Artist News Awards

Rina Sawayama barred from entering this year’s Mercury Prize for not being British enough

By | Published on Thursday 30 July 2020

When the Mercury Prize shortlist was announced last week, we had a little moan about how Rina Sawayama’s debut album, ‘Sawayama’, wasn’t included. So did quite a lot of people, actually. Including Elton John. It turns out this wasn’t just a bizarre snub, the award’s organisers had deemed her not to be British enough to enter at all.

The Mercury Prize puts together a shortlist based on what the judges deem to be the twelve best albums released by British and Irish acts in the last year. As part of the applications process, artists must submit proof of their citizenship. Despite living almost her entire life in England, having moved here from Japan as a toddler, Sawayama only holds ‘indefinite leave to remain’ status in the UK. And, it turns out, that is not acceptable for a Mercury entry.

“It was so heartbreaking”, she tells Vice of finding out that she could not even enter her album for consideration. “I rarely get upset to the level where I cry. And I cried … If I was snubbed, I would be like, ‘Well, OK, fine… Let’s just make a better record and move on’. But the fact that I wasn’t even eligible is like… I don’t even know what that emotion was. It was othering”.

There would be no issue if Sawayama had dual nationality, for which she would be eligible were it not for the fact that Japan does not allow its citizens to hold such status. She admits that she did consider giving up her Japanese passport in order to gain British citizenship, but says that she ultimately decided against it.

“I’m signed to a UK label”, she says. “I’ve lived here uninterrupted for the last 25 years. I’m only tax registered in this country. The … 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 … I fundamentally don’t agree with [the Mercurys’] definition of Britishness”.

It’s also notable that the rules for solo artists are arguably more strict than for bands, where only 30% of members have to hold a British passport, so long as half the band has lived in the UK for the last year.

“If arts awards are creating their own sort of version of border control around their eligibility, I think that’s really problematic”, she says. “What I just want is for all the awards to look into indefinite leave and change the rules to what Britishness means to them”.

She goes on: “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. I think the arts are somewhere that they can reverse that and widen it up. It’s up to the award bodies to decide what Britishness really encompasses – the very things that they celebrate, which is diversity and opportunity”.

In a statement to Vice, a spokesperson for the BPI – organiser of the Mercury Prize (and the BRIT Awards, which has similar policies) – said: “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”.

If everything is constantly reviewed, then it’s not too late to have thirteen artists in this year’s Mercury shortlist, is it? This year’s winner will be announced on 10 Sep. This song may or may not be appropriate come that time: