Update 24th February 2021: The Mercury Prize and BRITs have amended their eligibility criteria, and now allow UK residents who've lived in the country for five years — rather than only those who hold British citizenship — to submit for the prestigious awards.
The changes following widespread outrage from fans and other industry professionals when British-Japanese singer Rina Sawayama revealed that she was barred from entry last year. (Despite having lived in the UK for the majority of her life, she remains on a special British visa so she doesn't have to give up her Japanese citizenship). Many felt that the rules were archaic and exclusionary. The hashtag #SAWAYAMAISBRITISH trended on Twitter.
“I’m over the moon to share the news that following a number of conversations the BPI has decided to change the rules of eligibility for all nominees for the BRIT Awards and Mercury Prize,” Sawayama wrote on Instagram on February 24 along with the caption "REDEFINING BRITISHNESS !!!!!!"
“[...] In my 26th year of living in the UK,” she concluded, “I’m so proud that I can help make this systemic change for future generations, so that in years to come we can see a more diverse definition of British musical excellence.”
This article was originally published 29th July 2020.
Singer Rina Sawayama's debut album, SAWAYAMA, is one of the most critically acclaimed works of the year so far, and yet because she doesn't hold British citizenship, she's been reportedly barred from being able to submit for two major music awards: the Mercury Prize and the BRITs. (Sorry, but if Sir Elton John calls your record “the strongest” of the year, that should at the very least automatically grant you citizenship, maybe even knighthood).
In an interview with VICE UK, Sawayama, who moved from Japan to the UK as a child and has remained there for 25 years, explained that she was "heartbroken" that she couldn't enter as a British artist and cried over it, something she admitted that she rarely does.
The terms for entry into both the Mercury Prize and the BRITs require artists to have British passports. Despite living in the UK all her life, Sawayama doesn't have dual-citizenship because Japan doesn't allow it, and she doesn't want to cut ties with that part of her heritage (though she's considered it). She is on a indefinite leave to remain (ILR) visa, which is similar to citizenship, as it allows holders to work and maintain permanent residency in the country.
But when her UK label, Dirty Hit, explained this to the Mercury Prize, the officials replied saying the rules weren't likely to change.
Ironically enough, Sawayama is a recipient of a grant for British artists and music organisations called BPI, which organises both award competitions. "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," Sawayama said.
A spokesperson for BPI told VICE: “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.”
Following the publication of the article, Sawayama spoke out on social media, writing "I just wanna dream the same dream as everyone else." The hashtag #SAWAYAMAISBRITISH trended on Twitter. Even Sir Elton John is upset.
I've lived here 25 YEARS (most of my life) but I am not British enough to even be ELIGIBLE for the 2 biggest UK Music awards, @MercuryPrize and @BRITs— RINA SAWAYAMA (@rinasawayama) July 29, 2020
thank u @misszing for talking to me about this
I just wanna dream the same dream as everyone else https://t.co/CxCvjO1e5F
Many fans and others responded to the news with outrage, and pointed out other UK awards that assess "Britishness" less narrowly and don't require a passport. Sawayama also pointed out that the record was recorded in the UK (and LA), It was mixed in the UK, and all but one verse of her lyrics (which explore her British-Japanese identity) are in English. But in the end, she stressed that the issue is much more about the bigger picture.
"I don't ever want anyone to ever feel like this, when they’ve worked so hard on something and everyone can see that you’ve worked really hard, but the people who reward excellence in this country don’t...” said Sawayama. “...It's up to the award bodies to decide what Britishness really encompasses," she continued, "the very things that they celebrate, which is diversity and opportunity.”