When we think of what defines good art, nationality and language are generally not the first factors that come to mind. Yet, in reality, the celebration of the arts is often heavily influenced by outdated ideas dictating what stories are deserving of recognition.
The British-Japanese pop singer Rina Sawayama stands as one of the clearest examples of this phenomenon. When BRITs and the Mercury prize were released back in July, the 30-year-old musician’s critically–acclaimed album, SAWAYAMA, was noticeably missing from the lineup. Sawayama sat down with Vice following the news, describing her exclusion from nominations, and even the possibility to enter for consideration, as “othering.” Despite having lived in London for 25 years, Sawayama was not considered “British enough” according to stringent award guidelines, ones that she labeled as “border control.”
Sawayama was born in Niigata, Japan, where she lived for five years before moving with her family to London. She currently holds an indefinite-leave-to-remain visa, which grants Sawayama stay in the U.K. for an indefinite period of time and allows her to study and seek employment. Most of Sawayama’s family still lives in Japan, one of the few countries that prohibits dual-citizenship. She explains that “getting rid of my Japanese passport genuinely feels like I’m severing ties with them.” The situation shines light on a flawed definition of Britishness and the persistent view that non-European voices are unwelcome in British culture.
But it’s not just a British issue; the Grammys are notorious for excluding Latin and other foreign language albums from their Album of the Year nominations. An album in a language other than English has never won Album of the Year, and for 2021 alone, there are only two nominations for Latin artists outside of the Latin categories. It’s yet another explicit example of the music industry’s tendency to pigeonhole foreign talents.
The recently released film “Minari” (2020), which follows the story of a Korean-American family living in rural Arkansas, faces a similar barrier. Although “Minari” was directed by American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung and produced by American companies A24 and Plan B, the film was categorized as a foreign language film in the Golden Globes by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. The HFPA guidelines stipulate that a film’s dialogue must be at least 50% English to be considered for Best Picture nominations. “Minari,” which features both Korean and English dialogue, as well as Korean and Korean-American talents, apparently didn’t make the cut.
This exclusion comes on the tails of two similar cases at last year’s Golden Globes. The Oscar-winning film “Parasite” (2019), which was entirely in Korean, and “The Farewell” (2019), a film with both English and Chinese dialogue, were also ineligible for Best Picture nominations despite receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics. Lulu Wang, director of “The Farewell,” tweeted in response to this year’s Golden Globe nominations, “I have not seen a more American film than #Minari this year. It’s a story about an immigrant family, IN America, pursuing the American dream. We really need to change these antiquated rules that characterize American as only English-speaking.” So often in American pop culture immigrant stories, especially those of people of color, are labeled as outsider experiences despite their central importance to the American identity. So, is the only requirement for artistic recognition to speak English?
As evident from past Best Picture nominations at the Globes, it’s not that simple. The 2009 film “Inglourious Basterds,” which prominently features dialogue in German, French and Italian, was nominated in the Best Drama category despite large portions of its story transpiring in a language other than English. Many of its stars, including Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent and Diane Kruger, are not American, calling into question why “Inglourious Basterds” and “Minari” have faced such different treatment despite their many commonalities.
The problem that remains is that works in the Foreign Language category do not receive nearly as much attention as those in the Best Drama or Musical/Comedy categories. The Golden Globes in particular nominate Best Actors and Actresses exclusively from these two groups, nominations which are not afforded to actors in foreign language films. They’re treated as an afterthought — never truly equivalent to their “domestic” counterparts. It’s disheartening, to say the least.
The experiences of Sawayama and “Minari” point to an overarching issue with xenophobic microaggressions in Western pop culture. When the recognition of art is overshadowed by arbitrary percentages and passport statuses, it is abundantly clear that English-speaking cultures are still unwilling to view foreign works as equal. These works are often placed inside the box of their “foreignness” and treated as some kind of novelty, a completely separate entity from mainstream American or British art.
Even when music or films are popular among mainstream audiences, accolades like the Mercury prize and Golden Globes continue to either subjugate this art or bar it from consideration altogether. An unwillingness to change award qualifications displays an unwillingness to acknowledge that “British” or “American” identities today are not what they were in the past.
Beneath this whole mess, what is perhaps most ironic is that both SAWAYAMA and “Minari” explore the trials of finding acceptance in Western culture and learning what it means to belong under the so-called Western identity. The continued exclusion of cultural “others” from prestigious award show recognition further solidifies how artistic inclusion still has an incredibly far way to come.
Daily Arts Writer Nora Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.