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Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and 'Rule, Britannia!'

cellist, seated with instrument, in empty field outdoors
Yorke Creative
cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a frequent part of the WUOL daily playlist — from his performance of the Elgar cello concerto to his solo arrangements of his favorite popular songs. But now the artist is taking some online heat for expressing his distaste for a British song that is a mainstay of the festive Last Night concert in the BBC Proms annual series.

preparation for the BBC Proms at Royal Albert Hall
wikimedia commons
preparation for the BBC Proms at Royal Albert Hall

The story actually begins with Alfred the Great, king of the Saxons. When the Vikings kicked his army’s behind in the year 871, Alfred set back out with his ships to seek victory. Fast forward to 1740, and this moment, portrayed in an staged work by Thomas Arne, is followed by a chorus titled Rule, Britannia!

The song, with its jaunty tune and rallying lyrics, was a hit.

But those same lyrics are quite sensitive, given their frequent reference to slavery — a practice in which Britain played a substantial role.

“Rule, Britannia!
Britannia rule the waves
Britons never, never, never shall be slaves."

The tune has been quoted by Handel, Beethoven, and Wagner among others. From its premiere in 1740, Rule, Britannia! was a symbol of the British Empire. The UK’s own national archive estimates that by 1807 British ships had transported and sold around 3.1 million Africans into slavery.

The fact remains that Rule, Britannia! is a song that was extremely popular while Britain was making money from enslaving people, while referring directly to their own freedom from the very oppression they applied to others. And as recently as 2020, the song’s Proms performance of Rule, Britannia! reached number 10 on the UK Music Chart.

So it was extraordinarily brave for cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, a regular at the Proms, to criticize the continued use of the song. The 26 year-old artist’s words on the show Desert Island Discs really only qualified as a mild criticism.

Kanneh-Mason offered, “I think maybe some people don’t realize how uncomfortable a song like that can make a lot of people feel…” going on to suggest that there isn’t much shared understanding about what the song implies.

And boy was he right about a lack of understanding. What followed in response online was a disproportionate amount of anger. Calls for his deportation, racial slurs and accusations of treason have been following him ever since.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason is English. He and his siblings have released numerous well-received classical albums, and Sheku himself was the first Black winner of the biennial BBC Young Musician competition. He was also the solo cellist at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex — a fact that is invoked in some of the headlines about the recent vitriol he has received. Thanks to years of tabloid storiesabout the Duchess, seeing the connection suggests that the British press is all too happy to fan the flames of the reaction to Kanneh-Mason’s words.

I’m unsurprised to hear racist vitriol from people who were clearly seeking out a target. Many of whom didn’t do an ounce of research to know that Kanneh-Mason is actually English, and that a cellist isn’t ever the annual featured Proms performer in Rule, Britannia!. Never mind the slinging around of the word “actually” to go back and forth over the song’s meaning. Because, as ever, facts would only get in their way.

The response that did catch me off guard, however, was the one from the BBC, who hosts the Proms, as reported by The Independent.

“The Proms are built on long-standing traditions that were established by co-founder Sir Henry Wood, and which are loved by people around the world.

“One of these traditions is the Last Night festivities, other traditions include promoting new music, accessibility and opening up the world of classical music to as many people as possible.”

If this is the full response, then I have to suggest to the BBC: you’ve failed.

Re-read the last part of their statement.

“...opening up the world of classical music to as many people as possible.” 

Televising a concert with a piece of music that, this far into the 21st century, gives so many people pause, is working directly against your stated mission. Offering that the entirety of the Last Night concert is “loved by people around the world” means you’re not actually listening to what many around the world are telling you. It’s not universal, and it’s not set in stone. In fact, the critique is nothing new.

The program can change. In fact, as early as 2002 the then-artistic director of the BBC Symphony Orchestra Leonard Slatkin suggested just that. Slatkin received a similar outcry in response, albeit lacking the same racial overtones. In 2016 Brexit dissenters in the audience waved EU flags rather than British ones during the song. Singer Jamie Barton also used a flag to make a statement in 2019, waving a rainbow flagduring her rendition. This year the television show Good Morning Britain hosted a panel asking the question “Is Rule Britannia! Racist?” which matched the title question of another panel, on the same show, in August of 2020.

If you have to ask…

Classical music is a genre that has faced all of the world’s major issues, from climate change to police brutality and political oppression, not to mention the horrors of war in many shapes and forms. And music history is long. There is no shortage, especially in England, of historic works. In the most widely televised and viewed annual showcase of your country’s classical music, it’s disappointing to think that you would willingly validate everyone who thinks the genre is a dinosaur.

Programming music is like budgeting: in the end, it’s an exercise in priorities. It’s a choice about which message you want to send to the world. And no matter what you say about the reasoning behind your selections, the music will always speak louder than your words. Even if your lyrics say that you rule.

Hear from Sheku Kanneh-Mason about his solo album Song in our Behind the Playlist series.

Colleen is the Music Director and host for LPM Classical. Email Colleen at colleen@lpm.org.