Rina Sawayama Wants You to “STFU” and Listen

Music has long functioned as a creative space for individuals to practice storytelling as fueled by lived experiences. Listening to music is a clear avenue towards not only hearing these stories being told, but understanding them and connecting to them. This idea is imperative when observing music critically through a feminist rhetorical lens, considering it establishes opportunities for marginalized identities to vocalize their experiences within a dominant listening space. Often, these spoken voices are delivered with anger and tone that brings discomfort to a dominant white audience. In order to improve listening and understanding of heavy emotion, it is essential that feminist rhetoric works to reestablish an environment where speaking through emotion is acceptable.

Anger and strong emotions are regularly used as catalysts in songs connecting to lived experiences. Artists like Rina Sawayama harness these sentiments effectively, incorporating rawness and truth to her storytelling. As music is in itself an open opportunity for invitational rhetoric and lived experiences as cultural knowledge or value––Rina Sawayama utilizes anger in her song “STFU!” as a valid means of speaking her truth regarding her Japanese identity and experiences dealing with microaggressions throughout her life. 

Japanese-born British singer-songwriter, Rina Sawayama,  rose to critical acclaim following her debut LP “Sawayama”. “STFU!”––released as the lead single on November 22, 2019––garners musical influences from ‘90s and ‘00s acts while emulating blends of nu metal and avant-pop. Co-directed by Sawayama herself, along with Alessandra “Ali” Kurr, the music video for “STFU!” illustrates a cathartic release of built up anger over consistent experiences of microaggressions against her Asian identity.

The video opens with Sawayama on a dinner date, featuring British comedian Ben Ashenden, that is evidently going quite terribly. Throughout their conversation, Ashenden vocalizes several microaggressions and Asian stereotypes, such as comparing Sawayama as a “sexier version” of “literally either” Sandra Oh and Lucy Liu, raving about the authenticity of the food at Wagamama’s because “they hire more Asians there so it feels like the real deal”, and being “quite surprised” she sings in English. What follows is a release in which Sawayama angirly climbs onto the table, positions Ashenden as a motionless object as she leans over him, and takes full ownership of her sexuality as displayed in the cutaway scenes. Sawayama refuses to sit quietly and dismiss the microaggressions, she instead validates her anger as a way of maintaining power in her identity. Although the track addresses her personal truths, Sawayama posted to social media explaining that “STFU!” is dedicated to “any minority who has experienced microaggressions”.

Through her music, Rina Sawayama participates directly in invitational rhetoric, “an invitation to understanding as a means to create a relationship rooted in equality, immanent value, and self-determination”. Music is an open platform that permits artists like Sawayama to share their lived experiences and perspectives to a broad audience that is invited to listen without silencing in return. Considering songs are often culturally expected to pull subject matter from personal experiences and emotions, “STFU!” fits into this norm and therefore deems Sawayama’s experiences as valid and worthy of understanding. Sawayama carves out space for herself to be heard and invites her audience to connect to her it, all without taking space away from other artists and their experiences. Here, “absent are efforts to dominate another because the goal is the understanding and appreciation of another’s perspective…”; therefore, as opposed to narrowing the perspective on microaggressions, “STFU!” adds to an already building conversation where multiple viewpoints are encouraged. 

The inviting space that Sawayama carves through her music directly represents the purpose of Third Spaces. Third Space as a practice “reveals a differential consciousness’ capable of engaging creative and coalitional forms of opposition to the limits of dichotomous (mis)representations. As a location, Third Space has the potential to be a space of shared understanding and meaning-making”. Music at large provides a space for those who are marginalized or don’t fit into a dichotomous identity to belong and participate in a community of others who identify similarly.  As a bisexual, immigrant woman raised and living in London, Sawayama uses her music to craft a safe space for her experiences, and specifically molds “STFU!” as a mode of discourse to make meaning. Specifically, the song discusses the exoticization and sexualization of Asian women through Ashenden’s comments in the start of the video, as well as lyrically through the line “Expecting fantasies/Leave our reality…”. We see further discourse on microaggressions when Sawayama climbs onto the table scattered with food and chopsticks that Ashenden’s character praised as “so authentic”, even though the restaurant chain he brought up is purely Westernized. As a result, her raw response to these comments becomes highly more authentic than the ignorant comments of a white man claiming he knows authentic Japanese food.

Sawayama acknowledges that she is not alone in these situations and sentiments, alluding to these shared experiences in the line, “You’ve never seen it though I know I’m not the only one.” Vocalizing these experiences and inviting others into this space to relate to them underlines the significance of Third Space, that “the point of the theoretical undertakings in third-space sites is to uncover Other ways of being, and of knowing, in order to make meaning of the everyday”. Therefore, “STFU!” acknowledges Other ways of knowing and being through communicating various microaggressions only understood by people of color.

In creating an invitational space meant to harbor experiential stories, the other side of what Sawayama taps into is absolute listening, a “way in which rhetoric may contribute to the acknowledgement and celebration of freely chosen, unique identities by audience members…”. “STFU!” lands perfectly within a medium that is made precisely to be listened to. Music not only invents a space in which it cannot be interrupted out of existence, but it encourages connection through the act of listening. Sawayama is visibly and audibly aggressive in her song, commanding the attention of her audience with lines like “Shut the fuck up/Have you ever thought about taping your big mouth shut?/’Cause I have, many times, many times” and belting vocals. Her anger is the driving force of the track; she knows that there is an audience that is clearly hearing her. In and out of the music industry, anger is often judged, not taken seriously, or made to be uncomfortable especially in regards to the voices of women of color.

Emotion is taken out of women’s hands by the privileged, and then exaggerated or invalidated into its own kind of silence. Sawayama’s anger refuses to be silenced and refuses to make a white audience comfortable, because being heard should not serve to make the oppressor comfortable. She recognizes that her anger is authentic and true because all of her voices are authentic and true. Considering how anger and strong emotions are usually easier to digest when incorporated into music (as the artform normalizes writing from emotional places and utilizing emotion as part of a performance), Sawayama is better able to attain that so-called “freedom of expression”. 

The implications of Rina Sawayama’s “STFU!” as situated within a medium that encourages the sharing of subjective truths connects directly to the goals of feminist rhetoric. The singer uses creative expression to possess full control and autonomy over her own story and how she wishes to tell it––lyrically, sonically, and visually. As her identity has been consistently challenged and misunderstood, Sawayama makes the personal political through invitational rhetoric. Openly sharing her lived experiences and having them be listened to with understanding ears serves to build communities, such as Third Spaces, and gather culturally valuable information. Rina Sawayama illustrates how mainstream mediums and spaces can be carved into as a means of practicing feminist rhetorics through a creative perspective.

As feminism “offers a reason to ‘bridge différences (rather than to create them), to include (rather than to exclude), and to empower (rather than to seek power or weakness)’”, “STFU!” echoes these ideas as an anthem to empower Sawayama herself––allowing herself to feel angry and be honest about her experiences––while also empowering others who resonate with the message the song carries. Sawayama’s music illustrates how anger can be a vehicle for change and listening, as it slams the truth right into the table of your local Japanese joint. 


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Works Cited

Ede, Lisa, et al. “Border Crossings: Intersections of Rhetoric and Feminism.” Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric, vol. 13, no. 4, 1995, pp. 401–441. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/rh.1995.13.4.401. Accessed 11 Sept. 2020.

Foss, Sonja K., and Cindy L. Griffin. “Beyond persuasion: A proposal for an invitational rhetoric.” Communications Monographs 62.1 (1995): 2-18.

Licona, Adela C. “(B)orderlands’ Rhetorics and Representations: The Transformative Potential of Feminist Third-Space Scholarship and Zines.” NWSA Journal, vol. 17 no. 2, 2005, p. 104-129. Project MUSE muse.jhu.edu/article/184739.

Royster, Jacqueline Jones. “When the First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 47, no. 1, 1996, pp. 29–40. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/358272. Accessed 11 Sept. 2020

Sawayama, Rina and Alessandra Kurr, directors. Rina Sawayama – STFU! YouTube, 2019, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XojM2D3F-Dc&list=FLYQzgnMtenqWIjrlttPu1ew&index=39&ab_channel=RinaSawayamaVEVO. 

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