Meghan Markle has impeccable manners. Within a few weeks of marrying Prince Harry, she’d already sent out her thank-you letters – including a heartfelt one to young British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason.
With his stunning, emotional performance at the royal wedding, playing three pieces as the newlyweds signed the register at St George’s Chapel, this unassuming Nottingham teenager seemed to encapsulate the spirit of the day and its nation-bonding mood of optimism and love.
“It’s a really nice letter,” he reveals, with characteristic humility. “Really personal. It was an amazing experience to play at the wedding and nice to know how much the music meant to them.”
In providing a perfect soundtrack to the nuptials for more than 12 million viewers in Britain and many more worldwide, he may also have helped change more than just the perception of classical music in the UK and beyond. Because not only did he put the cello at the heart of a wedding in which the likes of Elton John and George Clooney played walk-on roles as guests, but he was also part of a royal celebration that had black faces to the fore, from the Rev Michael Curry, the African-American bishop who preached the sermon, to the Kingdom Choir, who sang the R&B classic, Stand by Me.
“It was really great to have such a range of music and so many different types of performances, which could be inspiring to more people,” he says. “It wasn’t just the fact that it was diverse, but the level of performances was so high – the gospel choir, for example. It was great to be part of, and of course it was a pretty inspiring crowd to play for!”
Sales of his debut album Inspiration, which came out earlier this year, have not only smashed the UK charts since the wedding (he was the youngest classical cellist ever to enter the UK Top 20), but have been breaking records around the world and online, hitting number one on iTunes and Amazon. In the USA, he charted in the Billboard album top 20 (the first classical cellist to do so) and became the first classical artist to top their Emerging Artist chart – a huge accolade for any classical musician, let alone one who’s yet to celebrate his 20th birthday.
It’s hard to believe it’s only two years since Kanneh-Mason, now 19, won the prestigious BBC Young Musician competition with a performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1. Since then his rise has been stratospheric. He’s performed at 10 Downing Street as part of Black History Month. He’s been spotted at Paris Fashion Week, playing at fellow Nottingham boy Paul Smith’s show. (Smith is a big fan and regularly dresses the cellist, including providing the colourfully spotty socks that were on display in St George’s.) And he’s played at the Baftas in 2017 and 2018, and made his Carnegie Hall debut last November alongside the likes of Jessica Chastain and Susan Sarandon at a gala in aid of the charity Dramatic Need, directed by Danny Boyle. All this while continuing his studies at London’s Royal Academy of Music, where he learns the cello under a previous finalist from BBC Young Musician, Hannah Roberts, and has just completed his first year as an undergraduate, living in student halls in central London.
What was it like, I wonder, to go from the fanfare of the wedding straight into exams the following week? “A lovely contrast,” he admits. “I had a few academic papers to sit a few days later as well as my end-of-year recital, in which I was playing the Debussy sonata. It was good just to be able to focus on that.”
Meanwhile, social media was going Sheku-mad – he has gained almost 350,000 followers across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter since 19 May, with many swooning over #CelloBae – and his agent’s phone was ringing off the hook. His jam-packed concert schedule now includes engagements in Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York as well as high-profile gigs here in the UK, including his Edinburgh Festival debut and a televised Prom celebrating 40 years of BBC Young Musician (Prom 3, Sunday 15 July).
Not that Kanneh-Mason, who is currently single, is letting any of this go to his head. In performance, cello in hands, he exudes energy and charisma, but off-stage he remains modest. For such an extraordinary talent, he’s had an “ordinary” upbringing. The third of seven gifted musical siblings, he attended a state school and is crazy about football (a devoted Arsenal fan) and movies (a favourite film is The Godfather).
The Kanneh-Mason household may have been filled with music, but it was far from the hothouse stereotype of most prodigies. Although he enjoyed the classical pieces his mum and dad used to play in the car, he listened to all sorts of music, including Bob Marley. Young Sheku first fell in love with the cello aged six, after hearing his dad Stuart, a business manager and amateur cellist, playing it. He was captivated by Jacqueline du Pré’s timeless recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, telling me that her playing is what inspired him to practise so hard. (Du Pré’s siblings Piers and Hilary have said of Sheku: “He’s the first cellist since Jackie who has that natural and vibrant abandonment when playing. A sheer delight. Jackie would have loved to meet him.”)
By nine he’d won a scholarship to the Junior Department of the Royal Academy, which required weekly trips to the capital each Saturday. “We had to catch a 6.30am train to London,” he recalls with a wince. These days, his pianist sister Isata (21) and violinist brother Braimah (20) also attend the Academy and they often perform as a trio, while some of his younger siblings attend the Junior Department, so he still gets to see his mum and dad most weekends. “We’re very close,” he tells me.
Occasionally, all the siblings play as a professional ensemble. “I love performing with my brothers and sisters. Any time I can, I will prioritise that. We know each other so well, which is helpful when you’re playing chamber music. Of course, we all come with our own ideas, but it’s always interesting to hear what the others have to say. Sometimes there are a few arguments, but usually we all get on.” When I ask if there’s ever any professional competitiveness or sibling rivalry, he seems almost baffled by the question, answering with a definitive “no”.
The Kanneh-Masons aside, classical music as an industry is regrettably far from diverse. Since becoming the first black winner of BBC Young Musician, Sheku has, inevitably, become a role model and is committed to ensuring that children from all sorts of backgrounds have the opportunity to make music. He donated £3,000 to his former school, Trinity Catholic in Aspley, after hearing that budget cuts might end cello teaching. He’s the first youth ambassador for the charity, London Music Masters, which provides music education to over 1,500 children from underserved communities each week.
He and his family have become closely associated with Chineke!, an ensemble founded in 2015 to support and inspire classical musicians from ethnic-minority backgrounds. It’s a responsibility that Sheku takes very seriously. Yet he is also quick to point out that his main focus will always be “on developing as a musician. Hopefully, by becoming the best cellist I can, I’ll also inspire other people to enjoy classical music and maybe even do what I do.”
Given the reaction to his playing at the royal wedding, it seems he’s succeeding, and he tells me he’s since been recognised a few times on the Tube when carrying his cello. “People say very nice things,” he says, modestly. “Often it’s along the lines of: they’d never listened to the cello before and now they love it. Just knowing that I’ve maybe brought a few people into the world of classical music means everything to me.”
Sheku Kanneh-Mason is one of many past winners celebrating 40 years of BBC Young Musician at a special Prom on Sunday 15 July