme. … I mentioned earlier about the things that happened when I was a teenager, and that really came to surface. Obviously having nothing to distract me, I was just really confronted with it. And I chose a slightly more intensive form of therapy, and that was a complete watershed moment for me. It broke me open emotionally and mentally. And ‘Hold the Girl’ in particular, it was when I started doing inner-child therapy, which is when you've gone through a traumatic event when you're younger. It's about as an adult, being able to hold that child close to you.”

One song on Hold the Girl, “Catch Me in the Air,” was inspired by Sawayama’s “tricky relationship” with her mother, with the “first verse told through a perspective of a parent who’s very excited about their child being born and wants only the best for their kids” and the “second verse told through my perspective, where I felt she was quite overbearing and a bit of a burden.” Another track, “This Hell,” was “inspired by listening to a couple of my queer friends’ experiences about coming from a church community, and how they were pushed out,” while the more encouraging “Send My Love to John” is about a friend whose own conservative parents finally “acknowledged their queerness, and I just wrote that down immediately. I wanted to tell the story of queer non-acceptance through a parental view, because this [mother] was a first-generation immigrant. I'm pretty sure that all parents start off with very good intentions of wanting to love their child no matter what. And if you're not going to, then you shouldn't be a parent.”

Sawayama says her mother is “now supportive” of her career and even loves “Catch Me in the Air,” but it’s not a coincidence that Sawayama didn’t start seriously pursuing her music career until age 26 — around the time that she and her mother became “separate, in the sense that my mom moved back to Japan. … It's been really nice to have that distance,” the singer admits. Sawayama signed her first album deal at age 29, which she jokes is practically “ancient” by pop-star standards, but she thinks that was ultimately for the best.

“There's so much pressure, especially on girls, in pop to be extremely young. Looking back on the young pop stars of the ‘90s, it’s informed a lot by what's happened to Britney Spears,” muses Sawayama (whose Hold the Girlsingle “This Hell” features the line, “F*** what they did to Britney, to Lady Di and Whitney”). “I think there's a lot of [young] people who have had to go through terrible things with the label system. … I never had anyone push back explicitly to me, but I wonder perhaps whether some labels were not enticed by the fact that I would not be so malleable. Because when I signed my record deal, I already had pretty much 80% of Sawayama written… the ideas were all there. That's what I was shopping around, and I could tell when some labels were just saying what I wanted to hear. … Because I'm a bit older and I've heard all these stories, I knew what to look out for.”

And now, at age 32, Sawayama’s career is blossoming like never before. Along with playing Elton John’s A-list Oscar party, she’s making a name for herself in the movie industry with her role opposite Keanu Reeves in John Wick: Chapter 4 – which, incredibly, is her film debut. She’d “been auditioning for a couple years, not landing anything” before this big break, and reveals that she was “one of three actresses” considered for the most recent Matrixfilm (“I'm probably not allowed to say that,” she giggles nervously). But like many unexpected developments in her unorthodox career, one day she received a random call from John Wick 4 director Chad Stahelski.

Rina Sawayama attends the
Rina Sawayama attends the "John Wick: Chapter 4" U.K. Gala Screening at Cineworld Leicester Square on March 6, 2023 in London. (Photo: Jeff Spicer/WireImage)

“[Stahelski] just literally Zoomed me and said, ‘Do you want go to Berlin in the next two months? I've seen your music videos. You can clearly act. You clearly know how to do choreography. You how to do stunts.’ I think the call came in on a Wednesday, and I was on a flight to Berlin on Friday! And the thing is, I have always insisted that I act in every single one of my music videos — to the annoyance of my directors,” Sawayama laughs. “I've been like, ‘This might be my portfolio for a future role.’”

This interview is taken from Rina Sawayama’s appearance, moderated by Yahoo Entertainment music editor Lyndsey Parker, at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.

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