The cellist who performed at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex has said “Rule, Britannia!” should be axed from the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms.
Sheku Kanneh-Mason, 24, who performed at the royal wedding aged 19, has said some people “don’t realise how uncomfortable a song like that can make a lot of people feel”.
The song is often deemed controversial due to its associations with slavery and Britain’s colonial past.
Some of the lyrics seen as controversial include the lines: “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves,” and: “The nations, not so blest as thee / Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall / While thou shalt flourish great and free: The dread and envy of them all.”
The song is traditionally performed at the Last Night of the Proms, normally with a guest soloist. In 2020, the BBC said the concert would perform the song without lyrics due to its controversy, but made a U-turn at the last moment and the song was performed with the original lyrics.
Speaking to Lauren Laverne on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, Kanneh-Mason said he did not think the song should be included because “so much wonderful music” could replace it.
“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 [the people singing it] feel good,” he said.
“I think that’s somehow a big misunderstanding about it.”
Kanneh-Mason suggested the song could be replaced with British folk music, adding: “There is so much wonderful British music, the wealth of folk music from this country is astonishing.
“There is so much that is worth celebrating and having as part of a big celebration at the end of a wonderful music festival.”
Kanneh-Mason, who became the first black person to win the BBC Young Musician award in 2016, performed at 2023’s Last Night at the Proms alongside conductor Marin Alsop.
Responding to Kanneh-Mason’s comments, a BBC spokesperson said: “The Proms are built on longstanding 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.”
Kanneh-Mason, who was raised in Nottingham, appeared alongside his siblings on the ITV variety show Britain’s Got Talent in 2015. He is the third of seven children, who all play musical instruments.
Speaking about his upbringing in a musical household, Kanneh-Mason said his home was always filled with “nice sounding music” as he and his siblings would practice after school on most evenings.
“I found growing up in that environment, where you’re surrounded by everyone else practising, it meant that practice was less of a lonely thing when everyone else was doing it around me,” he told Laverne.