Young, Gifted & Black

On Tuesday, 23 year old classical pianist,  Istata Kanneh-Mason played at my favourite Milton Keynes music venue, The Stables.  The Stables offers live music for all tastes with local, national and even internationally acclaimed artistes.  Isata is a Postgraduate at the Royal Academy of Music on a Gwendolyn Reiche Memorial Scholarship.  Prior to this, she held a prestigious Elton John Scholarship for her undergraduate studies at The Royal Academy; affording her the opportunity to perform with Sir Elton John in Lost Angeles in 2013. Amongst her many other achievements, she was in the Piano Category Final of The BBC Young Musician 2014.  I believe that Isata’s achievements are even more extraordinary as she is black.  There are not that many successful black classical musicians.

It’s possible that you may not have heard of Isata as an individual musician, you may have heard of her family though.  She has six siblings and they all at times perform together. Even if you haven’t heard of Isata’s family, you would have seen her brother, Sheku play the cello if you watched the Harry and Megan’s Royal Wedding. In addition to his performance at the Royal Wedding, Sheku is seen as one of the brightest young stars in the classical music scene. In 2016, he did win the Young Musician of the Year competition. The first black person to win the award. At just 20 years old, he has performed in some of the most amazing places with orchestras around the world.  His debut album, which went viral on social media featured his own arrangement of Bob Marley’s No Woman No cry; a fusion of reggae with classical music.

As for the family, at one level, they are just a regular family from Nottingham. Although they may receive scholarships on the basis of their talent to go prestigious music schools, they come from a regular family and it seems that they don’t start off in prestigious schools of any kind. Sheku for instance, attended Trinity School, a comprehensive, described as being in one of the less advantaged parts of Nottingham. When the Kanneh Mason’s reached the semi-finals on Britain’s Got Talent, Simon Cowell described them as the most talented family in the world. Without question, they are truly amazing.

Often when we speak of young black people, we seem to get caught up in the talk of knife crime, gangs and other things that don’t reflect the positives demonstrated by the majority of young people. Therefore, whilst celebrating their extraordinary talent, I’d love to also use the opportunity of Black History Month to acknowledge the Young, Gifted and Black people across the land. Sometimes, they are acknowledged, Tech Nation has just highlighted 50 of the most influential, prominent and influential voices in UK tech; Young black entrepreneurs such as Leon Ifayemi, founder of SPCE that supporting non-profit and public sector organisations in delivering exceptional + transformative housing and real estate services and 21 year old, Makaela Richardson, the founder of Free the Fresher, “a subscription service delivering university necessities such as stationery, kitchenware, bedding, and even ‘hangover kits’, directly to students’ doors” are both recognised as successful Young Entrepreneurs.  Also are siblings – brother, Emeka and sister, Ifeyinwa who run Chuku’s a Nigerian Tapas Restaurant in London.  There are successful young black sports, legal, medical, engineering professionals.  To be honest, if you look carefully, I believe you find a degree of young black people displaying their capabilities on all different arenas.

Outside of those that are profiled and acknowledged, there are those quietly beavering away and those struggling to climb a success ladder. Their lack of visible achievement should not be used to dismiss them as less interested or capable.

From watching a CBS interview of the Kanneh-Masons, beyond their exceptional talent, I was able to deduce a few other things that have contributed to the success of the Kanneh-Masons siblings: They are all incredibly hard working and dedicated practising day in and day out over the years to make the most of their gift.  They believe in themselves and each other – wanting to excel, equalling wanting their siblings to do the same.  Therefore, not only do they have the support of their parents, they support each other too – that support comes in the form of constructive criticism as well as encouragement and guidance.  I believe they’ve also put themselves out there, not just taking opportunities that come their way, but creating opportunities too.

I was also impressed to notice that for Isata Kanneh-Mason’s concert in Milton Keynes, tickets for young people between the age of 8-25 were sold at less than half the price of regular tickets. I believe creating the opportunity for people from younger generations to experience her music and be inspired…. leaving the ladder down for not just her siblings, but for others also to climb.

We have a wealth of talent amongst the young black people in our society, while they have the responsibility to put in the effort, I hope that we can all form support systems around them (as other young people); helping them to recognise their gifts, providing them with guidance and encourage; pointing them towards and providing opportunities for them.


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Susan Popoola

Mosaic Fusions:

Author: Consequences: Diverse to Mosaic Britain

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