Isata Kanneh-Mason is the pianist striving to get classical music to younger, PoC audiences
20 Jun 2019
Photography via Decca Records © Robin Clewley
From her first public performance at the age of eight, Isata Kanneh-Mason – now 23 years old – has become known as a rising talent and inspiration for young classical musicians.
She has just taken part in BBC Radio 3’s new series Take Five, which, over the course of five days, gave viewers the chance to enter the world of five young classical musicians as they discuss, celebrate and perform the music that has carried them on their journey thus far.
Having studied at the Royal Academy of Music since the age of 10, growing-up with her musical family of seven siblings, Isata’s performance career as a solo pianist has attracted the attention of audiences all over the UK and abroad. She performed with Elton John in LA back in 2013, and this year she played at London’s Wigmore Hall with her brother, Sheku Kanneh-Mason.
I had the opportunity to talk with Isata, not only about her involvement with BBC Radio 3, but also to hear her views on being a part of the classical music scene and her experiences within that world as a young black woman.
gal-dem: What are some of your earliest memories of music or performances you listened to that sparked your interest?
Isata Kanneh-Mason: I grew up listening to Jacqueline du Pré and Martha Argerich, although I of course never saw the former perform live, and the latter not until I was much older. I relied on recordings. In my early childhood, my parents tried to take me to as many concerts as they could afford, including the occasional opera and I remember being really inspired by [opera] La Traviata.
You come from a very musical family – who has been a great influence and supporter in terms of pursuing your career as a classical musician?
Many people inspired and influenced me throughout my life, but my biggest influences for my career would probably be either my first teacher, Patsy Toh, or my parents. They were all always honest with me about how hard one needs to work to become a musician, and also provided incredible support so I was very lucky.
“For most of these years I was aware that I was in a minority, but not old enough to question what it meant. It definitely helped that I had my siblings, so I was never alone”
In terms of navigating the ‘classical music scene’ what have your experiences been like as a woman of colour in these institutions, and being a classical musician in general?
I have studied at the Royal Academy of Music for most of my life, starting as a junior aged 10 and then as a senior aged 18. For most of these years I was aware that I was in a minority, but not old enough to question what it meant. It definitely helped that I had my siblings, so I was never alone, but I had many friends from all different backgrounds and we all saw each other as musicians and people without even questioning race. I think that music is amazing in the way it can bring all different kinds of people and backgrounds together in a non-discriminatory way.
How did you get involved with Take Five?
I’ve always been interested in targeting young people and in getting classical music to wider audiences. I was therefore very excited and interested when I heard about the Take Five project. I was on Radio 3 recently on This Classical Life with Jess Gillam and always enjoy doing things for Radio 3.
“We need to work hard to ensure funding for music in schools, and fight against all of the cuts going on in the arts – but this is a big, long-term project”
What can we do continue to showcase BAME classical musicians in the public eye?
There is a big lack of diversity at the moment and I strive to change that. We need to work hard to ensure funding for music in schools, and fight against all of the cuts going on in the arts – but this is a big, long-term project. I hope to bring music to all kinds of people, and feel that it should be for everyone. I never felt that what I was doing was ‘elitist’ in any way and so I feel that no one else should ever feel that way either. I think that’s it’s important to have a variety of role models in the classical music world, so that all young people have someone they can be inspired by.
Isata Kanneh-Mason’s debut album, Romance, will be released on 5 July on Decca Records.