Finding Healing at Rina Sawayama’s Mother’s Day ShowPhoto by Jade Gomez Music Features Rina Sawayama
I was born on Mother’s Day. It was a cruel twist of fate, being that it was the beginning of the end of my relationship with my mother. Whatever higher power existed up above expelled me a bit too early so as to save me the grief, and as soon as I was born, I was trapped inside the incubator. The glass walls separated the two of us. We could see each other, but that motherly touch came too late.
My mother was the opposite of a Tiger parent—the authoritative Asian stereotype that all my friends had. Instead, she was the “cool” mom. We’d spend nights watching R-rated movies while eating hard-boiled eggs dipped in salt until my grandmother beckoned me into her room. My mother was only a parent at night, disappearing by morning until she felt the itch to spend time with me again. Sometimes it would be days between our interactions. Then, it became weeks. Those weeks turned into months. I never expected it would soon be years.
Normally, young women look to their mothers as their first glimpse of female strength. The years I spent yearning for her love and approval made me hesitant to give any other woman the coveted spot of “idol.” Instead, I invested that energy into the tragic male heroes I loved so deeply, like the Kurt Cobains and Anthony Kiedises. This internalized hatred of myself and anyone who looked like me or my mother engulfed me, drowning me in guilt. I forced myself to engage with the pop stars of my childhood such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, and the closest I ever got to representation was seeing Gwen Stefani’s parade of Harajuku Girls. While I still hold these women close to my heart, I was always unconsciously in search of a woman I could look up to. Of course I had my grandmothers, but I wanted that anonymous, selfish bond between me and a popstar—one that would never know my flaws or my traumas.
2018 was the last time I had a full conversation with my mother. I almost lost my voice from screaming and crying, the wooden door of my room separating us like that incubator I so wished to be trapped in again at that moment. As I struggled to pathetically pick up any remaining sense of dignity I had left, a friend sent me RINA, the 2017 EP by British-Japanese singer Rina Sawayama. As cliche as it sounds, when one door closed, another door flew wide open.
Underneath the bubbly exterior of RINA was a reflection of my deepest desires, as she addressed Asian representation within pop music on “Take Me As I Am” and the guilt that comes with taking antidepressants on “10-20-40.” For the first time in my life, I truly felt like the child I never was. At the ripe age of 20, I felt like I understood what I once thought was a white phenomenon: of being so intensely infatuated with a celebrity, you imprint parts of yourself onto them. Rina Sawayama was the queer, Asian popstar that I never knew could exist. For once, I saw myself.
On Mother’s Day, 24 years after I was born, I head to Brooklyn Steel with my head low. I’ve gotten better at dodging the sappy social media posts, but I forced myself out of the safety of my home to attend the first of Sawayama’s final three tour dates in New York. I initially purchased the tickets to celebrate my 22nd birthday, but the pandemic had other plans. If there was one thing that would get me out of bed, it would be Rina Sawayama.
On the train ride there, I found myself checking my phone every so often, wondering if I should masochistically text my mother to wish her a good day. I almost forgot I changed her name from “Mommy” to her first name in my phone, something that still feels taboo, despite us not talking since our fight four years prior. It feels right that I’m having this experience within the confines of Brooklyn Steel’s cold, industrial build. This was the same venue where I saw Arca and the late SOPHIE, two other figures who helped me navigate my queerness. On this night, however, I selfishly felt like I was there with a divine purpose: to heal my fucked up mommy issues. I think it’s healthy for everyone to experience some delusion once in a while.
The rest of the night was a blur as I came face to face with Sawayama in the photo pit, her intense eyes staring back at me with each camera click. As she powered through the opening song “Dynasty” off her incredible 2020 debut SAWAYAMA, hearing hundreds of people singing, “I’m a dynasty / The pain in my vein is hereditary,” snapped me back into reality. We all needed her at this moment.
There was a low, intense electricity that ran through the venue that night. Sawayama’s commanding presence slinked across the stage with the grace of a runway model and the ferocity of a rockstar. The sticky synths and drums of “Akasaka Sad” made the floor rumble as Sawayama switched between her hearty vibrato and restrained baby-like vocals to tell the story of her immigrant parents thrust into a new, scary world. The slow build of “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome” exploded into a euphoric high. Sawayama’s guitarist’s infectious passion came through in every note, while her drummer added an exciting and new depth to this collection of songs. It was jarring to witness the well-oiled machine that is a Rina Sawayama performance compared to the chaos of my beloved punk and metal bands I’m so used to watching. To see Sawayama’s artistic intention manifest in every note, dance move and outfit change was magical.
Sitting with SAWAYAMA for the two years leading up to this divine moment brought upon a lot of introspection. Sawayama came through as more than this singing deity I initially held her as. We both worked through this stress that came from reconciling our parents’ struggles as immigrants with the trauma they inflicted. It was an unfair onus placed upon us to break these cycles, but it’s a shared experience amongst generations of children like us that we are finally unpacking. Above all else, SAWAYAMA taught me that it was okay to step away from it all and make space for myself to not just grieve, but also to enjoy everything around me.
Nestled within the crowd at Brooklyn Steel, Sawayama sat down with her band to perform an acoustic rendition of “Chosen Family.” With cellphone lights illuminating the venue and a chorus of voices singing, “So what if we don’t look the same? / We been going through the same pain,” I was reminded of all that I missed while I was mourning the deterioration of my relationship with my mother. I remembered my grandmother’s presence at every school function, and my high school friends accompanying me on my walks to school after I was harassed one day. I thought about the internet friends who wished me happy birthdays and the teachers who encouraged me. Where my mother was absent, a village stepped in.
I left the show that night with a noticeable lightness about me. Rina Sawayama gave me the gift of childlike amazement, as I finally felt like I could see myself in someone other than my mother. She also taught me that there are pieces of myself in everyone I meet. There is a part of me that will always stay with my mother, even if she doesn’t see it.
Jade Gomez is Paste’s assistant music editor, dog mom, Southern rap aficionado and compound sentence enthusiast. She has no impulse control and will buy vinyl that she’s too afraid to play or stickers she will never stick. You can follow her on Twitter.