We were pretty big fans of Rina Sawayama’s debut album, SAWAYAMA, dubbing it, “remarkably confident, addictive, and purposeful.” We weren’t alone in that assessment, either: Sawayama’s freshman effort has drawn heavy praise since it was released back in April, with numerous outlets heaping it with accolades.
All of which brings us to last week, when the shortlist for candidates for the U.K.’s annual Mercury Prize—celebrating the best album released by a British artist in any give year—was released. You’d think, given all the praise SAWAYAMA has received, that it’d be a shoe-in for, at least, consideration—especially since Sawayama has been a London resident since she was 5 years old, with her family having immigrated to the city from Japan.
But nope: Turns out that “Living in Britain for 82 percent of your life” doesn’t make you British enough for the Mercury Prize. Instead, you specifically need British or Irish citizenship, which Sawayama doesn’t have—because acquiring it would mean giving up her citizenship in Japan, where large portions of her family live. (Per Billboard, Sawayama instead has indefinite leave to remain status, which allows her to permanently live and work in the country—but not, apparently, to be honored for said work.)
In an interview published by Vice today, Sawayama spoke out about the snub, describing it as “othering.” “It was so heartbreaking,” she says, describing the moment she was told she was ineligible. “I rarely get upset to the level where I cry. And I cried.”
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. 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 UK as well as in LA. It was mixed in the UK. My lyrics are in English, except for one verse in one song. 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 isn’t the only U.K. award with a nationality clause attached to it; the BRIT Awards also have a series of “Best British” categories that require British or Irish citizenship in order to be eligible for them. “If arts awards are creating their own sort of version of border control around their eligibility, I think that’s really problematic, “ Sawayama said in the interview. “[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.”
BPI, the organization that issues both the BRITs and the Mercury Prize, has issued a statement in response to Sawayama’s exclusion. “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.”