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England rugby international Maro Itoje has revealed that he will no longer sing Swing Low Sweet Chariot before games after learning of the song’s origins in the American Slave Trade.
The song has long been considered the traditional anthem for English rugby, but was recently the subject of a review by the Rugby Football Union (RFU) after concern over its subject matter was raised in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests.
While the RFU stopped short of banning the song – believed to have been written by 19th century freed slave Wallace Willis – unease was expressed over the lyrics, which refer to a slave’s hopes of finding peace in the afterlife.
In a recent interview with French publication L’Equipe, Itoje claimed that he will no longer sing the song before matches after becoming aware of its origins, after previously going on record about his unease with the song in a prior interview two years ago.
“I’m not going to tell people what they should or shouldn’t do but, personally, I won’t sing this song anymore,” Itoje told L’Equipe.
“I sang it before when I was naive and didn’t know its origins but, knowing now the context in the creation of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, it’s not an anthem that I’m going to repeat anymore.”
This is not the first time that Itoje has expressed his discomfort with the song.
Speaking to the BBC Today Show in 2020, he explained the need to provide greater context behind the lyrics and asked fans to consider the racial disparity between fans and players during international games.
“The context in which it was originally sung was with African American individuals to try and give them strength, give them hope. What makes me uncomfortable was its introduction with it being sung for Martin Offiah, it being sung for Chris Oti, who are obviously two black players that played the game at Twickenham. It is a great opportunity to educate people about the context of that song.
“I am not too sure if banning works because you can’t regulate what comes out of people’s mouths but I think people should be educated about the background of the song and it will be down to any individual if they want to sing it or not.”
Following the RFU's review, the song's lyrics were eventually withdrawn from marketing and merchandising, with the RFU producing a video explaining its historical context in greater detail.
Words by Tom Sanders.