The slavery row over England’s rugby anthem

Defiant: Swing Low gets everyone hyped up, according to one England rugby fan. © PA

As England’s rugby team go for their 19th consecutive win tomorrow, a debate has erupted over their fans’ anthem, the origins of which lie in slavery. Is ‘cultural appropriation’ a bad thing?

Thousands of English rugby fans make the short hop to Ireland this weekend, hoping to see their team complete a perfect Six Nations and win a record-breaking 19 games in a row.

And there is one song they will sing more than any other — including God Save the Queen.

“Swing low, sweet chariot. Coming for to carry me home.”

To the English ear, it conjures up memories of stunning victories on the rugby field. It is a boisterous drinking anthem, dating from 1988 when it was first sung en masse at Twickenham.

But Swing Low is, in fact, an American slave spiritual, whose “forlorn lyrics invoke the darkness of slavery and the sustained oppression of a race,” according to Andrew Keh in The New York Times.

Spirituals are religious songs of the US South, derived from slaves combining European hymns and African music. Their lyrics fused Christian values with the hardships of slavery.

So is it right for England fans to sing a song loaded with memories of suffering and racism?

According to Josephine Wright, an American professor of music and black studies, the answer is “no”. She has accused rugby fans of cultural appropriation — the adoption of elements of one culture into another without knowledge of their history. Wright says it “betrays a total lack of understanding of the historical context in which those songs were created by the American slave”.

The RFU, English rugby’s governing body, believes there is a sufficient disconnect between its origins and when it is sung in support of the team. England’s Mako Vunipola, who is of Tongan descent, accepted that some might find it offensive, but urged England fans to carry on singing it to encourage the team on.

But Professor John M. Williams believes that such a view does not reflect a larger debate occurring in the rugby community. “The typical crowd that goes to watch England is not likely to think hard about these questions or spend much time worrying about political correctness,” he said.

Should England rugby fans kick their song into touch?

Culturally inappropriate

“Get a grip and let us sing what we want”, say many rugby fanatics. Cultural overlap is both inevitable and beneficial, and most England fans are well aware of the song’s origins. People must be free to broaden their horizons without being paralysed by the prospect of offending a few thin-skinned people. It is only a song.

It is very easy to dismiss these complaints if you are a white, English rugby fan, say others. This is a serious, mournful song, and it is clearly inappropriate for a bunch of boozy rugby fans to sing it without a second’s thought for its origins. They are trivialising the suffering of millions, whether they mean it or not.

You Decide

  1. Should England fans stop singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot?
  2. Would you mind if someone adopted a tradition from your own culture?

Activities

  1. Write your own song to replace Swing Low, Sweet Chariot as England fans’ rugby anthem.
  2. Do some research into the history of African American music and write a 500 word summary of your findings.

Some People Say...

“Offence is taken, not given.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Did previous generations care about cultural appropriation?
This is a relatively new debate. The term did not register on Google searches until 2009. In a globalised world where trade and travel are easy, there is now much more cultural interaction than there has been in the past. This leads to questions about diversity and the extent to which different cultures should merge.
So why do England fans sing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot?
It is thought that England supporters adopted it when a group of schoolboys began singing it at Twickenham in 1988 when England played Ireland. The boys were alleged to have been serenading Chris Oti, a black player, but this is disputed by some of those present that day.

Word Watch

Six Nations
An annual international rugby tournament held between England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France and Italy. England have won the last two competitions.
Record-breaking 19 games
England have equalled the 18-match record held by New Zealand (the All Blacks).
Twickenham
The 82,000 capacity home of English rugby.
RFU
Stands for Rugby Football Union.
Mako Vunipola
Of the song, Vunipola said: “Watching games when I was younger, when you hear it come on it’s obviously something special and when you’re on the field and hear it, it gives you a bit of a lift, so I never really thought about the meaning or if it’s from slavery.”
Tongan
Tonga is an island nation in the Pacific Ocean whose rugby team consistently performs above expectations.
Political correctness
Language or actions designed to avoid giving offence to members of particular groups in society.

Subjects