Meet Riri, the 19-year-old Japanese star making her way up the K-pop charts - and she wants Blackpink's phone number

By Joonoo Park

The singer-songwriter has played South By Southwest, recorded with Saweetie, and firmly believes in the universal power of music

By Joonoo Park |

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The Japanese singer-songwriter is always grateful when she receives support from her fans.

Move over, Blackpink – there’s a hot new singer rising up the K-pop charts. Riri Arai, or Riri as she is known, may only be 19 but she’s already something of a music industry veteran.

The singer-songwriter has been plying her craft from an early age. In 2011, she took part in a Japanese music competition called Next Generation Star. The following year, she flew to New York City in the US for her first performance in the country – not bad for someone who was barely in her teens.

In 2016, Riri released her very first EP, I Love to Sing, which went straight to the top of the iTunes R’n’B/Soul chart.

In 2017, the then 17-year-old performed at South by Southwest, an annual cross-cultural event held in the US state of Texas – an experience that Riri still thinks back on fondly.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” she says. “I was really happy, because so many people were there. I want to go back there again.”

The singer channelled that happiness into her debut album, Riri, which dropped last March. The songs, which include Rush, That’s My Baby, and Crush On You are light, dreamy, and fresh. Neo, her second album, which was released in November, is infused with a little more sass and, as she terms it, “determination”.

“When making Neo, I wanted songs that I could dance to. [Recording it] was very exciting for me, but it was also very hard. I learned determination [from the process].”

Riri is aware that, as a minority singer trying to make it big outside Asia, she has something of a glass ceiling to break. However, she says that many Asian artists and groups are already paving the way for people like her – like American rapper and songwriter Saweetie (with whom she collaborated with on single Patience from Neo), and Korean rapper Junoflo, with whom she collaborated with on Luv Luv.

And Riri is a huge fan of other K-pop acts, in particular girl group sensation Blackpink – a band that she says she would love to work with, despite having a different cultural and linguistic background.

“Music doesn’t have borders,” she says. “As a musician, I am only ever thinking about the production, the words, the recording.” The vibes and general feel of how music sounds might be different from country to country, she adds, but it’s all still music.

Going forward, Riri says that she would love to do more live stage performances, where she could sing and dance, and “have fun”. There’s still, she says, so much more she wants to do - after all, she’s only 19.

Still, even though Riri’s star is definitely rising, she says there are times she does struggle – but she chooses not to talk about them, to avoid seeming like a diva.

“As a singer, I might come across as ‘special’. I’m not,” she insists. “I work hard to please my fans, and I am always grateful when I receive love and support from everyone.

“If I only ever talked about the bad times, then what fun would that be?”

Edited by Ginny Wong

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