Shell Out Sounds -> Voices for a Shell-free Southbank


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OIL IN THE WATER, 25.10.13

Audience applaud pop-up choir’s song detailing Shell’s misdeeds,

just before classical concert is due to begin

(25.10.13) This evening, just as a Shell-sponsored performance by the Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestra was about to start, a 15-strong choir suddenly stood up in their seats behind the stage, in full view of the audience, and began to sing. They launched into a version of the classic spiritual Wade in the Water, with rewritten lyrics drawing attention to Shell’s controversial human rights and environmental record. The audience listened and clapped along as the choir sang verses based on Shell’s polluting activities in the Niger Delta [1], the Canadian tar sands [2] and the Arctic [3], and applauded as the singers unfurled a banner reading ‘Oil in the Water’ and bearing an evil-looking Shell logo. There was further applause as the song ended, and the choir then proceeded to the bar where it performed again before leaving the building. Security guards looked on but did not interfere.

Shell Out Sounds by Hugh Warwick
Photo by Hugh Warwick

The second half of tonight’s concert included a movement called ‘O King’, which is a tribute to Martin Luther King [4], to draw attention to the fact that a piece of music about such a famous supporter of social justice was being sponsored by a company associated with decades of human rights abuses, the performers handed out flyers at the end of the show:

SOS flier

The flyers also contained the full lyrics to the song:

This was the fifth performance led by Shell Out Sounds [5], a group of musicians and concerned concert-goers who are challenging Shell’s sponsorship of the arts through music and song. Tonight’s intervention also hoped to draw attention to Shell’s current activities in Brazil, the homeland of the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra. Shell has been forced to withdraw from a controversial deal to purchase ethanol from lands taken from the Indigenous Guarani people, and are also under fire for the purchase of Brazilian oil fields in what has been widely reported as a bad deal for the people of the country, carrying a serious risk of future offshore oil spills [6]. One chorus of the choir’s song was performed in Portuguese in reference to these problems:

Petrolio na agua

Petrolio na agua, filhos

Petrolio na agua

Shell vai perturbar a agua

Morag Carmichael, who sang in the Shell Out Sounds choir, said: “Sponsorship deals like this one allow companies like Shell to present themselves as a responsible and necessary part of society. This helps them to get away with all kinds of polluting activities, from failing to clean up decades’ worth of oil spills in Nigeria, to poisoning Indigenous communities’ lands and water in Canada. Scientists are telling us that we need to leave 80% of known fossil fuels in the ground to have a decent chance of avoiding disastrous runaway climate change, but that won’t happen unless we reduce the influence of companies like Shell in our political and cultural institutions.”

Dr Anna Goodman, another member of the choir, said: “The Southbank gets less than five percent of its funding from Shell. Of course we can have world-class musical performances without fossil fuel sponsorship – it’s absurd to suggest otherwise. We are all supporters of the Southbank Centre and want to see it thrive into the future, free from the discordant intrusion of Shell sponsorship.”

The composer Matthew Herbert, commenting in the Guardian earlier this year, said: “Arts institutions are giving oil companies a social licence to promote fossil fuels. Climate change is getting to a pretty alarming stage and part of art’s responsibility is to point that out, to suggest alternatives, to imagine the horror of environmental disaster in ways that might stimulate action…There’s a really unhealthy point where music and art instead of trying to prick the bubble, become the bubble, and that particularly music seems happy to become a soundtrack to consumption – that’s very dangerous really.”

Shell Out Sounds is part of the Art Not Oil coalition, along with other groups seeking to kick oil sponsorship out of the arts such as Liberate Tate, the Reclaim Shakespeare Company and London Rising Tide.

[1] Shell has operated in Nigeria for over 50 years and oil spills have become an almost daily occurrence in the oil region of the Niger Delta. A 2011 UN report confirmed the horrifying extent of pollution in the Ogoni region and estimated it could take 25 to 30 years to clean up. The UN condemned Shell for falling below its own operating standards and under-reporting pollution.

[2] The tar sands are one of the most carbon-intensive and environmentally destructive sources of oil in the world. Current production is located mainly in Alberta, Canada, where tar sands deposits cover an area of 140,000 km² – an area nearly as big as England and Wales combined. Shell is one of the largest players in the tar sands, producing approximately 276,000 barrels per day or roughly 20% of total exports from Alberta, and has applied to expand its capacity to a projected 770,000 barrel per day capacity. However, strong community resistance to Shell has damaged its reputation with both shareholders and the public. It has been named in five lawsuits related to tar sands developments and has faced shareholder resolutions demanding greater clarity over the risk of tar sands investments.

[3] Shell has been the most aggressive company seeking to exploit the pristine Arctic Ocean for offshore oil. Shell has been planning for years to drill outer-continental shelf wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off Alaska. Dozens of support vessels and aircraft would patrol both seas, emitting pollutants and risking oil spills. If an oil spill were to happen in the Arctic’s extreme, remote conditions, there is no proven method to clean it up.

Following a global campaign to revoke the drilling licences Shell has received from the US government, at the end of February 2013 Shell declared that it was cancelling its plans to drill for oil in the Arctic during 2013. However, it has not cancelled its plans altogether, and without stronger legal protection for the Arctic Shell will almost certainly try to return.

[4] The movement “O King”, dedicated to Martin Luther King, is part of Berio’s Sinfonia which was performed in the second half of tonight’s show with the Swingle Singers.

[5] Shell out Sounds has performed at the Southbank on four previous occasions, but this is the first time the choir has sung inside the Royal Festival Hall itself rather than in the bar or the foyer.