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Don’t play Rule, Britannia at Proms, says Prince Harry and Meghan cellist

Sheku Kanneh-Mason
The cellist won the BBC Young Musician award in 2016

The cellist who performed at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex has said Rule, Britannia! should be axed from the Last Night of the Proms.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who became a household name at just 19 after performing at the royal event, said that some “don’t realise how uncomfortable a song like that can make a lot of people feel”.

His comments are likely to reignite the long-running debate over the singing of the patriotic anthem, which critics say has uncomfortable associations with slavery and Britain’s colonial past.

In 2020 the BBC provoked an outcry when it revealed a plan to perform the song without lyrics, a decision that was reversed one day after Tim Davie took over as the corporation’s director general.

The performance of Rule Britannia is always accompanied by vociferous flag waving.

Speaking to Lauren Laverne on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, Kanneh-Mason said: “I don’t think it should be included and I didn’t stay for that. That’s just my opinion.

“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.”

He has previously suggested that the Last Night instead focus on folk tunes, although he conceded it would be “probably not as popular”.

Kanneh-Mason said he did not feel overly  nervous playing at the royal wedding despite it being broadcast to millions
Kanneh-Mason said he did not feel overly nervous playing at the royal wedding despite it being broadcast to millions

Kanneh-Mason performed at 2023’s Last Night alongside conductor Marin Alsop, who made history in 2013 as the first woman to lead the occasion.

He performed Maz Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, and a Samuel Coleridge-Taylor arrangement of Deep River.

The cellist also spoke about his experience as a young black classical music artist and said there were occasions he had not been “taken seriously”.

“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,” he said.

“Most of the time it was fine in the sense I felt comfortable and all good but there was certainly occasions where my being black meant that I wasn’t necessarily taken seriously in some situations.

He said he was able to deal with prejudice from the example of black role models, such as Muhammad Ali.

No nerves

“What gave me the strength in those situations is, we would spend a lot of time as children watching documentaries of real black heroes succeeding and being challenged and overcoming”.

The 24-year-old from Nottingham, who won the BBC Young Musician 2016 award, has said he was not affected by nerves when his performance at the 2018 royal wedding in St George’s Chapel, Windsor was broadcast around the world.

“I think at the time of performing, it felt like very much just playing to the people in the room,” he said.

He added: “I think in terms of nervousness, I’m more nervous for my cello lesson, because I know that my teacher listens in (a) certain way.

“I guess what I’m saying is, the audience, yeah, I’m grateful for them being there, but I don’t think who is there necessarily puts ... more pressure.”

The Last Night of the Proms has become a political and cultural battleground in recent years.

Last year the BBC faced calls for an inquiry into its coverage of the event after it showed a sea of European Union Flags being waved.

It was announced in November that David Pickard, the Proms director, would step down later this year, having led the music festival since 2015.

During his time in post he also oversaw the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra play in 2022 and the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage and the end of the First World War in 2018.

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