Oil in the Water

It is hard to know just how to express the degree of Shell’s nastiness, but one might start with a three-part harmony at the South Bank’s Royal Festival Hall.

The other option, for me anyway, is to weep alone in my bedroom over a cheap bottle of rum. Anyway, the critics loved it:

‘This evening’s concert began with a protest, and very musical and well organised it was too. About five minutes before the start of the show, the audience sitting in the right wing of the choir stalls all stood up and began singing. Eventually a banner was unfurled, making clear that the protest was against Shell, who were sponsoring the event. The protesters sang well, they even included a verse in Portuguese (it might have been Spanish) for the benefit of our guests, and in the last verse they all filed out of the hall, creating a live fadeout effect as one by one they left.’

The Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra played in the same week that over a thousand Brazilian troops were deployed to quell protests arising from Shell’s new contract, a massive oil well under the ocean in Brazilian territory. A few weeks ago the International Panel on Climate Change released their doom-laden report, and a storm rages as I write. Last week saw more extreme weather on the south coast of England. The forecast does not look good.

Our songs focus on various aspects of Big Oil, but how do you rank racism, military-supported land grabs, climate change and oil spills in terms of horror? Nine Ogoni human rights activists were executed in 1995 for raising a stink about that stink permeating their land in the Niger Delta. The criticism directed at Shell (which gives tens of millions to the Nigerian security forces every year) spurred the oil giant into action to clean its brand image, by sponsoring cultural events. The tragedy, and the racism, continues today. Though the annual amount of oil leaked in the Delta is greater than that leaked in the Gulf of Mexico, it goes unreported because it poisons Africans, and the media doesn’t care about them. The average life expectancy in the delta is just 40.

Comparing fallout is as fraught as comparing sorrows. One selfish concern of mine is that my daughters face a future very different to the past, a creeping catastrophe so awful it doesn’t bear thinking about. It is upon us already, the disastrous consequences of our habits are unavoidable, though we may mitigate the disaster by building rafts to weather the storms. Challenging the dominance of oil companies, and the corruption at the heart of the neoliberal economy, is part of the struggle. But equally important is building community and positivity outside of the workings of state, regaining our autonomy and finding our voices.

The audience found our voices harmonic, clapping along with our song and applauding our banner, dropped by a veteran of the 60s civil rights protests in the US. Nobody booed, no security hassled us. One security guard came up for a polite chat after we did another version in the foyer, but I clocked him as a Nigerian, and asked him about what Shell had done for his country. It was clear where his sympathies lay.

Oil in the Water

Amidst the lies and filth and greenwash, what passion can you channel into beauty, and put at the service of hope?


The Art Not Oil Coalition endeavours to speak to their audiences in a language they appreciate. SOS sing at the South Bank. The Reclaim Shakespeare Company actors jump on stage in frilly collars to deliver their message in verse:

Liberate Tate install art works in the Tate.
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