When Rina Sawayama’s record label Dirty Hit asked her what she wanted for her first album, she told them: “I want to win a Mercury Award.” That was back in 2019, and her record SAWAYAMA was still in its early stages. Today, it’s one of the top-rated albums on Metacritic. Elton John named it “the strongest” record of the year.
When the Hyundai Mercury Prize – one of the most anticipated music competitions of the year – announced its shortlist on Thursday, it was hailed as a landmark year for the prize, with albums from female artists like Charli XCX and Dua Lipa leading the nominations for the first time in its history. But the critically-acclaimed SAWAYAMA was not one of them – a notable omission pointed out by Elton, Guardian music critics and Rina’s highly vocal fans (who call themselves “Pixels”).
The news, Rina tells VICE in an exclusive interview, left her heartbroken. It wasn’t that she’d missed out on a nomination – she wasn’t able to enter the Mercury Prize at all.
Rina is one of the thousands of people in the UK who have indefinite leave to remain (ILR). People in this visa category are, in many ways, treated identically to British citizens. Some can’t vote in a general election, but all of them have permanent residency here and a right to live and work in the country. Many, like Rina, have spent most of their lives in the UK and consider themselves British.
But in the case of two major music awards, the Mercury Prize and the BRITs, people like Rina aren’t eligible to enter as British artists – even though she’s lived here since she was a toddler.
“It was so heartbreaking,” she says of the moment she found out she couldn’t enter. “I rarely get upset to the level where I cry. And I cried.”
According to the terms and conditions for the Mercury Prize, solo artists must have British or Irish nationality to enter the competition. Part of the entry process involves sending official documentation of your citizenship – like a passport scan – to the organisers.
Dirty Hit approached the Mercury Prize to explain Rina’s immigration status, but received a curt email response informing them that the rules weren’t going to be changing anytime soon (an email seen by VICE confirms this).
Rina says this level of gatekeeping doesn’t make any sense, especially when the Mercury has more lax rules around its nationality clause for bands, where only 30 percent of the members need to be British or Irish as long as over half of the band resides in the UK. By contrast, a non-British citizen can be eligible for the Ivors – another prestigious British music prize – if they can prove residence in the UK for the past year.
Rina moved to the UK from Japan as a child and has spent longer in the country than some of this year’s Mercury nominees – such as 24-year-old Dua Lipa – have been alive. “All I remember is living here,” she explains. “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.”
In many ways, Rina is a British success story. She was the recipient of a BPI Music Export Growth Scheme, a grant that supports British musicians and music organisations. BPI is also the industry body that organises both the Mercury and BRIT Awards.
“I'm signed to a UK label,” Rina says. “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.”
Besides those administrative details, Rina says, she is British – her identity as a British-Japanese person is woven through SAWAYAMA itself, with references to drinking in Trafalgar Square and being threatened with boarding school by her mother.
But incidents like this make her question herself: “[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.”
Rina says she was motivated to speak up about the nationality clause because she doesn’t want any other musician to find themselves in her position. “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.”
The problem doesn’t just apply to Mercurys. The BRITs – another flagship British music prize – also have a nationality clause in their terms and conditions. The rules state: “To be eligible for the British Solo Artists categories or other British categories, artists must be UK passport holders.”
According to Rina, this wouldn’t be a problem if she was able to have dual citizenship. But Japan, the country of her birth, doesn’t allow dual nationality – and though she’s considered renouncing her citizenship in the past, she’s reluctant to cut ties with her birthplace.
“I have no family in the UK,” she explains, “they all live in Japan. So getting rid of my Japanese passport genuinely feels like I'm severing ties with them. I think a lot of people feel that way about their passports.”
At one point, though, Rina contemplated giving up her Japanese passport to become eligible. “Because I wanted it so bad,” she said. “But then I was like, it won't solve anything. I fundamentally don't agree with this definition of Britishness. I think I'm really British, and I don't like just sorting out a symptom of something and leaving the cause to someone else to deal with.”
She adds: “If arts awards are creating their own sort of version of border control around their eligibility, I think that's really problematic.”
The issue, Rina says, is one of legitimacy. It’s about who gets to be considered British and why. “If I was snubbed, I would be like, ‘Well, OK, fine… Let’s just make a better record and move on,’” she says. “But the fact that I wasn't even eligible is like… I don't even know what that emotion was. It was othering.”
Japan is among a number of countries that forbid dual citizenship, including China, the Netherlands, Indonesia, Singapore and Nepal. Under the current Mercury Prize criteria, musicians from those countries who retained their original passport would not be considered – even if they’d lived in the countries for decades and produced all their work in the UK.
“What I just want is for all the awards to look into indefinite leave and change the rules to what Britishness means to them,” Rina says. “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.”
A BPI spokesperson commented: “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.”