U2 is my favorite band. When I watch the video of them playing “Sunday Bloody Sunday” in Dublin I think of Bono: Here is a modern prophet communicating in the language of his generation. There is a depth to their music that comes from Bono throwing himself as fully into the suffering corners of the world as he has thrown himself into the uplifted arms of audiences. Besides that: U2 rocks!
Bono (b. 1960)
When you are trapped by poverty, you are not free. When trade laws prevent you from selling the food you grew, you are not free. When you are a monk in Burma this very week, barred from entering a temple because of your gospel of peace … well, then none of us are truly free.
Fans booed the world’s greatest rock band. U2 is often called the greatest, partly because of its 22 Grammy awards and sales topping 150 million albums—and partly because of the band’s courageous peacemaking efforts. But in 1993, European fans booed the live, on-stage satellite connections that lead singer Bono made with people caught in the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war. Even Bono’s band members later described the calls as stinging like “cold water.” Bono was forcing Europeans, who wished that the Bosnian war would just fade away, to pay attention to what was happening nearby in Europe. Many fans hated those chilling splashes of reality interrupting their enjoyment of an otherwise red-hot band.
These satellite connections were made after the band became aware of how many people in Sarajevo kept their sanity by listening to U2’s music in basements during the siege. The band offered to slip into the city and do a special concert, but their Bosnian hosts didn’t want to put them at risk. So Bono paid to set up special satellite connections and used these live calls during concerts to stir the conscience of the people of Europe. The band’s song, “Miss Sarajevo,” joined by opera star Luciano Pavarotti, recalled a beauty pageant Bosnians held in the middle of the siege to keep up morale. When the war was finally over, U2 was the first major band invited to play in Sarajevo, warmly received by the people who had deeply appreciated their solidarity.
The four members of U2 grew up in the gritty neighborhoods of Dublin and formed their band in 1978 when they were teenagers. Paul Hewson is the band’s lead singer, though he is known by his stage name, Bono. Thus began his decades-long journey which transformed him into a person of influence in the highest political circles. As a band, U2’s global explosion came in the 1985 televised Live Aid concert. Their set at Live Aid was electrifying—and Bono followed that by making more than music. He and his wife Ali made a trip to Ethiopia, where they worked for several months in a refugee camp. On their last day in Ethiopia, a man offered Bono his son to take home, hoping for a better life for him. Bono didn’t take the child, but he held the poignant offer as a motivating image. He said, “Ethiopia not just blew my mind, it opened my mind.”
Bono didn’t stop there. In the mid-1980s, he and his wife visited poor communities in El Salvador and Nicaragua during the wars in Central America. At one point they were caught in a crossfire, then witnessed a bombing on a nearby hillside that shook the ground beneath them. Bono wrote “Bullet the Blue Sky” from that experience, a searing song in which he takes on the weapons trade. He wrote “Mothers of the Disappeared” about the human rights violations in Chile, then later performed the song in Chile as part of the Conspiracy of Hope human rights music tour with Amnesty International. Many of the mothers joined the band on stage.
Some of his most powerful activism was close to home. In 1983, U2’s third album, War, reached No. 1 on the British charts. One of the songs, “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” commemorates the bloody incidents of 1920 and 1972 when British soldiers massacred Irish civilians—but it’s not a cry for vengeance. It’s a powerful anti-war song, which includes the line, “But I won’t heed the battle call.” Bono pleads, “wipe your tears away,” and in a renunciation of violence recalls the “victory Jesus won on Sunday, bloody Sunday,” a hint of redemption and resurrection of hope. At concerts, Bono would often perform the song while parading with a white flag. The Provisional IRA threatened to kidnap Bono, and IRA supporters once attacked the band’s van. After years of singing “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” (“How long, how long must we sing this song?,” the chorus asks)—and after the Good Friday Peace Accord finally was signed—U2 performed the song before tens of thousands at a huge outdoor concert in Dublin. Bono led the crowd in a chant that included, “No more petrol bombs, no more Saracens (the British armored cars), we’re not going back there.”
Bono did more than sing. He publicly put himself in service of the peace process. In May 1998, the recently signed Good Friday Peace Accord was getting so much contentious publicity that many feared it would be rejected in an upcoming public referendum. At an unrehearsed U2 concert in Belfast, along with the band Ash, the Protestant and Catholic factional leaders David Trimble and John Hume were invited on stage to shake hands. Bono then stepped between them, grasping their hands and lifting them high like victorious prizefighters. Bono praised them as men “who have taken a leap of faith, out of the past and into the future.” The swelling emotion at that event, enhanced by a somber remembrance of the victims of all sides, changed the political momentum. As affirmative votes finally carried the Peace Accord, everyone agreed that the iconic image was the photo of Trimble, Hume and Bono.
Through the years, Bono went where no rock musician had gone before. Many had dabbled in political activism before him, but Bono became an expert on the economic and political injustices plaguing the planet. He did such extensive homework that other economic and political experts recognized his valuable contributions. There’s not another rock musician who appears regularly in the New York Times’ influential Sunday Week in Review section next to other prize-winning political columnists. Bono also became a regular participant at the global forum at Davos, Switzerland, where he kept pressing for a serious and sustained response from the more developed nations. The U2 “front man” transformed himself into a “front man” for invisible millions caught in the grip of global poverty, disease and conflict.
To date, Bono’s most successful effort was his advocacy with the Clinton administration during the Jubilee Campaign to cancel debts held by developed nations of the poorest countries in Africa. Bono met with various world leaders on the issue and helped to achieve key agreements. Because the follow-through on those agreements has been disappointing, Bono continues to lobby for debt forgiveness.
Bono teamed with Bill and Melinda Gates to found DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa) to advocate with the developed nations for fighting poverty and AIDS in Africa. He also co-founded—along with a host of anti-poverty and anti-hunger non-profits—the ONE campaign, named after the U2 song “One.” That effort mobilizes grassroots individuals around the world to help overcome extreme poverty and preventable disease. Millions have joined with ONE to help. In 2008, DATA and ONE merged under the name ONE.
Rock stars live in an exotic universe of fame, glamour and celebrity privilege—a lavish lifestyle Bono could have enjoyed like so many other performers. Instead, he is charting a unique path toward peacemaking. While he has achieved historic successes, Bono also has been booed—more than once. Some of his campaigns have not reached their goals. But Bono—and all of the artists in this final section of this book—have an influence even larger than any nonprofit they may form or temporal campaign they may launch. They are creators of images and music that rattle around in millions of minds—potent carriers of the peacemaking message that will continue to shape new ideas around the world. Why risk his popularity, fame and fortune? Bono puts it this way: “I would have felt culpable if I hadn’t done what I could see needed doing. Love thy neighbor is a command, not a piece of advice.”
Those are eloquent words, yet they pale when compared with U2’s lyrics. Two simple words, “Walk On,” now form a signature for Bono’s life and work. The song, composed to honor the imprisoned Nobel laureate from Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, a democratic politician supporting democracy and human rights through peaceful means, appeared on a 2000 album. “Walk On” lives on more than a decade later. For years, to keep Aung San Suu Kyi from being forgotten, the band performed the song at nearly every concert—and passed out masks of her face so people in the audience would keep her iconic image alive as well. As her visage rose in a crowd, the band would sing:
What you’ve got, they can’t deny it. Can’t sell it, can’t buy it.
Walk on, walk on.
“Ordinary Love” – A Salute to Nelson Mandela:
“Walk On” Music Video:
“Sunday Bloody Sunday” Live from Slane Castle in Dublin:
Rodney Curtis says
This is a great piece, Daniel. Bono and the boys are some of my favorite musicians/activists of all time. I’ve also been an admirer of Bono’s (RED) campaign, his international fight against AIDS.
The man and his band are great humanitarians that you can easily dance to!