Sheku Kanneh-Mason: ‘Seeing someone who looks like you can be the thing that inspires’

The history-making cellist talks about encouraging black classical musicians and the chart-topping artist he’d like to work with

CHART SUCCESS: Sheku Kanneh-Mason performed at the Duke and Duchess of Sussex's wedding (Jake Turney)

MOST PEOPLE know him as the cellist whose performance at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle shot him into stardom, but Sheku Kanneh-Mason is musical royalty in his own right.

In 2016 Kanneh-Mason became the first black musician to win the BBC Young Musician competition, and at just 20 year’s old, his career milestones in the past three years alone have surpassed what others achieve in a lifetime.

His first album, Inspiration, reached number 11 in the UK charts and topped the classical music charts, and he’s improved on an already incredible success with his second, Elgar, which went in at number 8 today. In doing so, he’s the first cellist to ever have a top 10 album in the official charts. He’s also the recipient of two Classic Brit awards and an MBE.

Before Kanneh-Mason added yet another string of successes to his bow, The Voice sat down with him at Wigmore Hall, one of his favourite venues to perform in, to talk about his music, family and fame.

Kanneh-Mason is currently married to his music. A student at the Royal Academy Music, he practices four to five hours a day, and on top of that there are rehearsals, and other types of practice such as “listening to music and thinking about music”.

While his talent is unquestionable, it is his dedication to his craft that has also made him a phenomenon. It is evident that he eats, sleeps and breathes music but he’s conscious of maintaining balance as well.

“It’s not like the music is a separate part, it’s just a part of my life and everything kind of feeds into that,” he said.

He added: “I would never want my life to be balanced such that I don’t have time to do the normal things. Because that also would have an impact on my music, I feel, because again the music is about real life emotions and if you can’t experience them then what am I saying with my music, I don’t know.”

CLASSIC MAN: Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s album Elgar has entered the UK album chart at Number 8 (Photo: John Davis)

Despite achieving so much, in a very public way at a very young age, Kanneh-Mason is unflinchingly modest. He hasn’t let success go to his head. He still gets the bus and tube even when management offers to send a car, staff from his label Decca Classics say; he brought his own packed lunch when recording Elgar at the iconic Abbey Road Studios and finds performing to children the most rewarding.

His sister Isata pointed to the importance of the family’s bond as being instrumental in how he has handled everything.

“If Stormzy asked me to collaborate, I would be there”

“The biggest thing is that when we’re all at home together, we treat each other exactly the same. We have laughter, we have jokes, we have time away from the music and I think these are in a way your relationships with other people are more important. I think because those things haven’t changed it’s very easy for him to stay the same and to keep grounded,” she said.

One of seven, Kanneh-Mason lights up when he talks about his siblings and the joy of coming from a musical family. Isata, the eldest of the Kanneh-Masons, plays the piano; his brother Braimah plays the violin; while sisters Konya and Aminata play both violin and piano; and Jeneba and the youngest, Mariatu, play both cello and piano.

Any concerns over sibling rivalry are misplaced. While as a child Kanneh-Mason switched from violin to cello because he wanted to master an instrument bigger than his brother Braimah’s, today the two play together often and Braimah features on a number of songs on Elgar – and the pair even share a flat.

INSPIRING OTHERS: Sheku and his sister Isata

“Being from such a big family where we all share a love of music is really really inspiring I guess and just a lot of fun,” Kanneh-Mason said.

While Kanneh-Mason has an abundant source of inspiration through his siblings, because of the rarity of a high profile black classical musician, he has become a beacon for young black performers in an industry where they are underrepresented.

“Seeing someone who looks like you doing something to a high level can often be the thing that inspires you the most,” he said. “And for me, I guess I had my siblings and I saw them and they inspired me.

“I think it’s one thing having that inspiration and being interested and I think combined with that you need the support from people around you – and I have very supportive parents. They gave me the opportunity to watch concerts and have music lessons from when I was very, very young and because they really believed in what this music can do.”

Kanneh-Mason is acutely aware that his experience isn’t emblematic of the majority of black musicians or those on low incomes and is passionate about affecting change. In 2017, he donated £3,000 to his former school, Trinity Catholic in Nottingham, after it was revealed that cello lessons might be terminated. The donation was matched by his record label, providing tuition for 10 pupils.

“It’s also the access to the education. Often having music lessons can be expensive and therefore excludes certain people and of course it shouldn’t and I think it needs to be invested in because what you get from having music lessons is, of course, the enjoyment of music – and that in itself is a wonderful thing,” Kanneh-Mason said.

He’d like to see more input from the industry and schemes specifically for black musicians. And he has personally benefited from one particularly collective that focuses on providing a platform for classical musicians from black and other ethnic minority backgrounds.

“Chineke! Orchestra was so inspiring for me because I was then suddenly surrounded by musicians and hearing their stories and being able to directly relate to them in a way I hadn’t been able to before,” Kanneh-Mason said.

The collective’s impact is resulting in not only the diversifying of instrumentalists but also classical music audiences. It’s something that Kanneh-Mason has observed through his own performances, too.

“Seeing the place where my grandparents grew up and performing there really is moving in a way that’s hard to explain.”

“I have noticed certainly recently the positive change in the audiences who’ve come to my concerts particularly in terms of the age group being younger and way more diversity. And it just shows that you just need that link – you and the music – to be able to relate to it. Because the music itself doesn’t discriminate but I think the perception of it, because of the lack of diversity, can make people feel excluded.”

His own true musical heroes are those within the classical music world, renowned cellist Steven Isserlis is among them, and legends like Bob Marley, whose hit No Woman No Cry got the cello treatment on Kanneh-Mason’s first album. But he also admires the passion and honesty Stormzy emanates through his music. The grime artist has previously performed with the Chineke!, Europe’s first majority black and minority ethnic orchestra, and recently expressed a desire to perform his latest album – Heavy is the Head – with a live orchestra. So, could a Sheku-Stormzy collaboration be on the cards?

“If he asked me, I would be there,” Kanneh-Mason said. “I would definitely really, really enjoy that and I think the ideas and music that would come from that could be something really special.”

He added: “He [Stormzy] did a concert with Chineke!…I wasn’t part of it, I was away for that. I would have loved to do that…next time.”

Kanneh-Mason’s talents and ever-rising profile are opening up a plethora of opportunities and taking him around the world, but one of his favourite places to visit – Antigua – is in many ways close to home. His father, Stuart, is from the Caribbean island and the family as a whole returns annually.

“We go every year to perform and do a bit of teaching and also just have a holiday but that’s my favourite place to go because it is beautiful,” Kanneh-Mason said. “Seeing the place where my grandparents grew up and performing there really is moving in a way that’s hard to explain.”

He’s not yet been to Africa but playing on the continent and visiting is on his wishlist. “I’ve never been to Sierra Leone and I would love to go…My mum [Kadiatu, who was born in Sierra Leone] will definitely take us at some point,” he said.

With his career continuing to crescendo, his music may take him there sooner than he thinks.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s Elgar is out now

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