When Rina Sawayama dropped a reimagining of her queer pop ballad “Chosen Family” to celebrate the one-year anniversary of her debut album SAWAYAMA (a.k.a. My Album Of the Year and Always), Pixels everywhere were lying in a pool of their own tears. The remix, a duet with the legendary British musician Elton John, feels like a hopeful relief from a long and difficult year that has taken its toll on communities everywhere.
During this pandemic, we are collectively grieving and fighting against continuous cycles of racist state-sanctioned violence and displacement of the most vulnerable in our unequal society, from Black youth and immigrant elders to precarious low-wage workers and the incarcerated. When Rina assures us in the pre-chorus, “Settle down, put your bags down / (Ooh) You’re alright now,” the importance of community for resistance and rest, mutual support, and survival strikes me as an important reminder to hold on to during this year, and the months to come.
SAWAYAMA the record and Rina the artist have come a long way in just a year.
Just last summer, the British-Japanese popstar publicly addressed exclusive and racist music industry standards that disqualified artists like her from competing in major competitions like the Mercury Prize. Though a Japanese citizen, Rina has lived in the U.K. for 26 years. Pixels worldwide trended #SAWAYAMAISBRITISH to support Rina as the British Phonographic Industry (the governing body for major music awards) was criticized for its regressive policies. Ultimately authorities were compelled to make the eligibility criteria more inclusive.
While it remains to be seen whether or not these regulations will create systemic changes benefiting immigrant musicians of color, it’s undeniable that SAWAYAMA is a critically acclaimed game-changing masterpiece that brought us confessional storytelling in the form of stadium anthems (potentially in a post-pandemic paradise). It has launched viral trends, rebirthed itself in Deluxe form with absolutely banging bonus tracks, and led to what is about to be one of the best Tiny Desk (Home) Concerts in recent memory. The crowning glory for SAWAYAMA appeared to be when Rina was nominated for the prestigious Brits Rising Star award.
The collaboration with Elton John was a year in the making as well. John has publicly praised the record several times, heralding Rina as the future of pop music that knows no boundaries. He also spoke out in favor of Rina during the Mercury Prize controversy, calling for change. Rina and John bonded over their work and beliefs as queer musicians in pop and their inability to peform heterosexual love songs. It’s unsurprising that they chose to work together on “Chosen Family”, a big, “cheesy” ode to queer families and the belongings we choose when we’re cast out of spaces that were supposed to protect us.
When the “Chosen Family” single was first released last year, Rina dedicated it to her queer friends who she considered family. The song “is an invitation for anyone that feels that sense of otherness to find their chosen family, where they can truly be themselves and feel loved”. The remix reaffirms this, and both Rina and John emphasize that it is meant to inspire compassion and community in a grieving world. In the re-recorded version, the artists harmonize over an emotional melody, now overflowing thanks to John’s piano accompaniment. The performance video captures the artists singing to each other before a blue backdrop creating a protective bubble-like space.
While SAWAYAMA traverses through difficult terrains like intergenerational trauma, racism and appropriation, alienation, and climate grief, “Chosen Family” remains its tenderest corner to take refuge in. Over the past year, I have revisited this corner often for inspiration and strength, or just to meditate. I’m overwhelmed with gratefulness for all the friendships that have kept me going this year, the queer intimacies, and opportunities to stand in solidarity with others fighting for a better, braver world: “We don’t need to be related to relate / We don’t need to share genes or a surname / You are, you are / My chosen, chosen family”.
“Chosen Family” also underscores the power of narrative and the power to tell your own story to heal yourself and your communities, “Hand me a pen and I’ll rewrite the pain / When you’re ready, we’ll turn the page together”. This past year, we also mourned the many who lost their lives to the cruelty of capitalist institutions in a pandemic, displaced from their homes, and separated from their families.
We remember to hold space for and tell the stories of queer and trans communities that were subject to disproportionately higher rates of murder and abuse during the pandemic. We remember them in their absence, the truths about how they were hurt, we remember them in their joys and brilliance, and we work to address the traumas in our communities.
At the end of the day, against the tide of isolation, it is the relief in knowing that “I chose you / You chose me / We’re alright now”. I always cry at these lines because the relief is so great. What a relief that I have my chosen family.
To sum up, I love both versions of the song. Do I have mixed feelings that Elton John, everyone’s favorite liberal gay white dad/uncle who occasionally says racist things is on the remix? Oh yes. What does his endorsement of Rina say about the future of her sound and political stance in music? This is a separate article on what “mainstreaming” can do to politically conscious artists. For now, I’m interested to see her career progress. Will I be streaming “Chosen Family” the original, now and forever? You already know the answer.
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