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Five On It: Rina Sawayama’s campaign for awards inclusivity is a win for migrant musicians

In this week's music column, we're delighted to learn that Rina Sawayama's activism has led to a symbolic win and are listening to new music from Noname, Cariss Auburn, Kero Kero Bonito, CHAI and Becky G and Burna Boy.

26 Feb 2021

It has been almost a year since Rina Sawayama released her eponymous debut album Sawayama. With its innovative and artistic flavour, a smorgasbord of genres and Y2K-inspired twists, it quickly became critically acclaimed as well as fan-feverish, with the likes of one Elton John declaring Sawayama “the strongest album of the year so far” mid-way through 2020.

But that was when the trouble started. 

A month later, in an interview with Vice’s Zing Tjseng, the Japanese-born artist revealed that – despite residing in Britain since her very early years – she was ineligible to be nominated for both the BRITs and the Mercury Prize, two of the country’s biggest music awards. For an artist who told her record label Dirty Hit that her goal was “to win a Mercury Award” for Sawayama, the revelation of the discriminatory clause was a real blow. “It was so heartbreaking. I rarely get upset to the level where I cry. And I cried”. 

When Rina spoke to gal-dem for her December cover feature, nothing had changed, despite music industry trade association BPI (who run both the BRITs and the Mercury’s) telling her label otherwise. “I’m trying to fight feelings of: ‘why did you speak up?’” she reflected. “Which is how a lot of people feel when there is an injustice”. But after nine months of pejorative silence, the news that BPI had finally agreed to change their eligibility criteria was welcome news for artists, industry workers and fans alike – many of whom had no idea that the nomination criteria was so exclusive to migrants who held indefinite leave to remain. 

It is these instances of being overlooked and rejected – despite assimilating into British culture, contributing to the British system as a naturalised citizen would and raising the international profile for British pop music – that can feel like a blow to the gut. The feeling of being told your art is good enough to benefit your residual country, while you are not British enough to receive institutional acknowledgement, is an act that taps into the most basic and ingrained fears of not belonging. Simply, it is othering.

Starting this year, nominated artists will now be able to meet one of three criteria to be eligible: they were born in the UK; they are a UK passport holder; and they have been a permanent resident in the UK for more than five years. Despite the whole notion of borders feeling archaic in the international world of 2021, legal disparities of status persist in being an obstacle for many. This acknowledgement and change is a symbolic win for ILR migrants, and one that could not have been achieved without the lobbying and support of Rina’s beloved fans, her “Pixels”, who she thanked in her announcement saying, “Without your collective voice, this wouldn’t have happened. In my 26th year of living in the UK, I’m so proud that I can make this systemic change for future generations”. After all, Rina’s gain is everyone’s gain; we just need to keep making ourselves heard.

Noname – ‘Rainforest’

Returning with her first new song of the year, Noname’s ‘Rainforest’ is as introspective and observational as it is lucidly chill. Cyclical percussion keeps the atmosphere understated and calm, whilst Noname’s affable vocal plays with melody and rhythm to lead the track along its way.

Cariss Auburn – ‘Daydream’

Following on from recent outing ‘Float’, Wolverhampton’s Cariss Auburn strikes a lighter tone with ‘Daydream’. Funky basslines weave an addictive rhythm whilst warm synths and her easy vocal whisks listeners away. Fitting, as Cariss describes the track as her “own little three-minute holiday”.

Kero Kero Bonito – ‘The Princess and the Clock’

Woo! The surprise return of Kero Kero Bonito comes with the announcement of their upcoming EP Civilisation II and new release ‘The Princess and the Clock’ is as good a place as any to start. With bright synths, cybernetic sounds and pummelling momentum, it is a high-octane injection of fun for fans of 100gecs and Charli XCX.

CHAI – ‘Maybe Chocolate Chips’ feat. Ric Wilson

CHAI are back too! This new collaboration with Chicagan rapper Ric Wilson is a whole lot more relaxing than previous single ‘ACTION’; hazy synths and glittering chimes conjure a dreamy vibe alongside the laidback vocals, perfect for those lazy summer days.

Becky G and Burna Boy – ‘Rotate’

And seeing as summer holidays are becoming a bit of a hopeful theme (feel my plea), it only seems apt to round this off with this burgeoning banger. Fuelled by reggaeton beats and smattered with guitar, Becky G’s collab with Burna Boy is an irresistible mix of influences that will have you dropping shapes in your kitchen, clubs pending.