The self-conscious rebel-rocker transforms passionate intensity into action that just might change the world.
The idea of the rebel-rocker is sorely tarnished in these days of "pop lite," but there's nothing sugarcoated about the intensity Bono brings to the world. Consider these few events from the past year in the life of U2's charismatic front man: a sold-out tour; the All That You Can't Leave Behind album went to number one in 32 countries; the birth of his fourth child in May; talks with the leaders of the world's strongest economies—the G8; the death of his father in August; countless one-on-ones about AIDS relief and trade with cabinet officials from Colin Powell to Condoleezza Rice. Where does his stamina come from?
"God made me stubborn," Bono says with a throaty laugh that tells you something about the state of his vocal cords. "Stubbornness and Catholic guilt," he continues. "That'll work for you every time. And I've had the best life that a man's ever had."
This is how Bono talks—long strings of run-on sentences that can encompass pub life, the AIDS pandemic in Africa, blues guitar and a healthy dose of self-deprecation. The bottom line of all his speechifying is that it's time for a major initiative that would combine debt cancellation for the world's poorest nations with trade reform and a commitment from pharmaceutical companies to give free HIV drugs to African countries. Bono spouts numbers effortlessly and accurately, noting that sub-Saharan Africa spends around $13.5 billion a year repaying debts to rich countries, which is more than double what it spends on health care.
His charm lies in the fact that whether he's at an audience with Pope John Paul II or singing "Beautiful Day" for 20,000 fans, his need to communicate is palpable. There was a time when Bono harangued the world, all the while making it clear that he didn't give a damn if he was. A decade later he has learned a more effective path.
"Sometimes, instead of climbing over the barricades, you've got to walk around them, and sometimes you discover that the real enemy is not what you think it is," he says.
That attitude has led to some strange-seeming bedfellows such as Senator Jesse Helms, the 80-year-old archconservative from North Carolina, who became Bono's champion in the struggle to get a debt-relief plan through Congress.
According to Bono, "When I first started going to Washington for meetings on Capitol Hill, I'm sure I looked like a very exotic creature, but eventually they didn't see me, they just saw the argument. And the thing about the pictures of me the rock star with, say, Jesse Helms the politician is—it's really unhip for both of us, you know, it's a bad look for the two of us!"
"I think that politicians are attracted at first by the celebrity," says Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Sachs, "but once they meet him, they find that he is outstandingly capable." Along with producer Bobby Shriver, Sachs became part of Bono's American kitchen cabinet in 1999 in the quest to get debt relief on the agenda. In his Class Day address at Harvard in June, Bono summed up the trio: "Sachs and I, with Bobby Shriver, hit the road like some kind of surreal crossover act. A Rock Star, a Kennedy and a Noted Economist crisscrossing the globe like the Partridge family on psychotropic drugs."
The results have already been impressive: In November of 2000, Congress passed legislation authorizing $435 million in debt relief. Last July, President Bush and the G8 countries focused the debate on issuing grants rather than loans to developing nations, and Bono is sure a lot more is about to happen. "I'm confident that President Bush has a real feeling for the AIDS pandemic. Essentially, what we're asking for is a kind of Marshall Plan for Africa. A few months ago that didn't look like a possibility, but post-September 11, the comparisons are striking. When you have nothing, you are easy prey to terrorists and to groups who keep alive the lie that the West is not interested in your calamity. We've just seen what happens when one country, Afghanistan, implodes. God knows what will happen if the entire continent of Africa is left on its current trajectory, which is disaster."
Born Paul Hewson in Ballymun, Dublin, in 1960 to a Protestant mother and a Catholic father, Bono is no stranger to the links between economic depression, bigotry and terrorism. But he has an idealist's faith that all three can be overcome. The Sandinistas and the troubles in Ireland were Bono's issues when the band came on the scene in 1978. Five years later, Bono was married to his high school girlfriend, Ali Stewart, and both were caught up in Bob Geldof's Live Aid work.
"We went to work in Ethiopia for a month," Bono recalls. "We worked in an orphanage, in one of those awful camps, and we'd wake up in the morning to the sight of thousands of people walking through the mist in the hopes of getting some food. My experience there was very hard to forget but...I did. We went back to our daily life in Ireland and me being in a band, but we'd always hoped we might be able to look at the structure of the problem. There's a certain kind of poverty that is structural, not just misfortune, and so when I heard about this plan to use the millennium as an opportunity to give the poorest countries a chance to start again, I thought, 'This is major, and it's the right thing to do.'"
Four children and 21 years later with Bono, Ali hasn't lost any of her ability to roll up her sleeves either. She is deeply involved with the Chernobyl Children's Project (one of six campaigns highlighted on U2's Web site and on their albums)—she's even getting behind the wheel of a truck to drive from Dublin to Belarus with food and emergency supplies.
"Irish women are very informed and very vocal," Bono says, before releasing his chesty laugh again. "And I should know, because I'm living with one, and it's hard to keep up."
What You Can Do
Visit Hearts and Minds on U2's official Web site, www.u2.com, to learn more about the organizations the band supports.