At Britain’s royal wedding, black American culture took center stage

Breaking protocol.
Breaking protocol.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Brady
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Britain’s royal wedding was infused with black American symbolism.

Reverend Michael Bruce Curry, the presiding bishop of the American Episcopal Church and its first African-American leader, “stole the show” at the ceremony (paywall) with a powerful sermon that wove black American culture throughout. Curry started and ended his address quoting Martin Luther King and preached of the power of love: “We must discover the power of love, the power, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that we will be able to make of this old world, a new world.”

In between, he also referenced slavery, colonialism, and poverty, all whist standing in the heart of the former British empire. His sermon was steeped in the oratorical tradition of black American preachers, which solicited some interesting reactions from the royal family.

The sermon was followed by Karen Gibson and The Kingdom Choir’s rendition of “Stand by Me.” The hit 1961 blues song is not only about enduring love, but a powerful rallying cry for racial justice and unity. Originally performed by American singer-songwriter Ben E. King, the song rose in popularity during the civil rights movement. It has been covered by more than 400 artists, including Otis Redding, John Lennon, and Tracy Chapman. In 2015, “Stand By Me” was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” enough to be preserved in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.

The ceremony also featured 19-year-old cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the first black person to win BBC’s Young Musician of the Year award, who performed (paywall) Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” Gabriel Fauré’s “Après un rêve,” and Maria Theresia von Paradis’ “Sicilienne.” The young musician has previously called for classical music to be more inclusive of black people.

Etta James’s version of the gospel hymn “This Little Light Of Mine” was the last song to be performed at the ceremony. Described as an “inspired way,” to close the royal wedding, the song was another anthem of the civil rights movement.

The wedding comes at a time of racial discontent in the UK. From the uptick in hate crimes following Brexit to the Windrush scandal, discrimination against Britain’s ethnic minorities has come under sharp focus. While anti-racist leaders in the UK gave a warm response to the wedding ceremony, they also warned against attaching too much meaning to the wedding.