Brit Awards change rules thanks to pop star Rina Sawayama

By Mark Savage
BBC music reporter

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Rina SawayamaImage source, Getty Images
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Rina Sawayama will now be eligible for this year's Rising Star award

A pop star who was told she was "not British enough" to enter The Brits and the Mercury Prize has won a reversal in the awards' eligibility rules.

Rina Sawayama was told she could not compete for the prizes last year, because she was not a British citizen.

The singer, who has lived in the UK for 26 years, has now won the right to compete, after meeting award bosses.

Under new rules, artists who have been resident in the UK for more than five years qualify for the main prizes.

Sawayama holds indefinite leave to remain in the UK, but retains a Japanese passport to maintain ties with her family, including her father, who live in her country of birth.

As Japan does not allow dual citizenship, she cannot have a British passport. That led to her critically-acclaimed debut album, also called Sawayama, being ruled ineligible for last year's Mercury Prize.

"It was just heartbreaking," she told BBC News.

"I think a lot of immigrants feel this way - where they assimilate and they become part of the British culture... and to be told that we're not even eligible to be nominated is very othering."

Sawayama first raised concerns about the situation in an interview with Vice last year.

"All I remember is living here," she said. "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."

The hashtag #SawayamaIsBritish trended in the UK shortly after her interview was published.

"Part of me that worried that I was... going to get blacklisted from the music industry for bringing this up," she told the BBC. "But I'm glad I did."

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The singer subsequently met with the BPI, which organises both the Brits and the Mercury Prize, and convinced them to review their criteria.

"I'm over the moon to share the news that, following a number of conversations, the BPI has decided to change the rules," Sawayama posted on Instagram on Wednesday.

"Starting this year, artists (like me) will be eligible for nomination even without British citizenship."

The Brit Awards confirmed the change to the BBC, saying it would apply to all its award categories, as well as the Mercury Prize.

Artists will now have to meet one of three criteria to be eligible:

  1. They were born in the UK.
  2. They are a UK passport holder (this includes those that hold more than one passport).
  3. They have been permanently resident in the UK for more than five years.

The change means Sawayama will be eligible for this year's Rising Star award, which recognises up-and-coming talent.

However, she will not be able to compete in the main categories - including best British female and best album - as her record did not chart in the Top 40.

Sawayama has previously benefitted from funding from the BPI Music Export Growth Scheme, a grant that supports and celebrates British musicians, and her album is littered with references about growing up in London.

The record, which skilfully blends millennial pop and R&B with elements of nu-metal, was one of the best-reviewed new releases of 2020, with an average score of 89% on the review aggregation site Metacritic.

Many publications, including the Guardian and the NME, named it among their best albums of the year; and it took 11th place in the BBC's "poll of polls", which combined the year-end lists from 35 influential newspapers, magazines and blogs.

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