The unnecessary gate-keeping of UK music awards

Leo Dawson explains how UK music awards gate-keep identity

Leo Dawson
30th July 2020
The 2019 judges of the Hyundai Mercury Prize said they celebrated “the striking diversity of British and Irish music-makers…exploring issues of identity and belonging at a time of division and disagreement.” In 2020, why do they refuse to stay true to such a claim?

Rina Sawayama is a British-Japanese musician who recently released her self-titled debut album SAWAYAMA to staggeringly positive worldwide acclaim. The record sits at a stunning Metascore of 89, gaining a 5 star review from NME, a 4 star review from Rolling Stone and being heralded as ‘Album of the Year’ by Elton John. SAWAYAMA is a genre-bending, anthemic deep dive into not only the life experience of the British-Asian immigrant, but that of family, climate, sexuality and gender. Her lyrics not only explore Western perception of Japan, on tracks like ‘Tokyo Love Hotel’ and ‘Akasaka Sad’ but are also undeniably those of somebody who grew up in the UK in 'Dynasty' and 'Paradisin'': reminiscing about chatting on MSN Messenger, threats of being kicked out by her mother as a teenager and drinking with her mates.

In a recent interview with the amazing Zing Tsjeng, executive editor of VICE UK and critically acclaimed writer of the Forgotten Women series, Rina expressed how “heartbreaking” it was to find out that despite being raised in London from the age of 5, graduating from Cambridge and sharing a record label with British music superstars like the 1975 and Wolf Alice – she is “not British enough” to be eligible for the prestigious Mercury Prize or the BRIT Awards, alongside other UK artists like Dua Lipa and Charli XCX, the latter of which Rina opened for on her 2019 tour. Tsjeng also points out that Rina "is a British success story", being the recipient of a grant from the British Phonographic Institute (BPI) that supports new British musicians. Hypocritically, the BPI are also the body behind the Mercury Prize and BRIT Awards.

Although Rina’s visa category of ‘indefinite leave to remain’ (ILR) gives the rising artist rights and status practically identical to that of a UK citizen, the Mercury Prize terms and conditions only recognise “UK and Irish passports” as signification of shortlist eligibility. This is not true of other awards like the Turner Prize, which invites all those working primarily in Britain. Rina can also not become a dual-citizen of both Japan and Britain, as dual-nationality does not exist between the two nations. To receive an award that would champion her status as a profoundly talented musician and elevate her career to new heights, she would have to throw away recognition of her Japanese heritage, which she acknowledged in a 2017 i-D interview as a part of her identity that she struggled with throughout her school years.

This unnecessary treatment of immigrant artists does not apply to bands however, as the Mercury Prize judges allow “50%” of a band’s members to be non-British or Irish…for some reason? Furthermore, it is disturbing how disproportionately these terms have affected Asian artists, a group that have been so invisible to the mainstream music scene for far too long. For example, South Korean superstars BTS are now the most popular music group on the planet and yet were infamously snubbed from recognition at the 2020 BRIT Awards, after the ‘Best International Group’ category was scrapped, for seemingly no reason at all. Many regarded this as a tactical move to discard the group’s popularity and fanbase as unimportant to the UK music scene, despite their overwhelming online presence and massive following. 

Rina Sawayama is not an ‘international’ artist, she has lived in the UK for 25 of her 29 years, longer than some of the other shortlisted acts have been alive. The exoticisation of non-white artists, at its heart, does little to celebrate the UK music scene and acts only to perpetuate xenophobia within it. It is becoming more apparent that non-white artists; no matter if they are born and raised in or outside of the UK, are solid threats to the musical establishment and they should be heard.


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