Last week Washington D.C. was graced with the presence of one of the world’s most famous musicians and social activists. Bono, lead singer of the Irish rock band U2, attended various meetings on Capitol Hill and spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast, alongside President George W. Bush. He was also the guest speaker at The Nation’s Capitol Distinguished Speakers Series sponsored by the American Society of Association Executives(ASAE) and the Center for Association Leadership. I was lucky enough to be a member of the audience as Bono, sporting sunglasses and a rosary around his neck, spoke at the Washington Hilton and Towers about The Future in Front of Us: Living a More Involved Life.
So what has Bono’s life been like up until now and how can one person change the lives of so many others?
Bono, a nickname given to him as a teenager, was born Paul David Hewson on May 10, 1960 in Dublin, Ireland. The son of a Roman Catholic father and Protestant mother, he attended Mount Temple High School, Ireland’s first nondenominational school. In 1976, fellow students Dave Evans (aka The Edge), Larry Mullen Jr, and Adam Clayton formed a musical group now known as U2. Six years later, Bono married his high school sweetheart, Ali Stewart. The couple has four children, Jordan, Memphis Eve, Elijah Bob Patricius Guggi and John Abraham.
While always interested in civil liberty issues, Bono’s involvement in the fight for human rights began in 1985 when close friend, Bob Geldof, asked U2 to perform at the Live Aid concert in London. The event was organized in order to raise money for famine relief in Africa. They raised $245.4 million — approximately what Africa spends every few weeks paying debts to rich countries – and soon after, this cause would become one of Bono’s ardent passions in life.
Shortly after Live Aid, Bono and his wife would take their first unforgettable trip to Africa, a continent he describes as a “magical place”. During this trip, Bono wrote the U2 trademark song, Where the Streets Have No Name, in under an hour on the back of an airplane sick bag while in Ethiopia. The lyrics help create a picture of the devastation he encountered on that trip but also provide the listener with hope by affirming his belief in heaven. "I want to feel sunlight on my face; I see the dust clouds disappear without a trace. I want to take shelter from the poison rain where the streets have no name."
As U2 became more and more popular, Bono used his massive recognition to draw attention to the crises of HIV/AIDS and poverty in Africa. He has worked tirelessly with the world’s most influential leaders and has enlisted the help of countless celebrities, both in the music and movie industry, to educate the public on atrocities that are plaguing not only Africa but all Third World countries.
Debt, AIDS and trade
In June 1999, Bono teamed up with Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga at a G8 meeting to present a petition with nearly 20 million signatures demanding debt relief. In September of that same year, Bono met with Pope John Paul II as part of the Jubilee 2000 delegation. Formed in the spirit of the biblical teaching of the Jubilee, this was an international crusade which sought to forgive billions of dollars owed by Third World countries to the developed world.
Three years later, Bono joined forces with Bobby Shriver and partners from the Jubilee 2000 to form DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade Africa). DATA aspires to educate the public about the calamities plaguing Africa. Their goal is to demonstrate that these calamities (widespread HIV/AIDS due to lack of health and education, the encumbrance of debt, unjust trade policies, political corruption and religious persecution) are human rights issues not merely charitable issues. As he stated in his speech, at the Washington Hilton, “This is not about charity. This is about justice.”
In their most recent Vertigo Tour, U2 dedicates a segment of the show to educating the audience on human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is displayed on a screen and songs such as Love and Peace Or Else, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Bullet the Blue Sky and Miss Sarajevo are sung one after the other. DATA not only asks for help from wealthy nations, they also work with African leaders to ensure that democracy is indeed being spread throughout the country. In essence, the point Bono is trying to drive home is that “we’re all made equal in the image of God”. If we truly believed in human equality, we would do everything in our power to stop the atrocities faced by these people in Africa. One of the most poignant quotes of the evening was, “Where you live in this world, should not decide whether you live.”
While in D.C., Bono focused on his most recent cause, The One Campaign, an operation designed to draw Americans together to help fight the spread of AIDS and poverty. The idea is that if 1% of the U.S. budget went towards providing basic needs to Third World countries, it would be enough to completely alter and improve the lives of future generations. What makes both The One Campaign and DATA unique is that they are fervently reaching out to faith-based organizations, including churches, mosques and temples, to gain support.
In fact, in 2002 Bono and DATA participated in a tour throughout the Heartland of America to raise awareness of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa. During that tour, Bono reiterated the fact that it is our moral obligation to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS. It was during this tour that he called upon the faith-based community in support of Africa. He believes it is the responsibility of religious groups to not only address issues such as AIDS and poverty but also actively become involved in putting an end to these issues.
Apparently, his call was answered. Just last week it was reported that a chunk of money from President Bush’s $15 billion AIDS program is being given to church based groups in order to prevent the spread of HIV, mostly in Africa. Bono stated at the National Prayer Breakfast, “The church was slow but the church got busy on this the leprosy of our age. Love was on the move. Mercy was on the move. God was on the move.”
Finding God in music
What role does Bono’s faith play in his activism?
When asked this question at the Washington Hilton, Bono merely stated that he “mistrusts” people that talk too much about their faith. That faith is a private thing and should be kept between the person and God. On a certain level, this is a statement to be greatly respected given the amount of hypocrisy one can find among preachers of all religions. In the past, however, Bono has not been secretive about his faith and has openly stated that he believes in God. In many ways, music was and still is a religion for Bono. He found song lyrics to be prayers and has often stated that he finds God in music. While he does not associate with one specific religion, he told Rolling Stone recently that he believes in Christianity although he “doesn’t use the label, because it is so very hard to live up to”.
Interestingly, Bono identifies mostly with the evangelical movement due to people and groups he associated with as a boy. Tired of oscillating between Catholicism and Protestantism, Bono and some of his band mates, joined an evangelical group called Shalom that met for worship and Bible study. Shalom, along with other strong evangelical influences, including his best friend, Guggi’s father, led Bono to study the Bible intensely.
As a result, references to scripture passages are scattered throughout U2’s lyrics. In With or Without You the line, “See the thorn twist in your side”, refers to the passage, “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” And in more recent songs, such as Miracle Drug, the line “I was a stranger, you took me in” refers to the passage, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” In the Rolling Stone interview Bono said the Bible sustains him as a belief and the meaning of the readings change depending on the moment he’s in.
His study of scripture has helped Bono greatly when approaching church leaders to help him in the fight against HIV/AIDS. By referring to bible passages and teachings, he reaches them intellectually and spiritually, and educates them on this form of modern day leprosy. They, in turn, are persuaded to turn to their communities and ask for help.
What I discovered while sitting in the audience of this packed room is that Bono is a musician. As someone who recently attended a U2 concert, I can affirm that music is his vocation and being a musician is the role he feels most comfortable in. Nothing compares to the energy felt in a stadium when Bono comes out on stage and starts singing the songs that have kept U2 at the top of the charts for nearly three decades. Bono has continuously stated that being a singer/songwriter is what he is good at and what he wants to do for the rest of his life. Yes, he is genuine and passionate about the work he does for Africa, but he is, by no means, giving up his “day job” to become a full-time activist or politician. In fact, he jokingly and repeatedly stated that he would never want to be a politician although he has developed much more respect for them now that he has had to work with them so closely.
What Bono does know is that he has millions of admirers whom he influences tremendously. He uses his star power to educate them on the causes he believes in, and has recruited thousands of fans to join him in helping reform Africa. As he said to the room filled with supporters, “We can save a continent. We can change the world.”
One life can indeed change the lives of millions.
Guiomar Barbi is a staffer at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington DC. She also lived in Rome for three years and worked at the US Embassy to the Holy See.