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‘Conscious community choir’ returns to sing out Shell at the Southbank Centre

Tuesday, 23 April 2013 08:50

Shell Classic International concert-goers applaud Shell Out Sounds performance highlighting sponsor’s human rights record

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On the evening of Monday 22nd April, a group of about 10 singers and musicians called ‘Shell Out Sounds’ (SOS) returned to the Southbank Centre to give another musical intervention, during the interval of a Shell-sponsored performance by Imogen Cooper and the Budapest Festival Orchestra. The ensemble premiered a new piece called ‘The Riddle of the Niger Delta’, written specifically for the concert, setting the poignant words of the Nigerian environmental and human rights activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa. The group handed out flyers about Shell’s human rights record to audience members, many of whom stopped to listen and applauded at the end of the song. The Southbank Centre duty visitor manager said the performers were welcome to come back and perform whenever they liked, and were invited to discuss the issue of Shell sponsorship with the Southbank Centre PR team.

This was the second public performance by Shell Out Sounds, a group of musicians and concerned concertgoers who are challenging Shell’s sponsorship of the arts through music and song. Tonight’s performance highlighted the ongoing damage caused to the Niger Delta region through massive oil spills, continued gas flaring and Shell’s financial contributions to the Nigerian military and other armed groups. Dressed in black with purple sashes, the singers were joined by a cello player who provided rich accompaniment to the lyrics ‘I am a man of peace, appalled by poverty’ and ‘Shell is here on trial, there is no doubt in my mind!’ Saro-Wiwa’s words draw attention to Shell’s long history of exploitation in the Niger Delta which has been investigated extensively by Amnesty International and the United Nations Environment Programme among others. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court disappointingly ruled against Nigerian citizens in the Kiobel vs. Royal Dutch Petroleum (Shell) case. They allege that Shell aided and abetted the Nigerian military dictatorship in the ‘torture, rape, and extrajudicial killing of unarmed protesters in the 1990s’.

The Southbank Centre recently re-allocated tonight’s concert on their website, an attempt to perhaps disassociate the concert from the ‘Shell Classic’ name. The reason for this change is currently unknown – pressure from performers or the risks of negative PR are conceivable. [1] 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 as the motives of the companies have been questioned. BP’s sponsorship of the Tate Galleries [2] and the Royal Shakespeare Company [3] will be under the spotlight again as the third anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico passes.

Chris Garrard, who sang in the performance, said:

‘Shell’s sponsorship of the Southbank Centre makes them appear generous, responsible and an essential part of our cultural institutions. This is simply not the case. While total sponsorship to the Southbank in 2009 was around £2.61 million, Shell gave roughly seventeen times that amount, approximately £44 million, to government security forces in Nigeria in the same year. We believe that once audience members know these facts, they will join us in asking for the relationship with Shell to end.’

Sunniva Taylor, a member of the Shell Out Sounds group, said:

‘The Southbank Centre say that, “Festivals also offer a safe environment in which to discuss issues that affect all our lives, from human rights to climate change.” We are simply bringing that discussion into the spotlight. I think the arts should be about life and the future, but Shell is part of a world we need to leave behind, based on exploitation of people and the earth. Sponsorship by Shell dirties the music it claims to support.’ [4]

Shell Out Sounds are planning further performances at the Southbank Centre this summer at the Yoko Ono-curated “Meltdown Festival”. Ono is a vocal critic of the ‘fracking’ method of extracting gas, in which Shell is heavily involved.

Past media coverage of Shell Out Sounds:

Susanna Rustin, ‘Shell targeted by musical protest at South Bank concert’, The Guardian, 1 March 2013

Zion Lights, ‘The Power of Voice: Protesting Oil Sponsorship of the Arts’, Huffington Post UK – The Blog, 4 March 2013

[1] The concert was discreetly removed from the ‘Shell Classic International’ page of the website and re-classified as being part of the ‘Classical Season 12/13’. The Southbank Centre announced the concert as part of the ‘Shell Classic International’ season in a press release.

[2] Liberate Tate, a group of artists and activists, have been performing interventions at BP-sponsored Tate Modern and Britain since 2010, including the installation of a 16.5metre, one and a half tonne wind turbine blade in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in a guerrilla performance by over 100 members of the art collective in July last year.

[[3] Mark Rylance, one of the UK’s leading actors, publicly expressed his concerns about BP sponsorship in a letter to the Guardian (also signed by other members of the theatre world).

RSC Playwright in Residence Mark Ravenhill revealed during a talk at the Latitude Festival that there was a huge debate going on within the RSC about BP. Artists and writers including Suzanne Lacy (recent exhibition at Tate), Paul Noble (2012 Turner Prize finalist) and Hans Haacke signed consecutive letters in the Guardian calling on Tate to drop BP sponsorship.

[[4] Quotation taken from the Southbank Centre’s Festival Wing development exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall.

See also: http://priceofoil.org/2013/04/23/bp-and-shell-targeted-in-arts-protests/

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