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For classical stars Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason, representation matters

Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason.
Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason.

It's rare for any classical musician to capture the attention of a mainstream audience these days. That's exactly what brother and sister Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason have both achieved, however: this Black British duo have garnered millions of fans around the world.

Pianist Isata, age 25, and her younger brother Sheku, a 22-year-old cellist, are two of seven musical siblings who grew up in a family of modest means in central England. The Kanneh-Masons first gained public traction when six of them made it to the semi-finals of Britain's Got Talent back in 2015. Even the irascible judge Simon Cowell loved them — and immediately saw their commercial appeal. He proclaimed, "You could be probably the most talented family in the world!"

Sheku says that bringing the music they love to new audiences has always been a crucial goal.

"I've had wonderful experiences of performing in places to audiences that maybe have never heard the instrument before, and sometimes that is the most rewarding thing," he says. "Of course, I enjoy the feeling of being in a concert hall and the tradition and the focus that comes with that kind of setting of performing this music. But I think music is such an alive thing, and therefore can exist in many, many different places."

Sheku really means it when he says many different places. At the same time the siblings were appearing on Britain's Got Talent, Sheku was preparing to compete for one of the most prestigious prizes in the UK: the BBC Young Musician award, given every two years. He won at age 16, playing Dmitri Shostakovich's demanding Cello Concerto No. 1. As a result, he became the family's first breakout star.

The Kanneh-Masons are young Black instrumentalists in a genre whose gatekeepers haven't often embraced or amplified Black talent, and both Isata and Sheku acknowledge the importance of representation. The family of their father, Stuart, came to the U.K. from Antigua; their mother, Kadiatu, was born in Sierra Leone and grew up in Wales.

"We always feel so happy when there are more young people, and more Black people in our audiences," Isata says. "When they say they started playing because of seeing us, I think it's just a wonderful thing. And it definitely keeps you wanting to do it, and it keeps you inspired."

"Our parents, when we were growing up, were of course aware of the lack of diversity in classical music," Sheku observes, "but saw that we obviously enjoyed it, and gave us the best possible chance to pursue it as a career." Their mother recently published a memoir, titled House of Music: Raising the Kanneh-Masons, revisiting the experience.

"They were very keen on showing us role models, Black role models in other fields, like great Black sports people," Sheku continues. "We grew up watching and listened to a lot of Bob Marley, for example, and these people had a massive impact on us."

"Within classical music, of course, we didn't have many people who looked like us that we were able to look up to," Sheku notes. "And I think it does make a massive difference when you see someone that you can see yourself in, and it makes a massive difference for you in terms of confidence. We want to have that impact on other people, and hopefully we can."

Sheku's own reach shot into the stratosphere after Meghan Markle invited him to perform at her wedding to Prince Harry in 2018. According to British press estimates, some 2 billion people worldwide watched the ceremony broadcast.

Not long after, Isata signed her own recording contract with Decca, the same label as her brother. She used her new platform to champion less familiar music by marginalized composers, including the Black British musician Samuel Coleridge-Taylor — who, like the Kanneh-Masons, had family roots in Sierra Leone — as well the 19th-century female composer Clara Schumann.

Isata and Sheku were still settling into the rhythms of their new life — recording and touring internationally as soloists while still students at the Royal Academy of Music in London — when the pandemic hit. At the start of the lockdown, the family was all together at home in Nottingham, in central England.

"We actually were quite lucky that we were locked down together in the same house for about five months," Isata says. "We were actually able to play together quite regularly, even though there were no concerts going on for a while."

In their cozy living room, the family made Facebook Live videos together, which were watched by millions of fans. One of them was a version of Leonard Cohen's song "Hallelujah" that they recorded after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

After they played, Sheku spoke. "Racism is a global pandemic that has been going on far too long to stay silent," he said. "For us, music is a form of expression, of protest and of hope."

Still, making videos was nothing like playing in front of live audiences. Before lockdown, Sheku and Isata had planned to tour together in 2020, playing sonatas for cello and piano by American composer Samuel Barber and Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov.

"We thought that we'd done quite a lot of work on the pieces, but had only just started to share them with people," Isata says. "It felt like such a shame to just kind of not play them at all anymore. And so that's how we got the idea to record them, and we started working on them more throughout the lockdown. In a way, it came out of this very kind of still time where not much was happening."

They've emerged from this period of stillness with a new duo album, featuring that music by Barber and Rachmaninov—and, finally, they're back on the road. This week, Sheku is soloing with the New York Philharmonic. In May, they'll be returning together to New York for a recital at Carnegie Hall: standard-bearers for a new vision of what classical music is, and who it belongs to.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.