Rina Sawayama in conversation with Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova

A candid discussion about the state of pop music in 2020, Russia’s queer rennaisance and the importance of practising activism daily.

by Sogo Hiraiwa
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21 September 2020, 2:23pm

The year 2020 sounds different. Due to the global pandemic, tours and music festivals have been cancelled worldwide, with venues and clubs forced to close. People's lives have changed completely, and naturally, so has the way in which we experience music. While some artists chose to postpone the release of new works, British Japanese artist Rina Sawayama refused to let the circumstances change her plans, releasing her exhilarating debut album SAWAYAMA back in April, as scheduled.

On your very first listen, you’ll immediately be glad that Dirty Hit artist Rina confidently stuck to the original release date. With a sound that transcends genres, the record’s universal themes of family and identity – with a side-eye at how they’re viewed through the binary lens of society – are packaged as the most innovative pop around. Holding its own against the turbulence of this year, it has critically acclaimed, earning a fan in the form of Russian activist and performance artist Nadya Tolokonnikova in the process.

One of the founders of Pussy Riot, to say that Nadya herself is no stranger to highlighting issues with the status quo would be an understatement. Nadya is known for challenging oppressive governing bodies both overseas and in her native Russia, and has long been a vocal supporter of LGBTQ rights and the Black Lives Matter movement. Inspired by protesters in Chile, Pussy Riot released “1312” (ACAB, after the numerical order of the letters) back in May – a manifesto against police violence and a wider call to dismantle white supremacy.

Aside from a blossoming Instagram friendship and the fact that they have many friends and collaborators – including Charli XCX and Dorian Electra – in common, Nadya and Rina, both 30, have never actually met. Until now. Speaking over Zoom from their homes respectively, the duo discuss the role of pop music in 2020, the state of the queer community and the importance of practising activism in everyday life.

Rina Sawayama: Hi Nadya!

Nadya Tolokonnikov: Super nice meeting you! I don’t remember when exactly I first listened to your music, but it was like love at first sight when I heard “STFU”.

Oh thank you, that’s so crazy!

It definitely grabbed my attention because I was working on a really heavy album at the time... I’m still working on it actually. It’s super genre-bending so, as I told you on Instagram, I have to actually fight for it. It’s weird that, in 2020, I still have to fight for that even with my own distribution company. Who could imagine! I love them, but they would be like, “Oh this sound does not belong to the album because this sound is nu-metal and that sound is pop”. Actually even on the pop side, we made a song with Dorian Electra and Dylan Brady, which is not typical pop, you know? Anyways, I was really interested in what you were doing because you can write amazingly in so many genres.

Thank you so much, wow. I’ve literally just been watching videos of you – documentary after documentary, interview after interview. Obviously I knew about you and I knew about Pussy Riot. And Dorian was talking about you a lot, and was it Charli that you collaborated with too?

Yeah, I met her in late 2015 and we wrote a song together that ended up being used by Brooke Candy called “My Sex”.  It didn’t come out for a while because I was still figuring out my way in music. I’m a performance artist, and so sometimes I just don’t know what to do with the music that I have, so I kind of just left it. Then Brooke Candy picked it up and she was like, “Hey, do you want to make it happen?” So we performed it at Pop 2 in New York and Paris. I love Charli.

Same. I think I first met Dorian at the London Pop 2 show actually – Charli asked me to rewrite Carly Rae Jepsen’s verse in “Back Seat”, so I rewrote and performed it with her and it was super cool. So yeah, I suppose you and I have known about each other for a while but just never met, which is the wonder of the internet.

Totally. Well, I hope to meet you! How’s London?

London’s kind of fine, you know. In terms of corona, people are relaxing a lot. Where are you at the moment?

I split my time between the States and Russia, I would love to just live in Russia but the thing is, since we are on the radar for all sorts of Russian police it is almost impossible to do my job as an artist. In February, I was trying to make a video in Russia... just a normal music video, you know? We rented a place, equipment, normal stuff, nothing heroic, and then the cops showed up like, “You are making gay propaganda! Get the fuck out of here!”

Oh my god.

That’s what happens when I do stuff in Russia. The risks are big and the cops are just all the time on my back, trying to prevent me from living life. And sometimes I just want to stay at home and it’s like, come on dude, I’m not even trying to make a political statement right now. Or maybe I have a rainbow flag on me so they arrest me and my friends for showing up on the street.

I really take creating music and music videos for granted. I remember I watched something where you said, “If you want to be an activist and live in Russia you need to live with the fear, but just not think about it. Know that it’s going to happen but don’t think about it or it will destroy you.” And I guess you just existing at this point in Russia is probably incredible, considering the things you have done as a performance artist, but also as an icon and an activist.

It’s never been an easy thing to be an activist in Russia, but if you really want to change things, you have to take risks. I feel like we all have to go through fear management though, and as creative people we have tons of fears outside of fighting with cops. You must have the skills of fear management as well because when you start to write a song, there’s a certain amount of fear too.

Definitely. I mean, not on the level that you have. It’s a very different kind of fear, it’s more like an internal fear just from living creatively. I didn’t grow up in a family that was encouraging of a creative career. My parents sacrificed a lot for me to live here and grow up in London, so I felt the pressure. I went to Cambridge uni and I thought that that would make them happy, but after that they still wanted me to become a banker. Going to Cambridge and studying politics, I saw the inception of mini Boris Johnsons and I was completely put off. But I always remember the privilege I had to study there and so always carry some sort of purpose with me when I write. I like really burying it within pop structures – making sure the lyrics have got depth, that people can listen to it over and over and find something new, find that there’s a message. So yes, there’s a fear in creating, and it’s scary because people are not taught to be creative in the school system. I think it’s important daily practice though, and nourishing that inner creative child is really important always.

Who did you want to be when you were six? Did you think about becoming an artist?

I always wanted to be a singer but I was looking at Britney and being like, “I wanna do what she’s doing”. But I wasn’t connecting, you know what I mean? I wasn’t connected in any way.

Same.

She was signed when she was a baby and she did _Mickey Mouse Club_**, and now I know that there’s a certain level of wealth you need to have in order to be a child star like that. Like, your parents need to be putting you through training. I signed my first album deal when I was 29, and for a pop artist that’s quite late, so I hope that inspires people. I had a normal job right through my twenties really, but I still always made time to create.**

Where did you work?

I was the loans administrator for a creator’s start-up. It was pretty cool, and in hindsight good to experience, because you can see why creative companies fail in the first three years. So it taught me to make sure I can keep producing creative art I guess, without going bankrupt. It was pretty useful. I worked at a nail salon for a bit too, and in an ice cream van. What about you?

My goal was always to not have a normal job. Though apparently when I was six, I wanted to create advertisements. Russia started to enjoy capitalism in the 90s. For us, capitalism meant freedom, and I know it’s not like that right now but when I was six I was unaware. I was just thinking that I could create really amazing videos and commercials for Coca Cola and sweet stuff that I love. And, in a way, I am doing that right now. So I am a happy person because I’m not advertising Coca Cola but I am advertising radical political ideas, which is much more fun than advertising for Coca Cola honestly!

Yeah, it’s great when you write a song that’s like that and you put it out into the world and it starts making money you’re like, wow! It’s such a revelation when something that you so purely believe in can then feed into you making a living. I have a song called “XS” which is about capitalism and consumption and I’m making merch out of that, and it’s so paradoxical and hypocritical of me. You know, it’s hard because I haven’t figured out a way to exist outside of this system where I have to obviously sell things to make money back. The irony is definitely not lost on me and I’m always checking myself.

You seem to put so much thought into your lyrics, and I don’t know many people who do that. Maybe in rap, but it’s not that common in pop. And that’s really encouraging for me because I remember a few years ago, me and Dorian were sitting and bitching about the world. And maybe we are overthinkers because to write a song, we need to put together a whole word document first -- we write a thesis and then convert it into sound. We felt uncomfortable about that process for a while and then we just embraced it like, yeah! We are nerds, so what?

Oh yeah, you have to, you should! I look up all kinds of random shit. “Comme des Garcons” started off with a song about Beto O’Rourke who is a politician in Texas. I was talking about male confidence and how strange it is that men will lose a race or something and still be like, I was born to win this! I’m going to get up and go again! That sort of male confidence can so easily become toxic. And then we started writing “Comme des Garcons” about how ridiculous it is that the idea of confidence is so gendered that we have to ‘act like the boys’ and whatever.

You know, most pop singers, they are really outspoken on political issues nowadays but when they go to the studio they are not political at all. And I feel like the next step for the whole industry and the whole culture will be merging it. Art and politics. I talk about it a lot with people who actually lived in 1968 – a really groundbreaking year, the year that shaped the politics and culture that we live in right now – and they say that the difference between 2020 and 1968 is that in 68 people really knew well how to combine joy and politics. Now, a lot of people treat activism as an office job they have to show up to with a serious face and then they go out later to party. And things will really start to change when we bring politics to our parties.

That’s so interesting. I feel like music has become more and more palatable because truthfully we are over-relying on Spotify and Apple Music and all the streaming services and we want to get playlisted – that’s how your song gets streams, that’s how you make income. And if the lyrics are too crazy they are not gonna playlist it, if it’s in between genres they are not gonna playlist it. So I think people reserve that sort of ‘controversial side’ of their personality for social media. But I think you and I, we both want to subvert the idea of pop and sort of make it into something that can be weaponized. I like slowly infecting people’s brains with ideas disguised as cute pop -- something that they don’t expect.

Yeah, to me it should become more comfortable for a pop artist to speak out. They need to risk their place, and I feel like it’s coming because it’s more comfortable for people to talk about queerness in their music. I feel like Russia is going through some queer renaissance right now and it’s incredibly empowering because it’s becoming 100% from the grassroots movement. As you probably know, our government is a dick and they have a law against gay propaganda, which they use basically to oppress all the LGBTQ activists, which also enables people to express hatred towards certain communities.

Yeah, like: here’s a target.

But in the 90s, it was totally fine to be gay. We still had homophobic people, like every society, but they were more silenced because our TV and pop culture was queer-dominated. We were so gay it was unbelievable. If you watch our pop music from the 90s… you can just judge by the acts that you know best, like t.A.T.u.

Of course!

And t.A.T.u was just the tip of the iceberg! We had crossdressers, we had it all. And now we have nothing because you are not allowed to be on mainstream television if you are openly gay. But you know, the positive thing is, I feel like kids don’t give a shit because they live on the internet. And the good thing is, they all know English so they read i-D, they read Vice, they pick up makeup tutorials from famous gay stars and they are like, yeah, that’s totally fine. And so I feel like it’s just a question of time.

That’s so exciting – there’s a queer movement going on, and a grassroots movement, which by the way you obviously kickstarted. How does it feel when you see real repercussions? Like, positive repercussions from what you’ve done?

Well, I don’t take credit for that, but I feel like we have been an important part of it. We have a saying in Russia, that we don’t have to measure the amount of our input but if we can throw just one piece of wood in the fire where patriarchy is burning, we should do it. So I feel like we threw this piece of wood in the fire and now it’s fucking burning. It can still be really challenging to be a young queer person in Russia though, because homophobic parents are enabled by the Russian government’s traditional values: “We are against the West. The West is dominated by gays.” But nowadays it’s much more comfortable to be like: yeah, I’m queer, I’m a feminist activist. 13 years ago, when we started, you would get in trouble just for that. So the more comfortable it is, the more mainstream it is, the better.

What advice would you give people reading this who want to introduce a little bit of activism into their daily lives?

Well, my general advice is to follow your intuition and your dreams, especially if you are young. When you’re a teenager your intuitions are so strong. I remember myself at 16 and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I was like, there is no way I am going to have a job – I’m going to disrupt existing strategies of life. That’s how I defined my job, and my mom was like, “Yeah, you’re not going to get paid for that!” And so for eight years of my life I literally lived by shoplifting. I was 18 when I had a kid, so we just managed to survive. We stole food and clothes from supermarkets and lived in many different places and I studied in Moscow State University – I got in for free just by passing exams. Anyways! There’s always a way, so don’t get scared. Follow your intuition and learn a lot outside of the traditional educational system, because as you mentioned earlier, traditional systems don't help us create, they help us consume knowledge. And this doesn’t actually teach us how to criticise, or how to question the status quo. And if you want to be an activist, that’s your primary job.

Also, when you read the news, think about how you can change the situation, and even if you can only implement it on a really tiny level, think about that small step. And don’t worry about your step being too tiny because nothing is too tiny! Another advice is not to expect immediate results. I feel like a lot of people who want to be activists go to the streets every day for like two weeks and they don’t see results so they’re like, oh, that’s useless then. But it’s not! We’re fighting against really powerful strong assholes and they are not going to give up easily.

You think about the Black Lives Matter movement and you think about trying to get a president into power – it’s like years, decades, so much money, grassroots, lobbying and all that stuff. Think about that and you think about the activism and the change that we need to see... because it has to happen on so many levels.

I feel like we should all be activists in a way that’s sustainable for ourselves – and I think that’s the key to success. We don’t all have to do the same exact thing. If you’re not comfortable with something, then you most likely won’t still be doing it in a week or two. Find something that you enjoy.

Tagged:
Culture
activism
Interview
POP
PUSSY RIOT
Nadya Tolokonnikova
Rina sawayana