When Rina Sawayama’s 2020 debut studio album SAWAYAMA was deemed ineligible for the Mercury Prize because of her immigration status in the UK, it sparked a larger conversation about gatekeeping in the arts. In an interview with Vice News in July, the British-Japanese popstar expressed her disappointment, calling the exclusion “Othering”.

My first reaction was disbelief. She’d released one of the most compelling British albums of the year, only to be told that she wasn’t British enough to be recognized by major British music awards. Like thousands of Pixels (Rina’s loyal fanbase), I joined the call to trend #SAWAYAMAISBRITISH and wrote to the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), demanding changes to the nomination criteria.

Industry icons like Elton John publicly supported Rina. Ultimately, BPI reportedly decided to reconsider the citizenship rules for future nominees. But is inclusion a true win for artists like Rina who work across cultures and defy outdated nationality clauses?

Rina is a queer pop icon of color who can’t be contained.

A Japanese passport holder, Rina moved to the UK as a child, was raised there, and has an indefinite leave to remain (ILR) status in the UK. Like most immigrant kids of color, she endured a culture that constantly racialized her and demanded that she integrate. With her 2017 EP RINA, she’d already proven that she was a rising star in British pop.

But Rina is also unapologetically Japanese. She shouldn’t have to prove her worth to British society or quantify parts of herself to be included. She considered giving up her Japanese citizenship to meet the nomination requirements, but decided against it, “I fundamentally don’t agree with this definition of Britishness… I don’t like just sorting out a symptom of something and leaving the cause to someone else to deal with.”

“The cause” runs deeper than differences on paper. As someone who has spent her adult life in countries that dehumanize and extract labor without due compensation from non-citizens of color, I’m familiar with the nationalist logic of exclusions which is applied everywhere. Of course, all non-citizens don’t face the same kinds of discrimination. Your race and class position within social hierarchies determine the severity of misfortunes of your immigration status.

F*ck nationalist logic.

At the risk of oversimplifying this, I’d say that the main issue lies in how the nationalist logic assigns identities, ignoring the lived experiences and aspirations of people. You are subject to racist and arbitrary immigration laws over which you have no control.

Rina’s disqualification also comes at a time when many East Asian-origin people in predominantly white Western countries have to prove their loyalty, in a global pandemic which is derogatorily attributed to them. Cultural identities are complex and defy systemic stereotypes.

As a queer pop icon of color who can’t be contained by these identifiers, Rina empowers those who can’t be categorized. Seriously, the 2018 queer confessional dance track “Cherry” changed my life. In the same spirit, SAWAYAMA continues to dismantle reductive categorizations of people.

SAWAYAMA is a pop record that blends together multiple genres like nu-metal, house music, R&B, and more, to tell distinct but interconnected stories. It gives us rousing angelic commentaries on late-stage capitalism and climate change. A kind of “slutty Pussycat Dolls and Marxism”. SAWAYAMA is also a personal dissertation about familial pain, alienation, loss, queerness, and how to be a bad bitch.

Teenage me, chaotic and insecure, really needed SAWAYAMA. But I deeply appreciate its insight now as a 20-something, still trying to process past traumas and avoiding therapy. In the opening gothic rock anthem “Dynasty” when she invites us, “Won’t you break the chains with me?” I’m ready to be attacked (in a good way.)

I really needed SAWAYAMA when I was a teenager.

SAWAYAMA’s lead single “STFU!” is a fitting reply to fetishizing microaggressions she’s faced in a Western society that wants to explain her culture back to her. A nu-metal track with aggressive pop hooks and a guitar riff to die for, “STFU!” rejects respectability politics and tells racists to, well, shut the f**k up: “Have you ever thought about taping your big mouth shut?/ ‘Cause I have, many times, many times.”

Ever felt angry when people assume things about your identity and talk over you, but couldn’t express that anger? This is your cue to rage cathartically. I really needed this song to validate my discomfort when I was one of the only few brown women in predominantly white academic spaces: “How come you don’t respect me? /Expecting fantasies to be my reality”.

Apparently, a British-Japanese woman is still not mainstream enough for pop

Rina has always been unafraid to expose the limited imagination of mainstream pop culture which treats women of color like props. In 2017, she wrote a scathing essay criticizing Madonna for the racist deployment of the ‘silent Asian women’ trope in a promotional video for her unnecessary skincare line.

Similarly, “Tokyo Love Hotel” calls out disrespectful appropriators of her culture who see it as a playground and are only interested in the aesthetics: “You got them askin’ to have you on their skin/ Even though they don’t know”. While mainstream pop may turn to Tokyo for inspiration (a euphemism for appropriation), a British-Japanese woman is still not mainstream enough for pop.

In this song, Rina also unpacks her relationship to her culture as someone who was raised in the West and is singing in English about Japan. She ponders if she too is recreating an exploitative relationship to her homeland. This resonates with many like myself who have complicated relations to home, who question whether they can speak of/about their homelands. Are we authentic enough, or are we ultimately just Orientalist in our nostalgia? “Thought I was original, but after all / I guess this is just another song ’bout Tokyo (東京).”

As a result, she is critical about how she deploys Japanese iconography. Her self-awareness is refreshing and rare. She sincerely expresses her fears and determination to reconcile with a heritage that she’s spent years denying.

The beautiful refrains of the penultimate “Chosen Family” talking about love and community in queer safe spaces sums up how I feel about SAWAYAMA overall. This record is a safe space to rage and cry in and ultimately prioritize healing and wearing your multi-hyphenated identity proudly. Whether or not music awards revise their rules is irrelevant to me. SAWAYAMA is my Album of the Year.

Now stream the sh** out of SAWAYAMA.

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  • Priyanka Sen

    Priyanka is a Hong Kong-based educator and writer with a BA from Oberlin College specializing in decolonial literatures and South Asian politics. She is currently imagining and working towards a world without borders and mass incarceration, where quality healthcare and public transport are universally accessible.