Fact: Japanese-British singer Rina Sawayama released one of the best albums this year, SAWAYAMA. The album features a bunch of head bangers that blend punk rock, retro ’90s hip hop and R&B club sounds with electro-pop tunes and vibes. Its lyrics and visuals deconstruct what it means to have a family (both blood and chosen), the capitalist world we live in and Sawayama’s identity as a Japanese-born London-based artist. And, literal music legend Elton John even “considered it one of his faves.”
Second fun fact: Japanese-British singer Rina Sawayama is British.
So, why on Earth is one of the best and most innovative artists to come out of the U.K. not eligible for two of the most prestigious music awards in the country?
Last week, the nominations for 2020’s Hyundai Mercury Prize were announced. For a first in the award’s history, it boasted a number of Black and female artists out of its 12 nominees—including underground rapper Stormzy, folk singer Laura Marling, experimental electro-pop princess Charli XCX and disco-pop queen Dua Lipa. By comparison, at the Brit Awards in the same year, only one woman was nominated in the 25 different categories…
But, more importantly, Sawayama and her incredible debut album was missing from the list. Fans tweeted in uproar, disappointed and confused. Then, just last night, the “STFU” singer shared an excerpt from a recent interview with VICE on Instagram, where she admitted that she was “heartbroken” over the news not because she wasn’t nominated, but because she can’t even be “eligible” for the awards show in the first place.
“It was so heartbreaking,” Sawayama told the outlet, admitting that she had told her label Dirty Hit it was her dream to win one. “I rarely get upset to the level where I cry, and I cried.”
Rina Sawayama was born in Japan but grew up in London. Outside attending a Japanese school over the summer break one year as a teen, she’s spent the past 25 years living identically to a British citizen. She studied politics, psychology and philosophy at the University of Cambridge and identifies as British.
But, because Japan has a single-citizenship policy, she can’t become a British citizen unless she denounces the citizenship tied to her cultural identity. Instead, she has an indefinite-leave-to-remain visa, which bar from not being able to vote in general elections, gives her about the same rights and freedoms as a traditional British citizen.
The problem is that both the Mercury Prize and BRIT Awards state that solo artists can only be eligible if they’re a British or Irish citizen. A group act, on the other hand only needs 25 percent of its members to be British or Irish citizens. Dirty Hit reached out to Mercury Prize to explain Rina’s immigration status, but was met with a stern-to-the-point email claiming that “the rules weren’t going to be changing anytime soon.”
“I’m signed to a U.K. label,” Rina said. “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 U.K. as well as in LA. It was mixed in the U.K.. My lyrics are in English, except for one verse in one song.”
“[As an immigrant], you get to a level when you don’t have to worry about your nationality and your status and whether you fit into this country. Things like that bring into sharp focus, like, whether I am even British. It’s just very upsetting.”
At one point, she told Vice, she considered giving up her Japanese passport because she wanted to be eligible “that badly.” But, all her family lives in Japan. As she sees it, doing so would “genuinely feel like I’m severing ties with them. I think a lot of people feel that way about their passports.”
“If I was snubbed, I would be like, ‘Well, OK, fine… Let’s just make a better record and move on,’” she says. “But the fact that I wasn’t even eligible is like… I don’t even know what that emotion was. It was othering.”
“If arts awards are creating their own sort of version of border control around their eligibility, I think that’s really problematic.”