British-Japanese pop star Rina Sawayama 'ineligible' for Mercury prize

‘The arts shouldn’t create their own border control’ says singer who has indefinite leave to remain but no UK passport

The British-Japanese pop star Rina Sawayama has expressed her frustration that her debut album was ineligible for this year’s Mercury prize because she does not hold a British passport, Vice reports.

Sawayama, 29, has lived in the UK for 25 years and holds indefinite leave to remain. Since Japan prohibits holding dual nationality, she has retained her Japanese passport in order to feel close to her family, who live in her country of birth.

Mercury organising body the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) stipulates that solo artists must have British or Irish nationality to enter the competition and submit official documentation of citizenship. Bands must include 30% British or Irish citizens, as long as more than half of their members live in the UK.

Sawayama said that she contemplated renouncing her Japanese citizenship in order to become eligible, until she realised that it wouldn’t “solve anything” and that she disagreed with “this definition of Britishness”.

Sawayama’s label, Dirty Hit, contacted the BPI to explain her nationality situation but “received a curt response”, according to Vice’s reporting.

A BPI spokesperson 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.” The organisation did not answer questions from the Guardian.

Rina Sawayama: XS – video

Sawayama told Vice: “[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.”

Percussionist and producer Sarathy Korwar, who was born in the US, raised in India and moved to the UK a decade ago, supported Sawayama on Twitter. “I’m not eligible for the Mercury prize either,” he tweeted. “Just one in many ways the othering occurs. We live here. We pay our taxes here. We make our music here. but …” The hashtag #SAWAYAMAISBRITISH was trending on Twitter on Wednesday (29 July).

Sawayama recorded her critically acclaimed debut album, SAWAYAMA, in the UK and LA and said she is registered to pay tax in the UK. In 2018, she received a grant from the BPI’s Music Export Growth Scheme, which supports British musicians and music organisations looking to market themselves overseas.

She would also be ineligible for the British categories at the Brit awards, also run by the BPI, which require artists to be UK passport holders. She would be eligible for the international categories. Prestigious British songwriting awards the Ivor Novellos, on the other hand, require artists to have lived in the UK for one year to be considered eligible.

Sawayama said she wanted British awards bodies to take into account artists who have indefinite leave to remain “and change the rules to what Britishness means to them. 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.”

She said: “If arts awards are creating their own sort of version of border control around their eligibility, I think that’s really problematic.”

Elton John has described SAWAYAMA as “the strongest album of the year by far”. Addressing the omissions in this year’s list of Mercury prize nominees, Guardian music critic Alexis Petridis described the album as “brilliantly inventive and futuristic”.

The nominations for the 2020 Mercury prize were announced last week: Anna Meredith – Fibs; Charli XCX – How I’m Feeling Now; Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia; Georgia – Seeking Thrills; Kano – Hoodies All Summer; Lanterns on the Lake – Spook the Herd; Laura Marling – Song for Our Daughter; Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka; Moses Boyd – Dark Matter; Porridge Radio – Every Bad; Sports Team – Deep Down Happy; Stormzy – Heavy Is the Head.


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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