(Clem Murray/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)
PHILADELPHIA—Before championing the plight of Africa became celebrity chic, there was Bono, the superstar rocker—born Paul David Hewson—raising global awareness about AIDS, Third World debt, hunger and pestilence on that continent.
The musician-statesman, swathed in earrings and cool wrap-around shades, cajoled multinational corporations to increase development spending in the poorest nations by $5 billion a year. He lobbied the leaders of the top industrialized countries to forgive loans.
He was passionate, poetic and remarkably effective as a crusader for the downtrodden.
For that legacy and continuing achievements, the Irish-born front man for the band U2 was honored Thursday night—along with the Washington-based campaign he created five years ago named DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa)—with the presentation of the Liberty Medal at a resplendent ceremony on the white-chair-specked lawn of the National Constitution Center.
Performers blew Irish penny whistles and strummed the traditional, 21-string African kora; Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street and Gov. Ed Rendell addressed the crowd of 2,500; George Clooney narrated a video tribute; and South African poet Zakes Mda read a poem written for the occasion.
“Soon the rains will come and heal our eroded souls,” he began.
“We honor Bono and DATA for leading an urgent conversation, challenging the world’s richest nations to do better by Africa, and challenging African nations to do better by their own people,” said Joseph Torsella, the center’s president and chief executive officer. “We honor a man who proudly calls himself a `big-mouth Irish rock star’ . . . for using his great gifts in the service of liberty and justice.”
It was the 19th time the medal was presented since its inauguration in 1988 to commemorate the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution and recognize “leadership and vision . . . in the pursuit of . . . freedom from oppression, ignorance or deprivation.” The medal comes with a $100,000 prize.
In a private interview before the ceremony, Bono said he would give the money to the One Campaign, a national project he announced in Philadelphia three years ago to build citizen support for dedicating more of the U.S. budget for foreign aid to the needs of humanity.
“I’m certainly not going to keep it,” he teased. “I’m going to give it to the One Campaign because it started in Philadelphia.”
As the event started, DATA executive director Jamie Drummond told reporters the award was humbling.
“As you can tell from my accent, I’m not American, nor is Bono, but we get what an honor this is,” he said.
Past recipients have included U.S. presidents, Supreme Court justices, and world leaders, among them Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Thurgood Marshall, Sandra Day O’Connor, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and the current chairman of the Constitution Center, George H.W. Bush.
Kathy Sloan of Lindenwold, Pa., wearing a black-and-white One Campaign T-shirt, showed up early to score one of the tickets set aside for the public.
She was on Independence Mall for the birth of the One Campaign, and said she would not have missed last night for the world.
“I’m like part of Bono’s army,” said Sloan, the manager of a court-transcription business. “He points to things that need to be done, and we go do it. He points. We shoot.”
Nancy Riley, 52, a hospital lab technician from Port Richmond, Pa., was on hand with her daughter Rachel, 25, a restaurant worker at the Hyatt Regency Philadelphia at Penn’s Landing.
“I’ve been waiting for years for them to name him” for the award, the mother said. “I keep hoping for the Nobel Peace Prize, but I don’t know if a rock star will ever get that.”
Six Liberty Medal winners have also won the Nobel Prize.
Osagie Imasogie, a Nigerian-born businessman, U.S. presidential consultant on AIDS relief, and resident of Gladwyne, said Bono had come “very early to the process” of raising awareness with an exceptional ability to “articulate that this is not a race issue but a humanity issue, that there is only one race, the human race.”
Bono, 47, has said he is inspired in his activism by the likes of Gandhi, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon and Bob Geldof, whose Live Aid concerts in Philadelphia and London in 1985 were a springboard for the one-named one’s advocacy of political and social causes. After that watershed concert, Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson, spent six weeks in Ethiopia with sleeves rolled up, working against the devastation caused by famine and war.
Lest anyone think musicians are supposed to highlight the problems of the world through song, not try to fix them, Bono has a ready answer.
“We have a unique power in this ridiculous thing called celebrity, and our job isn’t finished when we write songs that grow out of concerns,” he told an interviewer in 2005.
In Africa, “there are 6,000 people a day dying just because we can’t get them drugs that are available in the West. If we don’t do something to change that, we are going to look in history like barbarians.”
Concerning his hopes for DATA, he added: “We don’t want to just go around with our caps in our hands and say, `Please, can you give?’ We want to organize—churches, school groups, individuals—so we can confront political leaders to face these concerns.”