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It wasn’t the talk at COP28 that gave me hope.
It was the singing

Words: Anne-Marie Hoeve

Photos: Courtesy of Sounds of the Ocean

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What to do when COP climate deals never seem to go far enough? Maybe it’s time to listen to the swell of voices outside the official negotiation rooms. That’s where you can hear the sound of change that will shift hearts and minds.

A piercing cry rises, quivers in the air for a moment and then drops suddenly before rising again, wistful and melancholy. The image of a giant ocean seabird springs to mind, gliding and diving above crested waves. But it’s not a seabird. It’s a human voice – singing. Where? Not amid wild ocean waters, but in the desert city that is Dubai, at the world’s biggest climate conference.

The UN climate summit – also known as COP28 – isn’t really a place you’d expect a lot of singing, right? Talking, yes. Heated debates, yes. Earnest negotiations deep into the night, goes without saying.

But singing?

And yet, after a week on the ground at COP28, it’s one of the things that stands out the most, with some of the summit’s most impressive experiences coming in the form of song. 

What is there to sing about when the world is on fire?

“As they sing, their voices fill the space with a presence beyond their number. They carry the voices of the women who couldn’t be here”

A lot. Because this is not singing as light entertainment or distraction. This is singing as the most powerful authentic expression of the human voice. Truths and lived realities sung straight from the soul. An act of defiant imagination that demands a new tomorrow when nothing else seems to be working. 

In dangerous times, we have always appealed to the gods in song. And these days it’s no different. At this strange annual ritual that is COP, where the powers that be convene, the danger is apparent for all who care to listen. In fact, it rings loud and clear in the voices of those on the frontlines of climate change. There is flooding. There is drought. There are fires. Entire island nations, communities and ways of life are under threat. Business as usual cannot continue.

And so, when indigenous leader Célia Xakriabá takes to the stage, the first thing she does is sing. It’s a song with which she begins every session of the Brazilian congress, she explains, as a reminder that Brazil’s origins are indigenous. She is one of five indigenous lawmakers to win seats in Brazil’s lower chamber in 2022 – the first in the country’s history to do so. Joining her on stage and in song are fellow women leaders from tribes across Brazil who have grouped together to form ANMIGA, the National Association of Indigenous Women Ancestral Warriors. As they sing, their voices fill the space with a presence beyond their number. They carry the voices of the women who couldn’t be here with them, an entire community amounting to 3,000 members.

Indigenous activist and Brazilian congresswoman Célia Xakriabá. Photo: Universo Produção / CC BY 2.0

They invite those in the audience to join in, and soon there is no longer a distinction between the voices emanating from the stage and those seated in front of them. There are simply voices singing together, rising united at the aptly named Hope House, a venue bringing together leadership during COP across civil society, private sector and NGOs to create a more equitable future for all. It’s organised by climate communications agency Time for Better.

Voices of resistance from the Niger Delta

Later in the week in the summit’s Green Zone – the area dedicated to activists and NGOs who aren’t party to the main negotiations – a panel of youth activists representing groups across Africa ends in a rousing incantation, singing the world they want to see: “United together we will never be defeated”. As the panellists spill out among the audience, we are again invited to participate, in an anthem evoking the spirit of past protest songs that have powered entire movements. Speaking to Nigerian environmental justice activist Odudu-Abasi James Asuquo of Oilwatch Africa afterwards, she highlights the urgency behind these words: “Climate justice is not a story. It’s our reality. We are the frontline communities that you hear about. We are the people that are suffering the most impacts of climate change.” 

Another organisation at the same panel, the Kebetkache Women’s Development and Resource Centre, is using song, dance and theatre to educate local communities in the Niger Delta and teach them not to let oil companies have access to local land for new extraction projects. In answer to the question of what we can all do: “Their headquarters are closer to you than to us,” they say. It’s an open call for all of us to use our voices and make more noise, vocal in our support where it can make a difference.

Ocean awareness

And then comes Sounds of the Ocean: an unforgettable multi-sensory experience at the main Expo City stage dedicated to ocean conservation. As the surrounding Dubai sky deepens to darkness, Hopi and Akimel O’odham environmental defender Jacob Johns sings an opening, his sonorous voice reaching far across the field. He is here as leader of the Wisdom Keepers, a delegation of indigenous elders and activists who have come together for COP28, to “weave together ancient wisdom in new contemporary ways to evolve… holding ceremony for the future of humanity.” Because, he explains: “We can’t just pray, we also know that we have to take our prayers and make them concrete and act.”

It’s hard to believe that he was shot just weeks ago during a peaceful demonstration. And now he’s somehow pulled together the strength to sing on stage, complete with hospital drains hidden under his shirt as he continues to battle the serious after-effects of his injuries.

Indigenous leader and Wisdom Keeper Jacob Johns performs in an evening dedicated to ocean conservation, co-organised by Oceanic Global. Photo: The Convergence

Speaking to him at Hope House, several days before the show, he describes why he had to come regardless of the attack which nearly cost him his life: “By listening to indigenous folks, who are protecting 80% of the world’s biodiversity, it helps us to remind our souls of the moral responsibility we have as human beings… we’re here as protectors. We are nature, and must be the voice for nature.”

“We can’t wait for world leaders to act… we must shift the hearts and minds of other people. As the old world dies, a new one is born. And it’s up to us to define that future, define that world and to really co-create it.” 

When the main show begins, the kind of co-creation that Johns is referring to unfolds in a mesmerising musical odyssey with indigenous performer Whaia. Also of the Wisdom Keepers, and born of Ngati Kahugnunu tribal descent in New Zealand, she describes herself as a ‘sonic weaver’ – a term that comes to life the minute she starts singing.

Her voice soars and plummets, mirroring and amplifying the sounds and movements of a giant whale swimming on the screen behind her, along with live music by Joshua Sam Miller inspired by the sounds of the ocean. In a dress of shimmering silver, Whaia resembles an otherwordly hologram – her voice somehow channelling the past and future simultaneously. The music transcends sound alone to become a physical experience, reverberating deep inside your chest.

Sounds of the Ocean performed live at COP28 in Dubai.

Speaking to the crowd gathered for the experience, ocean activist and the youngest of the Wisdom Keepers, Bodhi Patil reminds us of the power of song as he recounts the story of how, in the 1970s, biologist Roger Payne’s first recordings of whalesong went viral, inspiring the world to care about these magnificent mammals that had been hunted to the verge of extinction, “changing perspectives in a single human lifetime,” and “spurring governments to change policies… in one of the first success stories of the climate movement”.

The world needs more of these success stories. As environmental campaigner and Guardian climate columnist George Monbiot recently wrote: “Time is short, the powers arrayed against us are great. But we know that, just as ecosystems have tipping points, so do social systems, and history shows that these often turn out to be much closer than we imagine. The quest now is to reach the social tipping points before the ecological ones.”

Maybe this is the real progress at COP, taking place outside of the closed negotiation doors where the songs sung by those too often unheard invite participation from the many. We all have something to contribute. And in this age every voice that joins in can make a difference.

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