Radical Music: 'And here we are just having a nice time singing songs!'

IssueDecember 2018 - January 2019
Comment by Penny Stone

The first time I sang as part of a flashmob in Barclays bank was a couple of years ago in Edinburgh with Protest in Harmony choir.

Barclays had just opened a new branch on Princes Street with a great big high ceiling and hard walls, a church-like acoustic. Churches are great to sing in so, of course, we couldn’t resist!

There is currently a targeted campaign trying to get Barclays to divest from Israeli companies as part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to end the occupation of Palestine by the state of Israel.

It feels especially pertinent because of Barclays’ complicity in the apartheid regime in South Africa, so we are hoping they can learn from their own history and move to divest. Our singing was action to support this campaign.

With a sense of anticipation, I am standing in the bank, pretending to be looking for my wallet and waiting for enough singers to have dribbled in. Awareness of friends at the bank machines, standing in queues and searching in their bags is an interesting feeling – surrounded by friends and temporarily pretending to be strangers.

There is a moment of suspense that the non-singing bank-goers and staff members are not aware of. And then a melody rings out: ‘Barclays bank, bank, bank, won’t tell you that they have been investing in war crimes, dropping bombs on Palestine. South Africa, apartheid, Barclays paid the price. Israel, apartheid, don’t make the same mistake twice.’

And one by one and two by two the other singers dribble in until there is a scattered choir filling the bank with informative song.

“The non-threatening act of singing enables more people to hear what we are saying”

We held the space, singing, with some offering leaflets to those around us.

The staff took a moment to look shocked and confused and eventually tried to ask us to stop, but because we were ‘leaderless’, just an amorphous group of scattered singers, they didn’t know who to talk to.

Eventually, we headed out the door, still singing, and we carried on singing outside the bank to keep educating folks walking past and going into the bank.

On that day, one woman came out of the bank saying she was definitely going to close her account, that she had no idea about the investments in Israeli companies until she heard us singing.

Various other people gave us a thumbs up as they passed us by, and said ‘well done’ and ‘thank you’. Lots of people tried not to look at us or wore expressions that showed they were seeing new information. And when we were singing in the bank, mostly people just stayed very still, kept on doing what they were doing and tried not to look at what was happening around them.

Quite aside from the targeted campaigning aim of this action, there’s something really interesting about behaving in an unexpected and creative way in an unusual public space.

Very often, people will just carry on and pretend it’s not happening, and for me there is a small echo here of how we as a society collectively keep on pretending that things are ‘normal’ when the system is clearly broken. The act of singing in a bank or another unexpected space feels like a gentle challenge to this dangerous norm.

I was part of another Barclays flashmob in Aberdeen with San Ghanny choir last weekend, and a very similar series of events happened, with similar reactions. The staff called the police, but we were singing outside by the time that they arrived, and, as I watched through the window, conducting the choir outside the bank, the manager looked a little embarrassed (and the police tried not to look amused) as he tried to explain to them why we were threatening!

The campaigners in Aberdeen are used to standing outside Barclays with leaflets, and this was the first time they’d had a bunch of singers supporting their action. They were amazed at how many more leaflets got given out, at how responsive people were to the action because of the singing.

This shows our singing gives a bridging effect between us as campaigners and the people who we seek to connect with. The non-threatening act of singing enables more people to hear what we are saying, and hopefully more people will either challenge Barclays or withdraw their accounts as a result of it.

And here we are just having a nice time singing songs!

Topics: Culture
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