These performances are only a very small fraction of the activist group’s work. Most of their energy is consumed by more conventional protest, and their agenda is expansive but consistent. Their first major area of concern, when they formed around 2005, was the western world’s rampant consumerism – hence ‘stop shopping’. They’ve protested – and occasionally been arrested – at Times square, Main Street outside Disneyland, Starbucks and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Reverend Billy ran for mayor of New York in 2009 on the Green party ticket. Although they’re based in New York, Billy and his Choir have visited England as well as many parts of the the States.
Reverend Billy at Joe's Pub, NY.
In the lobby of Joe’s Pub, New York, we mill around waiting for one of my favourite performance artists. While we wait for the rest of our little group to join us before we take our seats in the dark performance room, a little girl taps me on the elbow.
‘Hiya! Would you like a sticker? My favourite part is the rainbow’, she says earnestly, pointing at the spectrum emerging from behind a man’s head as he looks into the camera, eyes wide and fingers waving. The message is frank – GO OUTSIDE – and the man expounding it is Reverend Billy. We’re here to see him and The Stop Shopping Choir at one of their performances, part gig and part pseudo-sermon. I thank the little one and tuck the sticker in my bag.
They’ve protested – and occasionally been arrested – at Times square, Main Street outside Disneyland, Starbucks and the Occupy Wall Street movement.
After the mayoral bid, the group turned their attention from consumerism to climate change, which they believe to be directly linked. Today’s sermon will focus on human beings’ relentless exploitation of our planet, the frightening pace and scope of species extinction, as well as a guest appearance from five of the Wall Street Ten – arrested for their part in the Occupy Wall Street movement. The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement also gets its fair share of ‘air-time’. In a country where black men make up only 6% of the population and yet account for 40% of unarmed men shot to death by police this year, it’s a crucial message.
There’s a sincerity coupled with a New York irony – my favourite numbers included ‘Monsanto Is The Devil’, and ‘Capitalist Dogs Are Barking; Run For Your Life!’
The performance is electrifying. Modelled on a charismatic preacher – though not a Christian himself – Billy rails and rants with all the compelling vocal modulation and rhythm of a Baptist minister, and his words are accompanied by passionate and intelligent original music sung by 40 people, dressed in black and gold and moving in unison. Polished is not the point; feeling, impact and satire are the order of the day, and the group execute the balance impeccably. There’s a sincerity coupled with a New York irony – my favourite numbers included ‘Monsanto Is The Devil’, and ‘Capitalist Dogs Are Barking; Run For Your Life!’
Perhaps the Reverend Billy brand of activism and showmanship is so affecting because it is so ruthless, and so playful. It attacks the pillars of American (western) society – Christianity, capitalism – in a way that is truly and deeply important. Although the message, at least for the political left, is familiar, no one delivers it quite like him.
Look out for Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir in New York, where they’re based, and keep your ears pricked for news of their movements – they could be coming to a Starbucks near you. Listen to the weekly sermons on their blog, revbilly.com.