Flashmob choir harmonises vs. Shell at Southbank Centre, 1.3.13

Interval interrupted at Shell Classic International concert, as "Shell Out Sounds" sing their opposition to oil sponsorship

On the evening of Friday 1st March 2013, a group of singers and musicians called "Shell Out Sounds" (SOS) made an unexpected musical intervention at the Southbank Centre, during the interval of a Shell-sponsored performance by members of the Berliner Philharmoniker and guests. The 16-strong "flashmob choir" sang a sombre version of "Down to the River to Pray", the lyrics rewritten to depict the sadness and woe Shell inflicts on the world. The group handed out flyers to audience members, many of whom stopped to listen and applauded at the end of the song. The Southbank Centre security guards did not attempt to stop the surprise performance.

This was the first public performance by Shell Out Sounds. The new group brings together musicians and singers who are concerned about Shell sponsorship of the Southbank Centre. This is due to the oil giant’s significant contribution to climate change, its highly environmentally-destructive exploitation of the Canadian tar sands, its fracking operations around the world, its ongoing polluting activities in Nigeria and its controversial attempts to drill in the Arctic. The pop-up choir were all dressed in black with purple sashes, and sang from memory in three-part harmony. Each verse described the suffering of a community affected by Shell’s operations in Canada, Nigeria and Alaska, and concluded with the refrain “Oh, Shell, not your name; No more oil, no more pain; Oh, Shell not your name; Art not in your name!”

Shell has sponsored the Classic International series of concerts at the Southbank Centre since 2007. But oil industry sponsorship of the arts has become an increasingly controversial issue. Over the last year BP’s sponsorship of the Tate galleries, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the British Museum have been targeted by a series of high-profile performance-based protest interventions by Liberate Tate and the Reclaim Shakespeare Company. Prominent members of the art and theatre world have also spoken out in criticism. Most recently, the Guardian reports that composers Matthew Herbert and Steve Martland have expressed concerns about Shell sponsorship of classical music, and over 100 musicians and music-lovers signed an open letter to the Southbank Centre’s CEO Alan Bishop calling for the relationship with Shell to end, including Jem Finer (founding member of The Pogues), composer and musicologist Leigh Landy, and Caroline Lucas MP. 

Christopher Garrard, composer and member of Shell Out Sounds said:

“We are all passionate supporters of the Southbank Centre but our arts institutions should provide the space for confronting injustice, not concealing it. Shell’s activities must not slip through the net. The amount of money the Southbank gets from corporate sponsorship is a fraction of its overall income – only 5 per cent in 2011. The excellence of the world’s best performers is being bought by Shell for a small price, drawing the public’s attention away from the damage they are perpetrating to people and the environment in Nigeria, Canada and Alaska. Tobacco sponsorship was banned, and cultural institutions and sporting events have survived without it. The same can be true of oil.”

Emily Coats, who sang in the Shell Out Sounds performance said:

“Arts and culture inspire, critique, and illuminate, and should be enjoyed by everyone. The arts need to be supported and nurtured for their own sake, not used as pawns by oil companies to boost the image of their operations in some of the world’s most destructive projects. If oil companies received fewer subsidies and contributed their fair share of taxes, the government would have more than enough to adequately fund the arts.”

Shell Out Sounds are planning more such interventions at the Southbank Centre, which this summer will host the Yoko Ono-curated “Meltdown Festival”. Ono is a vocal critic of the “fracking” method of extracting gas, in which Shell is heavily involved.

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