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Rina Sawayama’s ‘Hold The Girl’ is a Form of Healing

Rina Sawayama performs in California in 2018
Rina Sawayama performing in 2018. Photo credit: Justin Higuchi via Flickr (licensed under CC-BY-2.0)

Staff writer Rena Hoshino discusses Rina Sawayama’s latest album, “Hold The Girl”, and the steps it takes towards healing generational trauma.

On the 18th of May 2022, Rina Sawayama released “This Hell”, the lead single of her upcoming album, “Hold The Girl”. The single was accompanied by a music video depicting her as part of a throuple – she smirks into the camera, her eyes glowing red as she sings the refrain, “This hell is better with you”, inviting the listener and viewer to join her in her upcoming album’s journey. The song features an undeniable queer identity and its clash with certain people’s religious beliefs, as Sawayama emphasises that she will embrace the fate placed onto her by homophobic folks. With a roaring guitar riff and defiant lyrics, the broader tone for the album already seemed to be set.

Few female East Asian artists are mainstream, and even fewer base their music on the anguish of existing as an Othered presence in Western society, but Sawayama has always been open about her British-Asian upbringing and the feelings of alienation she has felt as a first-generation immigrant. Her debut album “SAWAYAMA” already communicated themes of intergenerational trauma, the pain of racial separation, and working through the struggles of one’s identity. Filled with experimentation between genres, it felt wrong to simply label her music “pop”.

Her new album is no different. Entitled “Hold The Girl”, the cover sees her posing in a camp fashion, grasping at herself as her lower half is encased in a self-described “pregnant” circular frame. The songs range from hyperpop to wild-west to rock, all coming together to convey a very different tone: that of healing. In an interview with MTV, she explains the album’s connection to a technique she learnt in therapy: “In inner child therapy, you honour the inner child that experienced that thing [trauma]… as an adult you’re able to hold them and hug them”. “Hold The Girl” thus incorporates the same notes of pain and angst as in her previous album, but these are layered with a new desire to embrace the past and present, and even look forward to the future. She takes her listeners along in this journey of introspection, wanting herself to heal and offering solace for other queer, first-generation immigrants struggling to define their place in this world.

The album starts with “Minor Feelings”, the title itself an inventive act of wordplay; the “minor” refers to both the emotions which consumed her as a child, and the minimising of them, in which she pushed them – and the healing of herself – away. She sings in a heart-wrenching manner, her voice filled with angst at the toxicity she experienced, and how out of place she felt. Growing up culturally different in England, even if one learns to assimilate well, will always result in a sense of disconnect. The inability to feel fully at home in this Western country our parents moved to, and feeling utterly displaced even when returning to our home culture, evokes a pain that many first generation immigrants can recognise. “Catch Me in the Air” returns to the dynamic between herself and her mother, who she shared a room with until the age of fifteen due to her family’s financial difficulties. The phrase could be read metaphorically as a nod to their reliance on one another, and how they saved the other from falling too far; it could also be a reference to Rina’s journey from Japan to England. Switching perspectives throughout, the song is a narrative constructed from years of mother-daughter fights and misunderstandings, which finally settles on a desire to connect and reflect on the unspoken affirmations of pride and love that are so prominent in immigrant relationships.

Listening to the album was a powerful confrontation not only with Rina Sawayama’s mourning, but also with my own. To hear it live would add another dimension to the album, where the act of explicitly mourning the loss of parts of your identity, while celebrating others as growth, was brought to the forefront. Rina Sawayama’s 26 October performance at O2 Academy Brixton was opened by Tom Rasmussen and Joesef, both of them queer singers with differing energy but equally enjoyable performances. As the clock rolled around to 9:20 PM, Rina Sawayama finally entered the stage in full denim, complete with a denim cowboy hat and cloak, along with her two dancers Summer Jay Jones and Chanté. Beginning her performance with “Minor Feelings”, the same song with which the album begins, Sawayama set the tone for a powerful evening.

Rina Sawayama performs at O2 Academy Brixton wearing a unique wedding dress ensemble

In an ethereal wedding dress ensemble, Rina takes the stage (Photo credit: Rena Hoshino)

Her live vocals were just as tender and powerful as the recorded versions, and the concert played out in a series of 4 stages: struggle, angst, mourning, and celebration. With each mood change came an outfit change, and when combined with the coordinated choreography of herself and her dancers, as well as an outstanding performance by her guitarist, the experience added much more to the enjoyment and flavour of the music. There’s nothing quite like screaming the lyrics of a song that tears you apart along with 4000 other people who feel the same way.

Before beginning “Send My Love to John”, a mournful song evoking the dynamic of an immigrant parent and their son, she chose to speak directly to her audience, acknowledging the pain they may have felt in the past and may be feeling currently. Gone were the flashy lighting choices, gone were the backup dancers. It was just Rina, stage right, on a stool, singing as a single spotlight illuminated her and her guitarist. The song feels like that, too: one story highlighted among many. A queer son, estranged from their immigrant parent, who sought to show love but could not accept it when their child had a culturally incompatible identity. It is a known issue amongst the community — the contrasting and clashing love of immigrant parents who have moved borders and changed the course of their lives just for their child to have a better chance at theirs, but who are equally unable to show the love and acceptance for a child who needs it the most. The song is an apology, and an act of validation that so many of the people who make up Rina’s audience would have needed to hear.

Above all, the album is Rina in communication with herself: “Hold The Girl” documents her interactions with toxicity, the grief that comes with every first generation immigrant experience, and embracing who she has been able to grow into. As she puts it on the album’s final song, “To Be Alive”: “I never thought that I’d get this right / but I finally know what it feels like / to be alive”.

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