The Proms has often struggled with its position in a 21st-century societyTwitter/BBCProms

In my last article, I discussed the Proms in relation to COVID-19. However, the pandemic was not the only call for change that the BBC Proms faced in 2020. While not without controversy, the call to decolonise the arts could not be ignored by the Proms. Said call was heightened by the momentum gained in the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the end of May 2020. With the Proms one of the few major music festivals still running this year, the 8-week long event took on a special significance in the context of these debates.

While the international human rights campaign began on social media in 2013 with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, the recent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor in the USA sparked a new wave of protests. These protests have provoked a number of difficult but important questions that have implications globally in a number of settings, including the artistic sphere. The call for decolonisation has gained a huge amount of momentum as a result of the most recent wave of the Black Lives Matter Movement. It involves the challenging of colonial legacies across the arts, disrupting the ways in which we see, listen, think and make within them. Diversification in musical performance has often taken on the form of including a small number of ethnic minority performers or composers in a concert or event. However, this is overly tokenistic, lacking enough thought concerning the issues at hand. Instead, a complete rethinking of the values upheld in performances and in the genres and cultures being represented is required.

The Proms has always struggled with issues of diversification, being deeply rooted in 125 years of British concert-going tradition. However, in a year where the need to diversify was fuelled by a huge push in the global Black Lives Matter Movement, there were steps taken (albeit very small ones). The number and variety of genres and performers represented at the Proms this year resonated with the target to decolonise and diversify; one example included Anoushka Shankar collaborating  with composer and producer Gold Panda,  the Britten Sinfonia and London-based eight-piece band Kokoroko. Shankar, a multi-Grammy-nominated sitar player and composer, celebrated the centenary year of her father Ravi Shankar’s birth in a concert that aimed to present “ragas and the sitar in a new light”. She combined recordings of her father’s works with her own sitar improvisations and live electronics by Gold Panda. Working with conductor and arranger Jules Buckley, Shankar also produced new arrangements of her own pieces for the strings of Britten Sinfonia and percussionist Manu Delago.

This fusion of Indian classical music and Western string instruments is one avenue in which classical music performances might be decentred from their colonial legacy. This is not without its problems, as it positions other genres within the constructs of western classical music and maybe does not solve the issue at hand. Yet, in this context, with Shankar occupying a powerful position on stage and in the curating of the performance, the fusion is enacted in a way that decentres the representation of classical music from its colonial roots. In another performance, Kokoroko presented a blend of the sounds of Afrobeat, Highlife and Jazz. The performers have their roots across Africa and the Caribbean and aim to experiment with what West African music can sound like in the hands of highly gifted Jazz musicians. 

Kokoroko performing at the PromsTwitter/BBCProms

There was also the widely-publicised controversy surrounding the Last Night of the Proms. On August 23rd, the Sunday Times reported that the BBC was considering axing Rule Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory from its programme, because the “organisers feared backlash because of their perceived association with colonialism and slavery”. These discussions are said to have been sparked by Dalia Stasevska from Finland, who conducted the Last Night, and at least demonstrate the Proms’ acknowledgement of the current political climate. However, there were several days of heated debate that followed this article, showing the musical event’s inextricable link to its political context. The debates were heightened when Boris Johnson chimed in that he would be unhappy about changes to the Proms, claiming that even with the problematic line “Britons never shall be slaves”, “we need to tackle the substance of problems, not the symbols” and Nigel Farage making his position clear in a comment that suggested the conductor should be dropped instead of the patriotic songs.

Some more risk-taking is required to decentre colonial legacies in classical music today.

With the backlash the organisers received following the plan to axe Rule Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory, it was decided that the original instrumental versions of the pieces would be performed (as a result of staging difficulties during the pandemic). Yet even this received so much backlash that it was decided that the words would be sung by the BBC singers. Although drowned by the debates surrounding Rule Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory, the night included a specially commissioned reimagining of Parry’s Jerusalem by Belizean composer Errollyn Wallen. The piece was dedicated to the people of the Windrush generation and remembering all the nations of the Commonwealth and featured South African soprano Golda Schultz. Despite the backlash and multiple changes of plans for the last night, useful discussions did take place that may have resulted in minor changes for this year’s festival, but that will certainly need to be carried forwards to future Proms.


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Maybe this unusual Proms in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic was what the classical music industry needed. Destabilising some of the longstanding traditions sparked the beginnings of change in the form of diversifying and decolonising classical music in the UK and around the world. However, as the debates around the Last Night demonstrate, the call to decolonise the classical music industry is far from being answered. Some more risk-taking is required to decentre colonial legacies in classical music today. In this respect, I believe that the Proms missed a chance.