Arts and homelessness at the Rio 2016 Cultural Olympiad

Friday, 15 July 2016 - 10:00am

Next week, homeless people take over the streets of Rio in an artistic occupation of pop-up performances and workshops as part of the 2016 Cultural Olympiad. Organised by With One Voice (the international programme of Streetwise Opera) and entitled Uma Só Voz, the week runs between 19 and 23 July 2016 and aims to increase visibility for Rio’s street homeless population. With One Voice Director Matt Peacock explains.

Ricardo Vasconcellos with choir members in Rio

It’s easy to over-emphasise the importance of certain projects but next week’s Uma só Voz at the Rio 2016 Cultural Olympiad – involving almost 40 events with 300 homeless people and representatives from seven countries plus the launch of the first global arts and homelessness movement – does seem significant! 

This is our third exchange with Brazil and over the last six months, a committee has been established in Rio to manage plans for a final programme entitled Uma só Voz (the Portuguese translation of With One Voice). The committee – comprising members of the Homeless People’s Movement, the city council and NGOs in arts and homelessness – has built an incredibly ambitious and exciting week of performances and workshops. They have named it an ‘arts occupation of Rio’ where homeless people will be given visibility and dignity through artistic events throughout the city, from the streets and homeless centres to the most iconic cultural venues. 

Highlights include pop-up concerts by some of the 11 choirs we have helped set up in Rio (in locations including the steps of the opera house, the Museum of Tomorrow and public squares); dance workshops by Sokerissa (an NGO from Tokyo) led by the founder and two dancers who have experienced homelessness; discussions about Brazil’s Homeless People’s Movement and how that has inspired Manchester’s Homelessness Charter; exchanges and training between some of the most important theatre groups in the field including Cardboard Citizens, Milk Crate and Theatre of the Oppressed NYC; The Choir With No Name running workshops and training for local choir directors; a poetry session by an arts activist from Osaka who has started an arts ‘university’ for homeless people; workshops to create musical instruments from recycled material led by a performer who has experienced homelessness from Som da Rua in Portugal; and a verbatim theatre piece about transsexual homeless people living on the streets of Rio.

The amount of work and preparation that goes into a project like this is truly breath-taking and the committee, our partners People’s Palace Projects and the Streetwise team have worked tirelessly to organise everything, including tri-lingual interpreters at all events; 210 plastic bottles and 90 yoghurt pots for the instrument-making sessions; 500 t-shirts plus travel and meals for 200 choir members; welcome packs, visas and passports for 18 international delegates; City Council minibuses to take the delegation to workshops in different locations each day; and production infrastructure for multiple events in multiple locations. Huge thanks also go to the British Council, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and Macquarie Group Foundation for their invaluable support.

The week culminates in a showcase event on 23 July with performances from international and Brazilian projects. It takes place at Rio’s Bibliotecha Parque and will also be live streamed online at 8pm UK time at (website launches 23 July). The event includes choirs, theatre and dance pieces and a symbolic ‘handover’ from Brazilian to Japanese homeless people (Tokyo being the next Olympic city in 2020). We will all join hands on stage at the end and sing the ‘Song of Home’, for which the words were written by homeless people from both Brazil and Japan. I don’t anticipate many dry eyes in the house!

The event marks the end of this exchange but the start of something new when we officially launch the first ever international arts and homelessness movement. As a result of the impact of our work with Brazil (a three year partnership with the British Council and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation), we have been developing an international movement which uses the model of exchange to work across the world, strengthening the arts and homelessness sector. Until now, With One Voice has been about focused but isolated projects in Olympics cities. From next week, it will become a full-time movement which will run exchanges in many other countries, provide resources including the first online map of international arts and homelessness projects, and offer mentoring and funding for new initiatives.

It has been a big project to get off the ground and has resulted in us restructuring Streetwise Opera to incubate the movement. I have stepped down as CEO of the charity I began 15 years ago and become its Artistic Director and Director of With One Voice. 

I face next week with a mixture of pride, excitement and – I am not afraid to admit – nervousness. Next week will involve the biggest international gathering of arts and homelessness projects and people in history and the start of a whole new initiative which is a journey into the unknown. 

There will be inevitable bumps along the way but my time working with inspirational people in the sector around the world has taught me two very simple truths – that art is a human right for everyone and that the arts are fundamentally important in supporting and giving a voice to homeless people everywhere. These ideas need to spread and permeate internationally and we can’t wait to help do this.

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Matt Peacock

CEO - Streetwise Opera

Matt Peacock founded Streetwise Opera in 2002, a charity that uses music to help people who have experienced homelessness make positive changes in their lives. 

Matt is a former homeless support worker, opera critic and Clore Leadership Fellow. He is one of 30 social activists profiled in Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s book, Britain’s Everyday Heroes and was one of the Evening Standard’s Most Influential Londoners in 2013. He was awarded an MBE for services to music and homelessness in 2011 and is a Trustee of People United.

Twitter: @StreetwiseOpera