Rina Sawayama criticises eligibility rules of Mercury Prize and the BRITs: “I fundamentally don’t agree with this definition of Britishness”

“If arts awards are creating their own sort of version of border control around their eligibility, I think that's really problematic"

Rina Sawayama has spoken out against the current eligibility rules of major British music awards following the announcement of this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist.

The Dirty Hit artist’s debut album ‘SAWAYAMA’ was a notable omission from the 2020 list of nominees for the annual prize, whose ceremony will take place in September.

As well as many of the artist’s own fans, Elton John expressed his surprise that ‘SAWAYAMA’ missed out, writing on Instagram: “Unfortunately, not everyone gets to make that list. So I want to shamelessly plug two artists that were overlooked,” before praising Sawayama’s self-titled record as one of his “favourite albums of 2020”.

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Speaking to Vice in a new interview, Sawayama revealed that she wasn’t able to enter the Mercury Prize this year as she isn’t eligible to enter as a British artist under the current rules. Solo artists must hold either British or Irish nationality and provide official documentation of their citizenship, such as a passport.

This isn’t strictly the case for bands, however, as only 30% of bandmembers need to be British or Irish — providing that the majority of the band “have their principal place of residence in the United Kingdom or Ireland”.

A similar nationality clause is also set to affect Sawayama’s future eligibility in the BRIT Awards, as the rules state: “To be eligible for the British Solo Artists categories or other British categories, artists must be UK passport holders.”

Sawayama moved to the UK from Japan when she was a child, and she is on an indefinite leave to remain visa in the UK, which grants permanent residency and a right to live and work in the country.

“It was so heartbreaking,” Sawayama told Vice about the moment she found out she couldn’t enter the Mercurys due to their eligibility rule. “I rarely get upset to the level where I cry. And I cried.”

Rina Sawayama
Rina Sawayama

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She added: “All I remember is living here. I’ve just lived here all my life. I went to summer school in Japan, and that’s literally it. But I feel like I’ve contributed to the UK in a way that I think is worthy of being celebrated, or at least being eligible to be celebrated.

“I’m signed to a UK label,” she continued. “I’ve lived here uninterrupted for the last 25 years. I’m only tax registered in this country. The whole album was recorded in the UK as well as in LA. It was mixed in the UK. My lyrics are in English, except for one verse in one song.”

Dirty Hit approached the organisers of the Mercurys to explain Sawayama’s immigration status, but, as Vice reports, the label “received a curt email response informing them that the rules weren’t going to be changing anytime soon”.

In response to Sawayama’s case, the BPI, which organises both the Mercurys and the BRITs, said in a statement to Vice: “Both The BRIT Awards and the Hyundai Mercury Prize aim to be as inclusive as possible within their parameters, and their processes and eligibility criteria are constantly reviewed.”

Sawayama added that it’s “up to the award bodies to decide what Britishness really encompasses – the very things that they celebrate, which is diversity and opportunity”, and said that she hopes that awards ceremonies “look into indefinite leave and change the rules to what Britishness means to them”.

“The concept of Britishness has been in the public discourse in the most negative way possible – it has become very, very narrow in these last five to six years,” the artist said. “I think the arts are somewhere that they can reverse that and widen it up.”

Sawayama added: “I fundamentally don’t agree with this definition of Britishness. I think I’m really British, and I don’t like just sorting out a symptom of something and leaving the cause to someone else to deal with.

“If arts awards are creating their own sort of version of border control around their eligibility, I think that’s really problematic.”

Rina Sawayama
CREDIT: Zoe McConnell for NME

Meanwhile, Sawayama recently teased a new documentary about the making of her acclaimed debut album.

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