Royal cellist 'racially abused' after call for Rule, Britannia! to be dropped

Sheku Kanneh-Mason received abuse online after Harry and Meghan's wedding cellist called for the song to be dropped from Last Night of the Proms.

Musician Sheku Kanneh-Mason attends the British premiere of ''If These Walls Could Sing
Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason has said Rule, Britannia! should no longer be played at the BBC Proms. (Reuters)

The mother of a cellist who called for Rule, Britannia! to be axed from the Last Night of the Proms has told of her "horror" after he was targeted with racist abuse.

During a weekend interview with BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, musician Sheku Kanneh-Mason said the song should not be part of the event.

The 24-year-old from Nottingham, who won the BBC Young Musician 2016 award, was 19 years old when he played cello at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in May 2018, and also performed at the BBC Proms last year.

However, speaking to presenter Lauren Laverne about Rule, Britannia!, he said: “I don’t think it should be included and I didn’t stay for that. That’s just my opinion.

Last Night Of The Proms
Rule, Britannia! is traditionally sung during the Last Night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London. (PA)

“I think, maybe, some people don’t realise how uncomfortable a song like that can make a lot of people feel, even if it makes them feel good. I think that’s somehow a big misunderstanding about it.”

On Monday evening, his mother, author Dr Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason, who has seven children who are classical musicians, posted on X, formerly Twitter: "Replying to the barrage of racism against my son this week.

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"So many feel it’s OK to call for deportation, flogging, sending him ‘back to Africa’ and to use ‘******’ against someone trying to engage in a conversation about music and inclusion. Horror, rage, heartbreak."

In 2020, the BBC announced the song would feature in the Proms without lyrics, but the corporation made a U-turn following public pressure, saying that Rule, Britannia! would be sung.

In his Desert Island Discs interview, Kanneh-Mason spoke about his experience as a young Black classical artist, saying: “Very often, in the spaces that I was in within classical music, myself and my family were very often the only black people in those places.

British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who played at the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle on 19 May 2018, performing during the one-day event Decca 90: A Celebration, at the V&A in London.
Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who played cello at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's wedding, has been targeted for his comments on Rule, Britannia! (PA)

“There was certainly occasions where my being Black meant that I wasn’t necessarily taken seriously in some situations. And also outside, of course, outside of music.”

Speaking about the type of prejudice he has faced, he said: “I think it’s most often the subtler things, but yeah, sometimes, also much more.”

In 2023, an abusive message was directed at the BBC Proms X account during his sister Isata’s performance at the event.

Kanneh-Mason said: “The isolated incidents in the moment are offensive and affect you, but that’s something that one can deal with.

BBC Last night of the Proms
The BBC announced it would play Rule, Britannia! without lyrics at the Proms in 2020, but soon made a U-turn. (PA)

“But I think the long-term effects can be something that you are less aware of and (are) more difficult to deal with."

The cellist suggested replacing Rule, Britannia! with British folk music, saying: "There is so much that is worth celebrating and having as part of a big celebration at the end of a wonderful music festival."

In response to his comments about Rule, Britannia!, the BBC said: "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."

What are the origins of Rule, Britannia! and why is it controversial?

The song originates from the 1740 poem, "Rule, Britannia", by James Thomson, which was set to music in the same year by English composer Thomas Arne.

Critics of Rule, Britannia! believe it celebrates Britain's colonial past and the country's role in the slave trade. The song contains the line: "Britons never will be slaves."

In 2020, the BBC said Rule, Britannia! would feature in the Proms without lyrics, only to backtrack after a wave of public and political pressure, amid claims that ditching the words of the song was an attack on British culture and tradition.

However, many people feel uneasy about the song's usage, given that it was written at a time when Britain's slave trade was thriving.