THE BLOG

The Power of Voice: Protesting Oil Sponsorship of the Arts

04/03/2013 15:04 GMT | Updated 04/03/2013 15:05 GMT

Protesters have always used chants and slogans as a potent method of drawing attention to pressing issues. Now a newly-formed campaign group called Shell Out Sounds (SOS) use their voices to protest the oil industry's involvement in the British arts.

On Friday evening, the Southbank Centre in London - allegedly the largest single-run arts centre in the world - hosted a Shell-sponsored musical performance. During the interval, Shell Out Sounds took the initiative and performed an impromptu show for the crowd. What was their aim in flash-mobbing the audience with their musical talents? To sing about Shell's questionable exploits across the world, and the monetary connection between the corporate giant and the Southbank Centre. Each verse of their version of the spiritual Down to The River to Pray described the suffering of a community affected by Shell's operations and concluded with the words "Oh, Shell, not your name; No more oil, no more pain; Oh, Shell not your name; Art not in your name!" They must have been good because the security guards didn't even attempt to evict them.

Shell Out Sounds is comprised of a group of artists who want sponsorship of the arts from the oil industry in Britain to end. It may or may not come as a surprise to you that BP and Shell are among the biggest arts sponsors in the UK. Is this yet another way that large corporations are edging their way into British traditions? Does this relationship between oil giants and the arts impact British freedom of expression via creation? SOS argue that "corporate sponsorship, especially by oil companies whose livelihood depends on not moving forward from the outdated oil age, stifles and censors the arts".

SOS list a number of reasons for choosing to focus on Shell (look away now if you are faint-hearted), including the oil giant's investment in the Canadian tar sands, fracking, recurrent oil spills in Nigeria, and its controversial attempts to drill in the Arctic, the last of which was temporarily abandoned late last week. Most of all though, Shell Out Sounds wants people to know about the human rights issues that Shell has reportedly been involved in, and they make a strong argument that British arts institutions condone Shell's behaviour via these sponsorship relationships. Emily Coats, SOS vocalist, also makes the salient point that, "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".

Since the late 50s when Shell began oil extraction in Nigeria the corporation has been accused of oil spills across the the Niger Delta and has also been accused of understating the size of the spills. In the early 90s a group known as the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) formed in Ogoniland to hold large non-violent protests against their damaged livelihoods, polluted farmland and the uncontrolled oil spills. Contrary to popular belief, the Ogoni people did not benefit from Shell's presence on their land - out of a Nigerian workforce of 5,000 people, less than 100 of those employed were Ogoni. As a result of the protests Shell withdrew its operations from the Ogoni areas, but the Nigerian government responded to this by raiding protesters' villages and arresting the protest leaders, who came to be known as the Ogoni 9. One of the protesters, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was a popular author, TV producer and recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize for his work. Amnesty International recognised Ken as a Prisoner of Conscience in 1994, but despite their campaign he was executed in November 1995.

In January this year Shell was found guilty in a Dutch court of oil pollution in the Niger Delta that will take decades to remedy. 52-year-old native Friday Akpan was thankful that he would be paid damages by the company, stating that "The spill damaged 47 fishing ponds, killed all the fish and rendered the ponds useless... I think this will be a lesson for Shell and they will know not to damage people's livelihoods". If only it was that simple. Shell may have temporarily paused its campaign to drill in the artic, but the corporate giant is still facing on-going legal action from 11,000 members of the Niger Delta Bodo community, and has admitted liability for two spills in the Bodo region.

Now back to our musicians. Underpinning SOS's musical serenading is the strong message that this is why people in the British arts community do not want to be forced into bed with unethical corporations. In a campaign like this, voice is everything. We may not be able to hold governments to account for human rights violations, or help the fishermen who are left without livelihoods in the effected regions, but what we can do is something that people have always done in times of trouble; use art to bring people together; use music to tell stories of fractured, weeping communities; sing haunting harmonies to convey the disharmony that companies like Shell are responsible for in countries like Nigeria.

When it comes to grassroots activism, the UK is alive and kicking. SOS handed out leaflets of their adapted song lyrics, and people sang along to them.

The musicians are doing it for themselves.

By standing up and singing where they have not been invited to sing, and where their voices aren't welcome, SOS perform a fitting tribute to the arts. This is art as it should be, challenging your preconceptions, taking you by surprise, and questioning the way things are. So far, over 100 people have expressed their solidarity with this movement by signing an open letter to the Southbank Centre's CEO Alan Bishop calling for the Centre's relationship with Shell to end.

SOS composer Christopher Garrard says, "Shell's uncleared oil spills and ongoing gas flaring in the Niger Delta damage the health and livelihood of the Ogoni people. The second verse of our song bears witness to that injustice, with the line 'Gas flares bring naught but woe'. The song wasn't just a vehicle for a protest though but an invitation for people to engage more deeply with the values our arts and culture represent - values which Shell certainly doesn't share."

These are their words, and they are going to continue to sing them. They speak for the Ogoni people and the victims of the oil industry worldwide, where people are put before profit. They speak for Ken Saro-Wiwa, who lost his voice for daring to air it. They sing to represent communities whose voices are not heard on our shores.

Shell Out Sounds aim to use this popular form of protest to change the way the arts industry is run in Britain - one voice at a time. Take a look at the lyrics and sheet music to SOS's adaptations on their website, and you may find a tune there that is worth singing along to.