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Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s Online Scrutiny Over Views on “Rule, Britannia!”

The British cellist faced racist comments after his interview response saying the song “Rule, Britannia!” makes people feel uncomfortable

 

In a recent interview with Lauren Laverne on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason discussed his musical favorites throughout his career and upbringing. 

Sheku achieved international recognition after winning BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016. Since then, he has been awarded an MBE of the Order of the British Empire for services to music, featured in two BBC documentaries about the Kanneh-Mason family, plus released two albums with his siblings. 

During Radio 4’s discussion on his performance in the Last Night of the 2023 BBC Proms, the cellist was asked his view on whether the British patriotic song “Rule, Britannia” should be included at the event.

The song has been a controversial topic of debate in recent years, due to its associations with colonialism and slavery.

“There’s obviously been a lot of conversations and controversy around the rendition of ‘Rule, Britannia’ at the last nights [of the Proms], what’s your view on whether it should be included or not?” Laverne asked. 

“I don’t think it should be included … I think maybe some people don’t realize how uncomfortable a song like that can make a lot of people feel, even if it makes them feel good,” Kanneh-Mason responded. “I think that’s somehow a big misunderstanding about it.”

“There’s so much wonderful British music…the wealth of folk music from this country is astonishing,” he added, when asked what the song could be replaced with. “I think that would be a wonderful thing to take its place, there's so much that I think is worth celebrating and having as part of a big celebration at the end of a wonderful music festival.”

Kanneh-Mason’s opinion on the matter has faced a slew of negative and racist comments on social media.

“Replying to the barrage of racism against my son @ShekuKM this week,” his mother Dr. Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason wrote on X. “So many feel it’s ok to call for deportation, flogging, sending him ‘back to Africa’ and to use ‘Ni**er’ against someone trying to engage in a conversation about music and inclusion. Horror, rage, heartbreak.”

 

This is not the first time “Rule, Britannia!” has been addressed in the media, Classical Music reported. In 2020, there were speculations that the BBC would quietly drop the song from its Last Night programming, following the murder of George Floyd.

A discussion on the song and Kanneh-Mason’s stance was also brought up on Good Morning Britain.

“The UK was actively kidnapping and enslaving millions of black people between the 1500s and the 1800s and that song was written in the 1700s,” explained British political activist Femi Oluwole. “So it was written by a society that was engaged in the slave trade basically celebrating how we ourselves will never ever be slaves so it was boasting about our position at the top of the food chain so quite frankly if you’re happy to sing a song that celebrates slavery you go right ahead but my generation, millennials and Gen Z, want nothing to do it.”

“[This] song is not racist it's a patriotic song … there's a difference … and I think Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who I heard on the interview is a really impressive young man and I think people should not hate on him on Twitter like some have been doing,” responded author Alka Sehgal Cuthbert on the program. “[Sheku] believes in the universal beauty of classical music; he doesn’t think it’s only for white people, he’s not a decolonizing activist.”

“But he makes the point that this particular song makes some people feel uncomfortable and therefore it shouldn't be performed, and in fact he left the last night of the proms before it was performed,” countered presenter Susanna Reid. “And as Femi says, if it makes people uncomfortable to the point where people don't want to stick around for it, is that not a good reason to get rid of it … people might almost think it would be perverse to keep it in.”

The full discussion can be viewed below. 

 

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