‘Right Time, Right Personality, Right Everything’: A Spotlight On Classical Superstar Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Sheku Kanneh-Mason sits holding his cello, smiling at the camera
Jake Turney
21 year old phenom Sheku Kanneh-Mason

As part of Summerfest, this week CPR Classical will be showcasing the work of British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who didn't just rise to fame, he catapulted.

By 18 he already had a major record label contract and his first CD under his belt, but it was the call from Meghan Markle, soon to be Duchess of Sussex, that would change his career trajectory. Kanneh-Mason performed three pieces at the royal wedding of Markle and Prince Harry, which had an estimated worldwide audience of 2 billion people. Overnight, a new superstar was born.

The third of seven children, Kanneh-Mason first captured attention when he played classical music with five of his musically talented siblings on the 2015 season of "Britain's Got Talent," making it to the semi-final round. A year later he was the first Black musician to win the BBC Young Artist Competition. Since then he's been awarded the Classic BRIT Awards Male Artist of the Year and was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire.

Life hasn't allowed Kanneh-Mason to sit around and relish his accomplishments. He took the UK's A-Level exams two days after he won the BBC competition. In 2018, he played the royal wedding while finishing spring semester at the Royal Academy of Music.

Just before the coronavirus led to the closure of concert halls in March, Sheku Kanneh-Mason performed with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with Marin Alsop conducting. The extra long line for signing CDs at intermission confirmed what Alsop told the New York Times: “He’s a phenom, I think. Right time, right personality, right everything.” 

On that trip he worked with OrchKids, a free program for underprivileged youth through the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. OrchKids serves approximately 1,300 students, mostly Black and minority children who otherwise have little access to opportunities that can give them the motivation to strive for their goals and succeed.

“I’ve benefited from having so much music education,” Kanneh-Mason told the Radio Times. “And the thought that lots of people won’t have something even close to that same level is a real shame. Diversity needs to start way, way before people are auditioning. If actual education is not invested in and supported, then nothing will change.”

Kanneh-Mason is becoming a leading voice in classical music regarding racism in the aftermath of George Floyd's death. He said in a recent Facebook livestream, “The renewed attention on racial injustice, I think, is very, very important at this moment. We hope this arrangement of 'Redemption Song' by Bob Marley ... will help us all focus on what we need to do now to change and to move forward and to make a difference.”

He's also becoming a composer, and his arrangement of “No Woman, No Cry” has been streamed close to 12 million times on Spotify. His new original composition "Melody" was just released.  

More of Kanneh-Mason's arrangements can be heard on his second full-length album, Elgar, released January 10, 2020, including Ernest Bloch's Prayer from Jewish Life.

The BBC has just released a documentary about the musical Kanneh-Mason family.

Hear Sheku Kanneh-Mason this weekend as Karla Walker hosts the Summer of Stars Concert Series, part of CPR Classical's Summerfest. Each weekend features a full concert that airs three times (Fridays @ 12:30 p.m., Saturdays @ 6 p.m. & Sundays @ 4 p.m.).

You can listen to CPR Classical by clicking "Listen Live" on this website. You can also hear CPR Classical at 88.1 FM in Denver, at radio signals around Colorado, or ask your smart speaker to “Play CPR Classical.”