Maro Itoje unveiled the English rugby anthem Swing Low. Sweet Chariot makes him “uncomfortable”, but he doesn’t think fans should be banned from singing them in Twickenham.
This month, the Guardian announced that the Rugby Football Union was reviewing the song – originally an American slave spiritual – and admitted that many followers were unaware of its roots.
A ban on supporters singing the song would be practically impossible to enforce, but the RFU is advising players and fans and intends to educate Twickenham visitors about its origins. RFU executive director Bill Sweeney said he no longer sings the song, but would not consider followers who do so to be racist. The union is also likely to rethink their marketing and branding campaign, using the lyrics to the song that are visible across Twickenham.
It is believed that the song was first sung in Twickenham when Martin “Chariots” Offiah appeared at the Middlesex Sevens tournament in 1987. It became popular with English fans in 1988 when Chris Oti scored a hat trick against Ireland. However, the song’s origins lie in U.S. slavery, and it is believed that it was written by the American slave Wallace Willis around the 1860s.
Itoje told BBC Today today: “The context in which it was originally sung was that African Americans tried to give them strength and hope. What made me uncomfortable was the introduction sung for Martin Offiah and Chris Oti, who are obviously two black players who played the game in Twickenham. It’s a great opportunity to educate people about the context of this song.
“I’m not sure if the ban works because you can’t regulate what comes out of people’s mouth, but I think people should be educated about the background of the song, and it is up to each individual whether it is want to sing it or not. ”