The cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, 23, is the third of seven siblings – Isata, Braimah, Konya, Jeneba, Aminata, Mariatu, aged 26 to 13 years – all musicians who regularly perform together. He grew up in Nottingham and won BBC Young Musician 2016, which catapulted him to worldwide fame and an invitation to perform at the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle in 2018, watched by an estimated two billion people. He has featured on the cover of GQ magazine, won two Classical Brit awards and in 2020 was awarded an MBE. His recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra (2020) made history as Kanneh-Mason became the first cellist to reach the UK Official Albums Chart Top 10.
He has just been appointed the first Menuhin Visiting Professor of Performance Mentoring at London’s Royal Academy of Music, where he was a student. His new solo album, Song, is out on Decca this Friday. On Saturday he will play Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s version of the traditional spiritual Deep River (also recorded by his sister Isata on her solo piano album Summertime) at the Last Night of the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, which is live on Radio 3 and across BBC One and BBC Two.
You’re talking to me from a phone in Australia. What’s happening?
I’m here with the family. We’ve just done a tour of seven cities, playing all kinds of ensembles – duets, trios, quartets, all of us. It’s been really fun, especially because these days we’re quite scattered, so it’s been a rare chance to be all together. We’ve had a great time. There’ve been no monumental fallouts, I’m glad to say!
You sound as if you’re in a hurricane.
I’m walking along in Melbourne and it’s pretty cold. We’ve just been to the Botanic Gardens and now we’re heading for the airport to go home. I’ve hung back from the family… they’re in front.
Would they like to join in?
No! You’d get too many conflicting opinions!
How do you feel about the Last Night and all the flag-waving?
Growing up in Nottingham I watched and listened on TV and radio but I didn’t go to a Prom until I was 18, which is also when I first played in them – and have done every year since. But I’ve never been to the Last Night so to be honest I’ve no idea what to expect. I’m all for having a big party to mark the end of the season. The flag waving depends where it’s coming from: if it’s from being proud of the British music scene, that’s great, but if it’s something more sinister…
When you won BBC Young Musician in 2016, the question asked, tacitly or aloud, was why only one Black state-school educated pupil had ever got this far in the competition. How do you deal with the burden of responsibility this places on you?
If I can be someone people look up to, that’s wonderful. I love to play to and talk with young people as much as I can. But speaking about diversity is everyone’s responsibility, not just that of people like me. White artists need to talk about it too. I agree it’s not easy. That’s the challenge. Everyone has to find a way to discuss these issues openly. And it’s about education too.
Your own success, and that of your siblings, has meant you’re also expected to have all the answers about how to get music education into schools. But there isn’t one solution is there?
There isn’t. One thing is very clear. Music must be valued as a core subject. People always try to justify it because of its transferable skills. But we don’t say a child should do maths because it helps with English, or science because it helps with geography. They’re respected in their own right. Music is amazing. It’s challenging, creative, empathetic. It’s a way to access the brain in completely different ways.
I’ve read your mother’s book [House of Music by Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason], and I’ve watched the TV documentary [BBC One’s Imagine… This House Is Full of Music]. I still can’t understand how seven of you could all practise at the same time under one roof without it being a terrible racket or civil war breaking out.
There was a time when I played in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet – with the lid down! – but that was in part because the acoustics were so great! But it also helped, a bit like being at music college, hearing all the different practice sounds coming from different rooms.
Bathroom aside, where’s your favourite venue?
I love performing at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall. It’s a fabulous acoustic and it’s my home city. I also love the Peckham multistorey car park [Bold Tendencies]. I’ve played there a lot and you always feel the audience there is ready to receive any kind of music.
Your sister Jeneba is playing there the same night you’re playing at the Last Night…
Yes, I wish I could hear her. My family are having to split up – some at the Albert Hall and some hearing Jeneba and the Philharmonia in Peckham.
Two of your sisters, Isata and Jeneba, are both virtuoso pianists. How might a listener differentiate between their playing?
I play duos a lot with my older sister, Isata, so I know her playing very well. She has amazing flexibility, as if the music could be shaped in any direction. I feel I can do anything and she will respond. I haven’t yet played as much with Jeneba. She has a wonderful control of colour and voices; she’s a very sensitive player, and draws you into her inner world.
Do you get stage fright?
Not fright as such. But I take the role of performer very seriously and feel a pressure in myself to communicate everything I can about the pieces I play. I don’t have a ritual about performance days. I like to be around people. I need to have slept well and to have eaten. Then around 15 minutes before the concert starts, I have to be alone and get myself prepared. The important thing is to have the confidence to be yourself, and then you can communicate to audiences. I hope I can share that when I mentor at the Royal Academy of Music.
What do you listen to when you’re not practising?
Everything: jazz, folk, Indian classical music, Bob Marley, reggae, hip-hop, rap – especially Tupac Shakur. I listen on journeys or when I’m cooking. I’ve got a record player.
Yes, I love vinyl.
Do any of these different kinds of music surface in your new album, Song?
It’s a mix of stuff, some of my own compositions, arrangements, improvisation, a pop-style song I wrote with a friend. I’m open to playing all kinds of music, and collaborating. The title is about the lyrical power of the cello.
If someone wants to get into classical music, what do you suggest?
Rachmaninov’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, one of my favourite pieces ever. In fact anything by Rachmaninov.
What was the last live event you went to?
Last night. A small Ethiopian bar for Jeneba’s birthday. Roots reggae. It was cool. We were all there – except my youngest sister, Mariatu.
Could you imagine having chosen any other career apart from music?
Nothing came close. I was really into maths and physics at school, and I loved – still love – football. I’m a massive Arsenal fan, but I love playing too. It’s inspiring to play a competitive sport, and to have the social element too, whereas in music you spend a lot of time working on your own. There shouldn’t be a competitive element in the practice room!
Don’t you worry about injury when you play football?
I suppose there is a risk for any performer. But no more than walking downstairs or chopping vegetables…