Imagine releasing a critically acclaimed album only to be told you aren’t eligible to be nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize and BRIT awards, let alone win them; all because apparently you aren’t British enough. For Japanese-born British singer-songwriter Rina Sawayama, being told she couldn’t even qualify for consideration for an award so clearly deserved is obviously nothing less than heart breaking. After living in the UK for 25 years and holding indefinite leave to remain in the country, why do the BPI rules deny her this accolade for which she has so evidently been snubbed?
The reasoning behind her ineligibility seems unfounded. In not holding a British passport (which she cannot, unless she gives up her Japanese citizenship), Sawayama cannot be entered for these prestigious awards, even though ‘all [she] can remember is living here’. When the rules claim that bands who are eligible to be entered for the BRITs and Mercury Prize need only 30% of the members to hold a British or Irish passport, how can it be that Rina, who has spent over 80% of her life in the UK is not seen as an eligible candidate. Following the almost instantaneous trending of ‘#SAWAYAMAISBRITISH’ on Twitter when Rina highlighted this last month, she has said that the BPI are looking into making changes to the eligibility rules, but they are yet to implement or make a statement as to what these changes will be.
The Mercury Prize terms and conditions of entry currently state that ‘all forms of contemporary music from Great Britain and Ireland are eligible for the Mercury Prize’, however, because of term 2.1, ‘artists must be of British or Irish nationality’, Sawayama is not eligible for nomination. With the idea of what defines an individual’s nationality being limited by their passport, it is clearly not enough for the BPI to state that they ‘aim to be as inclusive as possible.’ Other music awards in the UK take a much more relaxed idea of what constitutes an individual’s nationality. For example, for eligible entry to the Ivor Novello awards for song writing and composing, an individual must be ‘ordinarily resident in the UK’ for a year before entry; a passport is not essential for qualification. Why can’t the BPI follow suit?
As many have since commented, if Rina revoked her Japanese citizenship and applied for a British passport (dual citizenship is banned in Japan) she would become eligible for the prize. But why should she have to? When she has lived in the UK since she was 5 years old and since contributed vastly to the UK music scene with her genre blending debut album SAWAYAMA (2020) and highly praised mini-album, RINA (2017), what does she have to do to prove her so-called ‘Britishness’?
The policy which excludes Sawayama from eligibility opens a conversation about what ‘Britishness’ is and how it can be defined. As Sawayama has recently said, the arts can be used as a means of opening up a concept, which in recent years, has come to be seen in a negative light. By expanding the ‘border control’ of eligibility, the arts and music industry, and the prestigious awards associated with them, are able to acknowledge the outstanding contribution and impact that immigrants have on UK music. As Sarathy Korwar, another artist who is also not currently eligible for nomination despite living in the UK for over a decade said in response to Sawayama’s case: “We live here. We pay our taxes here. We make our music here.” SAWAYAMA deserves recognition for what it is, a strong album which questions identity, heritage and nostalgia. Xenophobic and limited ideas about what makes an individual ‘British enough’ should not cloud this.
– Tilly Attrill
Featured Image Source: Still via Rina Sawayama // YouTube. Director: Isaac Lock