In an interview with VICE, RINA SAWAYAMA has spoken out against current eligibility rules of major British music awards following the announcement of this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist.

Releasing one of 2020’s most critically acclaimed albums, titled SAWAYAMA, it raised a few eyebrows when it was missed off the list of nominees for the annual prize. Most notably, ELTON JOHN expressed his surprise that SAWAYAMA’s debut missed out, taking to Instagram: “Unfortunately, not everyone gets to make that list. So I want to shamelessly plug two artists that were overlooked,” before praising the self-titled record as one of his “favourite albums of 2020”

SAWAYAMA has revealed that she wasn’t able to enter the Mercury Prize this year as she isn’t eligible to enter as a British artist under the current rules: solo artists must hold either British or Irish nationality and provide official documentation of their citizenship, such as a passport. This isn’t the same for bands, as only 30% of band members need to be British or Irish — as long as the majority of the band “have their principal place of residence in the United Kingdom or Ireland”.

The BRIT Awards also offer a similar ruling: “To be eligible for the British Solo Artists categories or other British categories, artists must be UK passport holders.”

“It was so heartbreaking,” SAWAYAMA says of the moment she found out she couldn’t enter. “I rarely get upset to the level where I cry. And I cried.” SAWAYAMA moved to the UK from Japan when she was a child, and she is on an indefinite leave to remain visa in the UK, which grants permanent residency and a right to live and work in the country. “All I remember is living here… 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.”

“I’m signed to a UK label,” the same label as powerhouses THE 1975, DIRTY HIT, “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.” DIRTY HIT approached the organisers of the Mercurys to explain SAWAYAMA’s immigration status, but, as reported in the Vice article, they received a “curt email response informing them that the rules weren’t going to be changing anytime soon.”

The BPI, which organises both the Mercurys and the BRITs, said in a statement to 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.”

SAWAYAMA added: “It’s up to the award bodies to decide what Britishness really encompasses – the very things that they celebrate, which is diversity and opportunity… I hope that awards ceremonies look into indefinite leave and change the rules to what Britishness means to them.” Furthering: “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.”

The artist went on to say “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. If arts awards are creating their own sort of version of border control around their eligibility, I think that’s really problematic.”