Just two years ago, 19-year-old cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason became the first black winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year award. This year, he was invited by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to play at their royal wedding watched by millions. Since then, he has become a household name.
In his own household, however, he is one of many. His family home, in a quiet Nottingham suburb, has the character of a marine vessel: hectic, large but lived-in. One room contains nothing but floor-to-ceiling board games, with each sliver of space pulling its weight to accommodate Sheku, his parents, and their six other children.
The eldest daughter, 21-year-old Isata, plays the piano. Braimah, 20, is plays violin. All the Kanneh-Mason siblings play an instrument to a remarkably high standard. Sheku, Isata and Braimah are at London’s Royal Academy of Music. Their younger sister Konya has just won a place there.
The youngest, eight-year-old Mariatu, says she will one day be better than her brother. at his own game. “She might manage it. She got two more marks in her Grade 4 Cello than I did in mine”, Sheku reportedly said.
In January, he released his debut album ‘Inspiration’. Within the past 18 months, he performed at the 2017 Bafta awards. His Proms debut with the black and minority ethnic Chineke! Orchestra went viral. Nottingham City Council even named his local bus after him, and it was while standing on board the “Sheku Kanneh-Mason”, in November 2016, that he was signed to the Decca label.
Nevertheless, Sheku says “life isn’t all that different. Although I’m doing a lot of solo concerts now, I’m still playing a lot of chamber music with my older brother and sister in London; we see each other all the time.”
Neither of his parents are musicians: his Sierra Leone-born mother Kadiatu used to lecture in literature at the University of Birmingham. His father Stuart, whose family hails from Antigua, works for Belmond, a luxury hotel chain. But both played instruments in their childhood. “We thought it would be nice if Isata, our eldest, played the piano,” their mother explains. They didn’t, however, expect Isata to be quite as talented as she was. Nor did they predict the impact she would have on her younger siblings.
Inspiration, recorded with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, is actually a homage: to his school music teacher, who introduced him to the Klezmer work on the disc; to Shostakovich, his idol; and to the performers he admires most.
An Ambassador for young black instrumentalists?
Since winning the BBC competition, he has come to be viewed as an ambassador for young black classical instrumentalists in a white-dominated arena. Is this a role with which he is comfortable?
“If it turns out that I’ve inspired someone by winning a competition as a black musician, then that’s wonderful,” says Sheku. “For me personally, however, it’s most helpful to stay focused on my cello-playing.” As a child, he apparently gave little thought to the black-to-white ratio among classical musicians, despite his parents regularly taking him to concerts. That’s partly because, as one of seven black siblings who all played instruments, he never considered that “what we were doing might not be normal”. But it also comes down to some canny choices on the part of his mother, who was determined “never to remark on the lack of black people in classical music to our children”.
“The children are competitive with each other,” says their father. “When they play Monopoly together, it’s awful. But my wife has been really good at getting them to be happy about their siblings’ successes from an early age.”
Has Sheku’s celebrity affected the family? “Now that people are interested in us and want to film what we’re doing, each of our concerts has suddenly become a lot more important,” says his eldest sister.
Sheku himself doesn’t seem overwhelmed by the pressure: he spends time with his friends and girlfriend, who is studying maths at University College London.
Since starting at the Royal Academy of Music, he has been a member of its football team. (“We beat the Royal College last week. I’m just saying.”)