Rina Sawayama has said that spearheading the movement to change eligibility rules for the Brit Awards and Mercury Prize is “the proudest moment of her career”.
The singer has campaigned heavily to have the rules changed for British solo artists at awards events and contacted the British Phonographic Industry (BPI).
Then this week saw Sawayama – who was born in Japan but has lived in the UK for 26 years and has indefinite leave to remain in the country – reveal that a grassroots campaign led to the BPI agreeing to change the rules for the awards, allowing artists without British citizenship to be eligible for the awards if they’ve resided in the country for five years or more.
“This is the UK I know, and the UK I grew up with – one of acceptance and diversity,” she told NME of the historic rule change. “It feels really special.
“I do applaud BPI for going above and beyond. I didn’t think they’d include the clause of five years [of UK residence], I thought they’d go for 10 years. And they’ve included people who were born here but might have been living somewhere else. It’s really fantastic.”
Sawayama wasn’t eligible to enter her debut album ‘SAWAYAMA’ for 2020’s Mercury Prize under the current rules, which stated that solo artists must hold either British or Irish nationality and provide official documentation of their citizenship, such as a passport.
After learning she was unable to enter for the Mercury last July, the singer spoke to Vice about the subject, before revealing that the BPI were looking into changing the eligibility rules as a result.
After the #SAWAYAMAISBRITISH hashtag began trending on Twitter, and calls for the rules to be changed increased from Rina herself, her label Dirty Hit and her fans, the BPI were forced to take notice
“When I first talked to Dirty Hit, before I even signed,” Sawayama explained, “[label boss] Jamie Oborne asked what I wanted this album to do, and I said I want to win a Mercury award. That’s honestly what I said to him.”
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After the artist’s Japanese passport was sent to the Mercury to put ‘SAWAYAMA’ forward for the prize, the eligibility rule became clear. “The label emailed them saying, ‘This is the situation, can you make a change? She’s lived [in the UK] for 25 years…’ and we received a flat-out no. I found out there and then. It was really sad, and I couldn’t believe it.
“With a lot of things, I try to give the benefit of the doubt and stay positive. A lot of these barriers are up because people can’t be bothered to change them or it’s a massive oversight,” she adds, pointing out the irony that, before heading out on one of her early tours as an independent artist, the BPI awarded her a British Export award.”
She continued: “It’s usually not people trying to be mean. With that in mind, I got to work and tried to change things!”
Sawayama has more first-hand experience of these “institutionalised barriers” from her time studying at Cambridge University. “I went to an ‘ethnic minority open day’ unbeknown to me,” she said. “That’s what I went to! I’m so grateful that I went to Cambridge, but those barriers are there. No-one’s telling you not to come, but no-one’s telling you to come, either.”
She added: “For me, Britishness – especially in London – is immigrants. It’s made up of immigrants, and their hard work. You don’t know how many people have been put off by these barriers. You don’t know what invisible message this is sending to people.
“It remains to be seen what the effect is,” she concluded of the rule changes, “but I really hope that in one, two, five or ten years time, it will have an effect on protecting artists within the political climate.”
‘SAWAYAMA’ featured in NME‘s 20 Best Albums Of 2020 list and received a glowing five-star review upon its release. Last month, she went viral after launching the ‘Dynasty’ challenge on TikTok.