The Mercury Prize just announced its shortlist, and Rina Sawayama, the British-Japanese nu-metal pop star in the making who released her new album SAWAYAMA this year, isn’t on it. But it’s not just that she wasn’t nominated; she wasn’t allowed to enter the running at all because of the competition’s nationality clause.
Rina Sawayama moved from Japan as a toddler and has lived in the UK ever since. She considers herself British. But because she has indefinite leave to remain (ILR) visa status and isn’t technically a citizen, she isn’t eligible to enter the Mercury Prize or the BRITs, two of the UK’s major music awards, as a British artist.
“All I remember is living here,” Sawayama tells VICE in a new interview. “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.”
According to the terms and conditions for the Mercury Prize, solo artists must have British or Irish nationality and send official documentation of their citizenship to the organizers. The BRITs’ rules state: “To be eligible for the British Solo Artists categories or other British categories, artists must be UK passport holders.”
“If arts awards are creating their own sort of version of border control around their eligibility, I think that’s really problematic,” Sawayama adds. “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.”
The Mercury Prize also has a nationality clause for bands, but only 30% of a band’s members need to be British or Irish as long as over half of them reside in the UK. Non-British citizens are eligible for the Ivors, another prestigious British music award, if they can prove residence in the UK for the past year.
“What I just want is for all the awards to look into indefinite leave and change the rules to what Britishness means to them,” Sawayama concludes. “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.”
Japan, the country where Sawayama was born, does not allow for dual citizenship. A spokesperson for BPI, the industry body that organizes the Mercury Prize and the BRITs, says that they both “aim to be as inclusive as possible within their parameters, and their processes and eligibility criteria are constantly reviewed.”