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Rina Sawayama Helps Redefine ‘British Musical Excellence’

Rina Sawayama can do it all. A rising star in the pop music industry, she also holds a degree in politics from Cambridge and is using her influence and education to advocate for more immigrant recognition in Britain.  

Sawayama’s music explores many facets of her identity as a queer woman, a British-Japanese person, and a daughter. Her music is at once familiar and boundary-pushing, drawing upon the dance music she listened to as a teenager in the early 2000s. 

In 2017, she released her debut EP, RINA, which Pitchfork named one of the best pop and R&B albums of the year. She followed this up with her first critically acclaimed full-length album, SAWAYAMA. It appeared on multiple lists of top albums of 2020, including The New York Times, USA Today, and The Guardian. 

Sawayama, born in Niigata, Japan, moved to the United Kingdom at age 5, and now resides in London. Despite living in the U.K. for the last 26 years, she does not hold citizenship. Japan does not allow dual citizenship, which Sawayama maintains to stay close to her family. Sawayama has “indefinite leave to remain” (ILR) in the U.K., meaning that she has the right to permanently live and work in the country. 

Last year, Sawayama spoke out about being ineligible for two of Britain’s most prestigious awards: the Mercury Prize and the Brit Awards (BRITs). Despite living most of her life in England, her indefinite leave status means she is unable to be nominated for the award. This rule excludes immigrants that contribute to Britain’s music industry and culture, despite not being born 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” said Sawayama in a 2019 interview with Vice.

Sawayama points out the power that these music awards have to define what is “British” music, and who they choose to include or exclude creates an image of what British music sounds and looks like. Excluding those who were not born in the country sends a strong message.

Shortly after the publication of that interview, the hashtag #SawayamaIsBritish began trending. According to BBC, Sawayama eventually met with BPI, the organization in charge of the BRITs and the Mercury Prize. She persuaded them to broaden their rules to “include those who have been a resident of the UK for 5 years,” as she explained in an Instagram post on February 24.

She went on to thank everyone who supported her in this effort and said, “In my 26th year of living in the UK I’m so proud that I can help make this systemic change for future generations, so that in years to come we can see a more diverse definition of British musical excellence.”

Once she was eligible, Sawayama was short-listed for BRITs Rising Star award, eventually losing to pop singer Griff. The rest of the BRIT Awards will take place on May 11, 2021.

Sawayama’s victory and success is a win for Asian and queer representation. The extent of Sawayama’s impact is not lost on her—she has made it very clear that she wants her music to accomplish something. 

Despite increasing success of some Asian artists, she still feels there is a lack of representation in the pop music industry. “I definitely felt the pressure for me to reach this next level of representation. I feel like the first step was me talking about the fact that there's no representation, and then the second step was just being as successful as possible doing something that I would be proud of,” said Sawayama while reflecting on her career. 

Sawayama’s identities as a queer Asian woman drive her vision for changing the world through her music. Her identity as a queer woman is another theme in her songs and her vision for changing the world through music. Discussing her 2018 single “Cherry,” which is about being a queer woman in a heterosexual relationship, she said that her fans, many of whom are both queer and Asian, deserve representation of their whole identities. She did not want to “straightwash” herself to just represent Asian people. Rather, she wanted to use her platform to add to the queer artists who are making strides for the representation of LGBTQ+ people.

Sawayana has big dreams for the future. She told Vice, “I think it’s possible to queer the world with pop music.” With an artist as passionate and committed to this vision as Rina Sawayama, it seems that anything is possible. 

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English and communication major. WZBC 90.3 FM DJ. Lover of the Midwest, reading, and attempting to be outdoorsy.