Rina Sawayama’s Album Is a Hit With Critics, But It Wasn’t Eligible for the Mercury Prize: What’s the Problem?

Rina Sawayama
Hendrik Schneider

Rina Sawayama

The hashtag #SawayamaIsBritish has been trending on Twitter in the U.K.

Rina Sawayama’s first full-length album, Sawayama, is a hit with critics. It has a robust 89 rating at, the review aggregation site. It’s one of only 12 albums from 2020 with such a lofty rating. Moreover, it’s one of only two albums by British artists with such a high score. The other is Laura Marling’s Songs for Our Daughter, which also has an 89 rating.

Sawayama has even been touted by Sir Elton John, who has a decades-long history as a champion of promising new talent.

So you would think that Sawayama would have been a slam-dunk to make the shortlist of 12 albums being considered for the Hyundai Mercury Prize, which is presented to albums by British or Irish artists. The shortlist was announced last week. Marling’s album made the list, as did other, higher-profile albums with slightly lower Metacritic ratings, such as Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia (88) and Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now (82).

But Sawayama’s album was ruled ineligible because BPI, which administers the Mercury Prize (as well as the BRIT Awards, the U.K. equivalent to the Grammy Awards) doesn’t consider Sawayama to be British. Solo artists must have British or Irish nationality to be eligible. (Remarkably, part of the entry process involves sending official documentation of your citizenship—such as a passport scan—to the organizers.)

Sawayama, who turns 30 next month, was born in Japan, but emigrated with her family to Britain when she was five. She has indefinite leave to remain (ILR) status in the U.K., which gives her permanent residency and the right to live and work in the country. But she’s not a British citizen.

Japan does not allow dual citizenship. To become a British citizen, Sawayama would have to renounce her Japanese citizenship, something she is reluctant to do because her entire family lives there.

In an emotional and forthright interview with VICE, a magazine focused on lifestyle, arts, culture and news/politics, Sawayama said that she sees herself as British: “All I remember is living here…I went to summer school in Japan, and that’s literally it.

“I’m signed to a U.K. label [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 U.K. -- as well as in L.A. It was mixed in the U.K. My lyrics are in English, except for one verse in one song.

“I fundamentally don’t agree with this definition of Britishness. I think I’m really British…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.

Sawayama declined to comment further to Billboard.

Sawayama’s fans, who call themselves Pixels, have taken up her cause. The hashtag #SawayamaIsBritish has been trending on Twitter in the U.K.

Sawayama opened for Charli XCX on her 2019 Charli Live Tour. Almost all of Sawayama’s influences are top international acts, including Avril Lavigne, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue, JoJo, Gwen Stefani, Evanescence and Limp Bizkit. (She also rates Hikaru Utada, who was born in the U.S. to Japanese parents, as an influence.)

Oddly, the Mercury Prize has more lax rules around its nationality clause for bands. Only 30% of a band’s members need to be British or Irish as long as more than half of the band resides in the U.K.

The BRITS also have a nationality clause. The rules state: “To be eligible for the British solo artist categories or other British categories, artists must be U.K. passport holders.”

The BRITS have about five months to decide if they’re going to modify their rules for next year’s awards. If the BRITS do not allow Sawayama to compete for British female solo artist (won this year by Mabel), she would compete for international female solo artist (won this year by Billie Eilish).

A BPI spokesperson said: “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.”

A third British music prize, the Ivors, has a far more inclusive policy. Non-British citizens are eligible if they can prove residency in the U.K. for the past year.

The Grammys don’t have any categories that are reserved for American artists – or artists of any particular nationality – so this issue has never come up with the Grammys.

Sawayama has yet to make a big impact in the U.S. marketplace—beyond the critical praise. Sawayama peaked at No. 6 on Heatseekers Albums, No. 82 on Top Current Albums and No. 43 on Independent Albums (all on May 2, 2020).

Sawayama peaked at No. 44 on the Emerging Artists chart (also on May 2, 2020).

But her album has found favor with critics, including Billboard writers.

In a list of the 50 best albums of 2020 (so far), Nolan Feeney opined “In these genre-fluid times, even the most adventurous pop stars would have trouble pulling off Rina Sawayama's range. Before her debut hits the halfway point, she's already rolled from the raging nu-metal of 'STFU!' to the strut-worthy synth-pop of 'Commes Des Garçons (Like the Boys)' to 'Akasaka Sad,' which coats the hydraulic bounce of early-2000s Timbaland productions with a PC Music-like sheen."

In a ranking of the 10 best albums by LGBTQ artists in 2020 (so far), Andrew Unterberger said that Sawayama “cemented her cult following on her full-length debut by integrating [nu-metal’s] grinding sonics into the dead-center pop instincts and starry command of the biggest artists from across the TRL aisle, a retro combo that still sounds downright futuristic.”

In a survey of the 25 best songs by LGBTQ artists in 2020 (so far), Joe Lynch wrote “The genre-churning Japanese-British singer-songwriter is in full command on "XS," a strutting empowerment anthem that recalls TLC and Britney Spears circa turn of the millennium with a razor-sharp rock riff cutting through the hearty genre stew occasionally for good measure.”