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You Can’t Kill the MessageAmber Massie-Blomfield

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We marched, that day, towards the Houses of Parliament, leaving the square outside the Tate Britain and forming a procession along the Thames. Someone had brought branches to the protest, green and freshly coppiced from a managed wood, and we held them aloft like we were extras from Macbeth, converging on Dunsinane. As a line of figures dressed in red moved past we stopped, marking their slow, silent choreography. Smoke bombs exploded outside the Department of Transport. I looked upwards as purple and pink clouds swelled in the sky above us.

Rage pounded in my heart, rage and exhilaration. The emotional score of the protest, and soaring above it all, sweet as a lark – joy. No one tells you, before you take to the street for the first time, how much joy there is in protest. But you feel it, the moment you slip into the crowd and shove the sign you made from an old bit of cereal box in the air above your head. Artist and activist Fehinti Balogun once likened a protest to being at a gig by your favourite band. Standing shoulder to shoulder with those who share what you’re passionate about; raising your voice to join the chant everyone else is singing. I wonder, too, if – like the crowd in an auditorium – our heartbeats began to synchronise. As if we were no longer a group of individuals but a single, vast body.

When you think of art you might not imagine a scene like this. You might instead think of a gallery’s flawless white walls. In a library, a ‘silence please’ notice hanging from the door. The red velvet curtain in a theatre that marks the drama’s edge. You might think of an art that is – and it so often is – roped off from the every day, kept behind plate glass in halls at once astonishing and fearful in their grandeur. To become an artist so often, it seems, is to join a rarefied sphere, removed from the terrain where the political battles of the day play out, and although so many artists have professed their desire to make change, the mystery of how art moves us might infuriate those driven to direct action, feeling history slip through their fingers as artists talk smoothly over glasses of champagne at press nights and private views.

But there is an edge land where art and activism meet, sharing the hope that to articulate human circumstances clearly is a means of improving them. Art in its truest sense is not something neatly circumscribed, cut off from the rough and tumble of politics, but intimately woven into the ways we negotiate the society in which we wish to live. Throughout history, artist-activists have slipped between both spheres, as if art and activism were on the same continuum – their art not distinct from their direct action but integral to it. In the most direct examples, artists become activists by joining protest movements, bringing their creativity to give shape and form to the political demands they make. If we seek out the march, we will find them there, amid the placards, the steel drums and the figures dressed in red.




By evening it had begun to rain. We occupied a street in Westminster, the tarmac we sat on turning slick and luminous with the city lights. A samba band played and at either end of the street two bamboo tripods stood, protestors perched at their apex, ten feet overhead. No traffic could pass. Policemen lined the railings, faces inscrutable.

Writers Rebel, a group of authors, poets and playwrights, had organised this action outside 55 Tufton Street – the offices of climate sceptic ‘thinktank’, the Global Warming Policy Foundation. Campaigner Esther Stanford-Xosei took to the makeshift stage we’d set up and began to speak. “We all stand before history,” she said. “Some have already cast themselves in the role of villains, some are tragic victims, some still have a chance to redeem themselves. The choice is for each individual.” The words she spoke were not her own. They belonged to the Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa: his execution speech.

Saro-Wiwa. That was the first time I had heard of him. I think he would have appreciated the setting. Before Saro-Wiwa became involved with activism, he wrote: novels, short stories, poetry and drama, as well as being a TV producer. His art resounded with his deep political convictions. In 1986 he published the novel Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English, a bold experiment in writing in Nigerian pidgin English that was the first of its kind; his short story collection, A Forest of Flowers, which received the Commonwealth Prize, gave voice to female narrators in a way that was uncommon in Nigerian literature of the time. Basi and Company, a low budget soap opera shot in lurid hues, was the most popular in Nigerian history – following the capers of a luckless antihero, Basi, the show was shot through with Saro-Wiwa’s belief in the need to overcome tribalism in the country, portraying troubles that united all working-class people in Nigeria, regardless of their tribe or ethnicity.

Unbounded by literary form, Saro-Wiwa let his pen follow his message, finding the medium that best suited it, flitting between literary and populist forms with a deftness that few writers possess. His activism was no different – another form in which his words could meet their audience, and it was his understanding of how an idea travels, honed through his literary work, that equipped him as a brilliant political organiser.

As the leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), a nonviolent action group against the exploitation of the Niger Delta by Shell, he was no stranger to protests. Oil was discovered in Nigeria in 1958. Saro-Wiwa, who was born in 1941, grew up a witness to the callous destruction of his homeland in pursuit of this ‘black gold’. With apparent impunity, Shell transformed a lush and ecologically diverse land of verdant mangroves and vital waterways into one of the most polluted places on earth. By 1990, when MOSOP was founded, thousands of oil spills had turned large swathes of it into a hellscape of lifeless brown waterways and towering flares that left the air redolent with the smell of crude, the land unfarmable and the water, slick with the rainbow tarnish of oil, undrinkable. Human bodies were left as broken as the land, as the spills were linked to high levels of malnutrition, infertility and cancer.

Saro-Wiwa called it a genocide. His use of the term was deliberate. He understood the power of that word, which had only recently been invented – in the wake of World War Two – to capture horrors that were hitherto literally unspeakable. For the first time associating the term with the actions of a private corporation, he grabbed international attention and changed the frame of reference for what was happening in the Niger Delta.

In 1993, he led 300,000 people in a peaceful march against a new Shell pipeline, the largest protest against an oil company in history.  At the protest, police clashes left several protestors shot and injured; one man was killed. In the months that followed, conflicts between the Ogoni and other tribal groups flared up, apparently stoked by the government and Shell. In November 1995, Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists – the Ogoni Nine – were hanged after being found guilty of the incitement to murder of four conservative Ogoni leaders who had been brutally killed by a mob in May 1994. Though the four were at odds with MOSOP over their campaign against the oil companies, the case against the Ogoni Nine is widely regarded by humanitarian organisations as a stitch up. Shell was accused of colluding with the Nigerian Government in the unjust execution of the Ogoni Nine – in 2009, on the eve of a legal action over the claims, the company agreed to a $15.5 million dollar out-of-court settlement over the claims (Shell director Malcolm Brinded stated at the time: “while we were prepared to go to court to clear our name, we believe the right way forward is to focus on the future for Ogoni people”).

The message, always, was the thing, the atom at the heart of all Saro-Wiwa did. His biographer has written of his “unique literary voice that enabled him to bring his ideas to a mass global (and local) audience”. Saro-Wiwa wasn’t allowed to read his execution speech at his death. But just before they killed him – finally, after several attempts at his execution had failed – witnesses reported that he shouted: “You can kill the messenger but not the message”.


Amber Massie-Blomfield is an author and theatre producer, currently working for Actors Touring Company. Her second book, Acts of Resistance, is about the power of art to create a better world, is published by Footnote Press in the UK and will appear in the US with WW Norton in November.


Call to action: Find a pen, a piece of paper, and a timer. Got it? OK. For the next ten minutes, you’re going to write about ‘the neighbourhood I’d like to live in’. Start now. Don’t let your pen leave the paper. Don’t pause. Don’t edit yourself. Don’t let the ego intervene. After ten minutes, stop. Don’t look at your paper. Fold it up, and put it away overnight. The next morning, take out the sheet of paper and read it. This is the neighbourhood you’re going to create. Start now. Don’t let the ego intervene.