As the world bid farewell to Nelson Mandela—“one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth," said President Obama…and a leader who showed the world the true power of non-violent action against suffering and injustice—something deeply relevant was happening. World famous rock and country bands were cancelling their upcoming performances at SeaWorld Orlando’s annual Bands, Brews, and Barbecues Festival. In fact, they were leaping like passengers from a burning ship.
“The exodus first began on November 27 when the group Barenaked Ladies announced that they were withdrawing from their gig slot because of the Blackfish movie,” reports Elizabeth Batt at Digital Journal. Just three weeks later (with Mandela’s death on December 5 marking a kind of tipping point), eight of the ten famed bands are out. Willie Nelson, Heart, Cheap Trick, 38 Special, REO SpeedWagon, Martina McBride, and Trisha Yearwood all dumped their scheduled performances, some specifically citing their concerns raised by Blackfish.
What’s more, other artists have asked SeaWorld to stop using their music during Shamu shows. Joan Jett, whose “I Love Rock and Roll” accompanies orca shows in Shamu Stadium, wrote in a letter to SeaWorld, “I'm among the millions who saw Blackfish and am sickened that my music was blasted without my permission at sound-sensitive marine mammals.” Darren Hayes of “Savage Garden” and Edgar Winter of “Free Ride” also want their music purged from SeaWorld shows.
With their protest, these bands and musicians have entered a venerable “Hall of Fame” of artists who’ve used their own renown and non-violent action to leverage widespread public education of suffering or injustice. What’s remarkable given the timing of Mandela’s passing, is the parallel between the top-line bands ditching SeaWorld and the Artists Against Apartheid protest movement started in 1985, and rolled out with Steven Van Zandt’s protest song, Sun City. The ASA (and the song) included dozens of top-label musicians—fueled by their drive for justice—including Hall and Oats, Pat Benetar, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr, Bonnie Raitt, and Bob Dylan. All these artists vowed not to play in South Africa’s Sun City as a statement of their solidarity with those impacted by the brutalities of apartheid. Danny Schechter, a journalist with ABC News at that time wrote that Sun City was, “a song about change not charity, freedom not famine.
We're rockers and rappers united and strong We're here to talk about South Africa we don't like what's going on It's time for some justice it's time for the truth We've realized there's only one thing we can do
I ain't gonna play Sun City
Relocation to phony homelands Separation of families I can't understand 23 million can't vote because they're black We're stabbing our brothers and sisters in the back.
Then there was the ASA’s now legendary sister movement: the “We Are the World” artists’ crusade to end famine in Africa. That song, driven by global empathy for the suffering of others, topped music charts internationally and became the fastest-selling American pop single in history. And that sweeping tide of compassion traces its roots, via visionary Harry Belafonte, to “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” performed by Band-Aid, a UK supergroup of rock stars who used their music to raise money for anti-poverty efforts in Ethiopia.
It's Christmastime; there's no need to be afraid At Christmastime, we let in light and we banish shade And in our world of plenty we can spread a smile of joy Throw your arms around the world at Christmastime But say a prayer to pray for the other ones At Christmastime
It's hard, but when you're having fun There's a world outside your window And it's a world of dread and fear Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears
And the Christmas bells that ring there Are the clanging chimes of doom Well tonight thank God it's them instead of you And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmastime
The greatest gift they'll get this year is life Oh, where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow Do they know it's Christmastime at all? Feed the world Feed the world Let them know it's Christmastime again
Perhaps Danny Schechter would’ve changed the last lines to “free the world.”
Like so many other artists before them, these eight bands ditched SeaWorld because the truth is out. Psychologically speaking, they'd (and/or the many fans who petitioned them) witnessed suffering and injustice via the movie Blackfish, deeply empathized with its victims, experienced a natural outrage response, and taken action. The powerful effect of mirror-neurons in the brain had once again shifted the tide of history...and SeaWorld, in a remarkable defensive posture, took out full-page ads in newspapers across the country on December 20, in an attempt to mollify a disturbed public (and see Part 2). Even Cash, a now six-year-old boy who watched Blackfish, made a short video asking people to boycott SeaWorld on his birthday, December 22. And they did: in three different national locations. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic the UK's Daily Mail reported on Sunday's boycott in Orlando, quoting protestors as saying killer whale shows are a "form of slavery."
But not un-like the apartheid-enforcing National Party in South Africa, SeaWorld has failed to respond in any meaningful way (see Blackfish Friday and Part 2). Blackfishsmacked the glossy distortions of SeaWorld wide open, while David Kirby’s paradigm-shattering book Death at SeaWorld sealed its fate by casting a tremendous spotlight on corporate truths that the company has so-far managed to keep hidden. And many, many others are helping spread the facts beyond the corporate spin. Just today, in response to the ads SeaWorld ran last week, the Oceanic Preservation Society (the filmmakers of the Academy Award winning documentary The Cove) issued a research-backed Open Letter that begins: "Inaccurate reports from SeaWorld recently placed in full-page advertisements in major newspapers included a series of mistruths about the quality of life of the animals in its care."
Thus, the bands’ exodus from SeaWorld confirms that it’s not too early to link what has become known as the "Blackfish Effect” to a moral uprising akin to the one that eventually overthrew apartheid. As the bands cancelled their gigs, and just three days before Mandela’s death, the Non-Human Rights Project filed a lawsuit in New York to “fundamentally overthrow” the distinction between humans and chimpanzees; a lawsuit that asks the courts to consider our closest living relatives as “persons.” Steven M. Wise, the lead attorney, “believes that the historical use of habeas corpus lawsuits as a tool against human slavery offers a model for how to fight for legal rights for nonhumans,” wrote James Gorman in the New York Times.
The “case relies heavily on science. Nine affidavits from scientists that were part of the court filings offer opinions of what research says about the lives, thinking ability and self-awareness of chimpanzees…Mr. Wise argues that chimps are enough like humans that they should have some legal rights… The suits asked that the chimps be freed to go to sanctuaries where they would have more freedom.”
Back at SeaWorld, the whales known as Shamu (see Shamu the Slut) will perform this Christmas, as they do every year, in a concrete tank, far removed from their families (see A Better Way to See Orcas, a short video that explains wild family life verus and captive life for killer whales). They’ll do tricks for food, performing for human families who pay a lot of money for the thrill of seeing killer whales up close. From SeaWorld Orlando’s holiday line-up for 2013:
“The Shamu family of killer whales star in Shamu® Christmas Miracles, an evening show that features holiday music, soaring theatrics and a heart-warming story. Live animals share the stage with puppets in O Wondrous Night, a show based on The Christmas Story and featuring more than 30 carols.”
But as Elizabeth Batt writes, “Unfortunately, the only resemblance to Santa Claus that Shamu bears, is the ability to appear everywhere at once. She's performing at SeaWorld parks in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio all at the same time…The original Shamu was ripped from her family after being captured in Puget Sound Washington. She died Aug. 23, 1971 from a blood infection after just six years in captivity.”
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Rachel Clark is a science writer, biologist, and mother.