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Rina Sawayama ‘doesn’t know where she’d be’ without her LGBTQ chosen family

The recipient of the Attitude Breakthrough Award owes it all to her rainbow-coloured brothers, sisters and everyone in-between.

By Thomas Stichbury

Rina Sawayama opens up about finding and, ultimately, being saved by her chosen family, as she takes home the Breakthrough Award at the 2020 Virgin Atlantic Attitude Awards, powered by Jaguar.

The pansexual Japanese-British singer recalls how her LGBTQ friends rallied round her when she was struggling with “severe depression”, while studying at Cambridge University.

“I had a bullying incident, like a pretty bad one, in my second year at uni and my dorm had to be moved. It was so stressful, and then I found them; they all went to Queen’s College and I became friends with them,” she confides.

Rina Sawayama opens up about coming to understand her pansexuality in the Attitude Awards issue (Photography: Zoe McConnell)

“I had really severe depression at the time, so I don’t know where I would be – genuinely – without them.”

The rising music star pays tribute to her “constantly growing” unit of brothers, sisters and everyone in-between in her fittingly titled queer anthem, ‘Chosen Family,’ which she performed at Attitude’s ninth annual ceremony on Tuesday 1 December.

“This idea that you can choose your own family, it’s not limited to the queer community, but there is such a prevalence of people missing a biological, real home, because they’ve been kicked out for coming out,” she explains.

“I’ve got friends who, either, are not out to their parents because they’re scared of what would happen and they’re well into their 20s, or people who have been kicked out of their homes and literally survived on their own since they were 17.”

“I wanted to create a pure love song for my friends,” Rina continues. “People can, maybe, vaguely, understand the concept of queer people or queer experiences, but I don’t see a lot of songs that are just so genuinely for them.”

Looking fierce on the front cover of the Attitude Awards issue – out to download and to order globally from 1 December – the ‘Lucid’ singer comments on how she came out as pansexual in the press first, before speaking to her beloved mum – and she stands by the decision.

Rina wears dress, shoes, pearl necklace and earrings, all by Moschino, necklace by PK Bijoux, ring by Alan Crocetti (Photography: Zoe McConnell)

“I gave her a lot of research to read by doing that, because it was in the context of these very amazingly written articles. [Mum] saw it in the context of the support that the fans gave,” she maintains. “My mum’s actually very, very liberal now, which is so cool.”          

Rina – who, in October, appeared in BBC documentary, Being British East Asian: Sex, Beauty & Bodies, about how the “Western narrative” doesn’t apply to all coming out experiences – previously identified as bisexual.

“I wasn’t out until my 20s, but bisexual would be what I grew up with. The conversation of gender identity and expression has changed so much in the past few years and it’s such a good thing,” she says. “I would be attracted to someone who is non-binary, or I would – for me, it’s like whoever I’m attracted to, I’m attracted to. I know it’s really important to give that a name, so yeah, pansexual is what makes sense.”

Crafting impeccable, rainbow-coloured pop tunes, Rina, 30, released her debut album, Sawayama, in April to widespread acclaim – and now counts Sir Elton John as a passionate ‘pixel’ (the name Rina’s fans have christened themselves.)

Indeed, Elton was among those to voice their dismay when Rina’s record was snubbed by the Mercury Prize earlier this year; she was deemed ineligible because she doesn’t hold a British passport – since Japan prohibits holding dual nationality, she has retained her Japanese passport.

The North Londoner – who moved to the UK when she was five – felt compelled to speak up.

“The only reason I ever brought it up in the first place was because the BBC and The Guardian [did], and [then] Elton John did a post about the fact I wasn’t nominated, and I was on the snub list,” she comments.

(Photography: Markus Bidaux)

“I was, like, ‘This kinda sucks.’ I just wanted to tell my story, really, I didn’t think it would blow up like that.”

It has been reported that the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) – the Mercury organising Body – might rejig the rules for next year’s contest, but Rina hasn’t heard anything from them directly, despite sending them an email.

“The only thing I’ve heard is through my label and they [the BPI] said, verbally, that they would, but there’s nothing in writing,” she shrugs.

“I really hope things change and it opens people’s eyes up to the fact that I’ve been here for 25 years. I can’t vote – I’ve never voted, even though I studied politics – and I’ve always paid tax here. I don’t pay tax in any other country. I feel like I’m a citizen.”

Watch the 2020 Virgin Atlantic Attitude Awards, powered by Jaguar on YouTube now.

The Attitude Awards issue featuring all 14 winners is available from 1 December to download and to order globally.

Subscribe in print and get your first three issues for just £3, or digitally for just £1.54 per issue.