PHILADELPHIA—When Bono was but a boy, the rock-star-to-be heard John Lennon whispering inspirational words in his ear.
“That changed the way the world looked outside my bedroom window when I was 12 years old,” says Bono, lead singer of U2 and cofounder of DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa), a Washington-based advocacy group.
Thursday night, Bono and DATA were to be honored with the Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center, whose president, Joseph M. Torsella, cited Bono for proving through his activism “that the office of `citizen’ is the most important in the world.”
The award puts the 47-year-old Nobel Peace Prize nominee in rarefied company—over 18 years the award has gone to statesmen and justices, world leaders and scientists, to Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel, former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, now chairman of the Constitution Center.
On the phone from his home outside Dublin, Bono talks about the African triple killers of AIDS, malaria and extreme poverty. And he says accepting this medal in Philadelphia, the American home of both Live Aid and Live 8, is “a very big deal.”
“In the American body politic,” he says, “there’s no poetry like the poetry of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”
Bono doesn’t just talk: He speechifies. He may have a reputation as a pompous world-saver, but in conversation he’s relentlessly charming and self-critical, referring to himself as “annoying,” adding: “I’m sick of the sound of my own voice. I’m not kidding you.” And he mocks the trademark tinted glasses that serve as his Superman’s cape: “Without them, I’m an amorphous mass.”
He says there’s a symbiotic relationship between his day job as front man for one of the biggest rock bands in the world and his second career “moonlighting” as a celebrity agitator lobbying for aid and debt relief for Africa, “a magical, extraordinary place.”
To show how he became convinced that music could save the world—growing up in Dublin as the son of an amateur opera-singer father and a mother he lost when he was 14—he starts to sing.
“Oh my love for the first time in my life, my eyes can see,” he sings, slipping into Lennon’s “Oh My Love” a cappella. “I see the flowers, oh I see the trees, nothing is clearer in our world.”
“That was, like, church,” he recalls. “It just made me think—when Bob Dylan was added into that mix, and later, Joe Strummer—that the world, you could kick it into shape a bit. You should never think that things have to be the way they are. You should always question it. And challenge it. And I think we’ve been doing that since the beginning.”
Though tired of hearing his own brogue, he vows to continue to employ it. “Music gave me a soapbox, and I’m going to use it,” he says with a laugh. “It gave me a platform and a loud-hailer (bullhorn). It’s put me in a place where people are foolish enough to listen to what I have to say. So use the moment.”
U2 rose to superstardom in the 1980s with heroic, stadium-size anthems such as “I Will Follow” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” While his band mate The Edge’s guitars rang out, Bono was the guy in the mullet literally waving a white flag. “I still am,” he quips, “but with a better haircut.”
U2 played at Live Aid, Bob Geldof’s 1985 African famine charity concert. The next year Bono and his wife, Alison (the couple have four children), traveled to Ethiopia to work in an orphanage for six weeks.
“Once you become a witness,” he says, “it becomes very hard to walk away, knowing you stand a good chance of landing a punch on the problem.”
He didn’t get deeply involved in African issues until the late `90s, when he joined the Jubilee Movement, a lobbying effort to erase the debt of the world’s poorest countries and free up money for health care and education.
That marked the transition of Bono—real name Paul Hewson, but long known by a version of his teenage nickname, Bono Vox, which loosely translates from Latin as “good voice”—from rosy-eyed idealist to real-world pragmatist. He started hanging out with guys like Jeffrey Sachs, the economist who heads the U.N. Millennium Project, with whom he is pictured in GQ as two of 15 men “we believe will change our future.”
Bono says his “least favorite verb in the English language is `to dream.’ I think these years that we’re living in are about doing. Even Nike ... figured that out.”
So what’s he done lately? Besides “reapplying for the job of best band in the world,” beginning with U2’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” in 2000, he’s been working as a professional persuader with leaders from George W. Bush to George Soros.
“Many of these stars are counseled by their agents to show a human side,” says Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., who has worked with the rocker on global AIDS issues. “Bono’s different. He’s clearly committed, and he knows what he’s talking about.”
And he uses his celebrity, Durbin says, as a super-lobbyist on both sides of the ideological divide. “He can get in to see the president, or Jesse Helms. I don’t know that anybody can say no to Bono.”
That’s because the guy who cofounded DATA, and the anti-poverty One campaign, isn’t just another activist. He’s Bono, who joined with Geldof in organizing Live 8, guest-edited the July issue of Vanity Fair on Africa, and spearheaded the product (Red) campaign, the alliance with retailers like Apple and the Gap to raise money to supply antiretroviral drugs for HIV-positive people in Africa.
Along the way, the singer skewered by the Mekons in 1989 as “the Dublin messiah, scattering crumbs” has come in for plenty of flak. Paul Theroux, in a New York Times op-ed piece called “The Rock Star’s Burden,” argued that by treating Africa as a place that needs to be saved, Westerners do more harm than good. And (Red) has been attacked for making self-satisfied consumers feel they can eradicate AIDS by buying a T-shirt at the Gap.
Bono, a former teenage chess prodigy who tries to think ahead, has heard the criticisms.
“They say the real route out of extreme poverty is to grow the middle class. Growth, opportunity, commerce. I agree with them. But having been in rooms where we see people begging for their lives, where there’s not even rage in their eyes, I have to ask: What are we going to do in the meantime?”
The (Red) campaign, says the 5-foot-7 rocker, uses the same strategy as “Achtung Baby,” the 1991 U2 album. “It’s like judo,” Bono says. “You use the force of what’s coming at you—all this media, all this commerce—to defend yourself.” (Red) has raised $45 million, he says.
For his activism to be effective, Bono knows that U2, which is working on a new album with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, must make music that resonates.
“There’s enormous pressure to be relevant,” says the singer, who feels that “great music is written by people who are either running toward or away from God.” (Count him among the former.) “Which is different than successful, and a lot harder.”
Harder still is the task of pressuring world leaders to live up to meeting goals like the $25 billion pledge by the G8 in 2005 for African development by 2010.
For the Irishman who planned to wear his leopard-skin boxer shorts—yes, with pants over them—to Thursday night’s gala, the key is to get the American people on his side.
“What I love about America started in Philadelphia,” Bono says. “It’s the expression of those values that the world needs to see. The America that liberated Omaha Beach, that rebuilt Europe with the Marshall Plan. That put a man on the moon.
“That’s the trick. That’s how we hold them accountable. It won’t be because Bono is in or out of a photograph. ... It’ll be because the American people want to show the world what they’re capable of.”