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Celebrating One Year of SAWAYAMA, the Album and Artist Redefining Britishness

kristenpirollo June 20, 2021

Image Source via GQ Magazine/Hendrik Schneider

It’s hard not to be charmed by Britain’s newest “It girl” Rina Sawayama. Her eclectic fashion statements, bubbly personality, and upbeat musical stylings grant her all the makings of an international pop star. Over the past year, Sawayama has proven that her star quality transcends her music. With awards season approaching, she was devastated by the discovery that her twenty-five year residency in the U.K did not grant her eligibility for BRIT Award nominations. Sawayama became determined to combat the British Phonographic Industry’s (BPI) exclusionary citizenship-based requirements. This ultimately prompted the overturn of such eligibility statutes and allowed British non-citizens to qualify for nominations. The one year anniversary of the release of her debut full-length album SAWAYAMA on April 17th calls for a celebration of Sawayama’s art, activism, and innovation as a Japanese-British musician.

Born in Niigata, Japan, Sawayama moved with her family to London in 1995 at five years old. She spent her adolescence in the city, and after a brief stint at the University of Cambridge she decided to pursue music. Forming several pop groups throughout college, she embarked on a solo career in 2013 with the release of her single “Sleeping in Waking.” After independently releasing Rina, her first EP, Sawayama earned herself a spot on Pitchfork’s list of best pop EPs of 2017.

With the 2020 release of SAWAYAMA, she once again garnered critical accolades as listeners praised the album’s exciting homage to the early 2000s, likening Sawayama’s pop arrangements to those of Y2K legends Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Unsurprisingly, her chart-topping debut gave rise to chatter among fans regarding the 2021 BRIT Awards, Britain’s equivalent to the American Grammys. At the turn of the new year, however, Sawayama was heartbroken to learn that having lived in the U.K for twenty five years was not enough to qualify her for a nomination. She claims indefinite leave to remain (ILR), which grants her most privileges afforded to British citizens. However, Japan does not allow for dual citizenship, and that is what was keeping her from being nominated for the BRIT Awards.

Fans were outraged and confused, since the album would surely be a contender for the Mercury Prize, which honors the best album released by any U.K. artist. Sawayama took to social media and, with support from her fanbase, launched the campaign #SAWAYAMAISBRITISH to raise awareness surrounding the injustice of “othering” marginalized individuals within the U.K. After several weeks of prompting and campaigning by devoted Sawayama supporters, BRIT Awards officials agreed to meet with Sawayama to discuss alterations to citizenship requirements. On February 24th, 2021, she released a statement via Instagram, captioned “REDEFINING BRITISHNESS!”:

(@rinasonline) “I’m over the moon to share the news that following a number of conversations the BPI has decided to change the rules of eligibility for all nominees for the BRIT Awards and Mercury prize. Starting this year, artists (like me) will be eligible for nomination even without British citizenship. The rules have been broadened to include those who have been a resident of the U.K. for 5 years. I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for sharing the #SAWAYAMAISBRITISH campaign worldwide and igniting this important conversation about Britishness.” 

Sawayama’s activism has fueled a long-standing discourse surrounding harmful gatekeeping strategies within the British music industry. This offers opportunities for non-citizens to showcase their talents without challenging their “Britishness.” One year after SAWAYAMA’s release, the artist continues to speak her truth. On April 15th, she released a remix of “Chosen Family,” the twelfth track on her album. The pop ballad features Elton John and preaches the importance of unity within the LGBTQ community. “We don’t need to be related to relate,” she sings, finding comfort in the convergence of many unique identities. Having publicly identified as pansexual since 2018, the artist took to Twitter to express her gratitude to her “LGBTQ sisters and brothers”:

(@rinasawayama) “I wrote this thinking about my chosen family, which is my LGBTQ sisters and brothers… The LGBTQ community has always been there for me. The concept of chosen family has been long-standing in the queer community because a lot of people get kicked out of their homes and get ostracized from their family for coming out or just living true to themselves.”

Sawayama’s commitment to inclusivity may be charted in her music as well as her activism, and it’s no surprise that “Chosen Family” has earned her a nomination for best musical artist by the British LGBT Awards. Her devotion to all facets of her identity encourages pride and acceptance, empowering fans not only to embrace their uniqueness, but to fight for it. She continues to make headlines as a proponent for diversity and equality in the music industry. 

Watch Rina Sawayama’s Tiny Desk Concert here!