Oprah Talks to Bono
Oprah: You have a gift, though. Does it come from a place you can't really describe?
Bono: Before I answer you, I want to say this: I think God gets annoyed with the gifted. We should know that our work is no more important than a plumber's or a carpenter's. And here's what I love about hip-hop artists: They set up the brand and start selling T-shirts. It's like, "Here's my chair. I built it. How many do you want?" Whereas with some other musicians, it's like, "I don't know anything about my record contract. I'm not involved in that stuff." That's such bullshit. That's one reason hip-hop is walking all over rock 'n' roll right now. In what I would call alternative music, there has been a bunch of lies—which meant that you couldn't own up to your ambition. You couldn't own up to the idea that art and commerce are certainly cousins, if not brothers. So where does all music come from—be it hip-hop or rock 'n' roll? I don't know. But I do know that all music is praise.
Oprah: I'll be quoting you on that.
Bono: It's praise to the god of your making. Which, in the case of a rock star, might be oneself. Or a woman. Or an idea.
Oprah: I love that.
Bono: When I was 10, I learned what unlocks creativity. We were studying William Butler Yeats, one of the great poets of the 20th century, and my teacher explained that there was a period when Yeats had writer's block. I put my hand up in class and asked, "Why didn't he write about that?" It was like, "Oh, shut up." I've since learned that there's something to being truthful. The Scriptures say the truth will set you free. The truth is at the root of every piece of creativity. So if you're truthful about your situation, whatever it is as an artist—whether it's despair, whether it's hope, whether it's ambition—suddenly you're there.
Oprah: Isn't that what all real art is—truth?
Bono: Yes. Truth is beauty. That can be a hard thing to say, because some things are not so attractive on the surface. But by owning up to them, we change them—just by speaking them. The first line on the page can be "I have nothing to offer. I'm empty today." That's why public confession—whether it's part of religious practice or on your show—is so important.
Oprah: Yes. Twenty years ago, people were living dysfunctional lives, but they thought they were the only ones living that way. I grew up thinking that people really did live like Leave It to Beaver. I thought, Gee, if I had a mom who made me milk and cookies, my world would be okay.
Bono: In my music, I try to be as truthful as I can. I'm not sure I can be as honest in my life as I can be in my music, because with manners comes insincerity. Like "How are you?" "I'm very well." But I'm not. I have a massive hangover. Truth is sometimes difficult.
Oprah: What makes you happy?
Bono: I'm not the happiest person, and I'm certainly not happy-clappy. There's a bit of "woe is me" that comes with melancholy, the Irish thing, and it's draining.
Oprah: Okay, so what gives you joy? Joy is a better word anyway.
Bono: Joy is the hardest possible thing to contrive as an act. It's easy to describe anger, rage, happiness. But joy is difficult.
Oprah: Is joy elusive for you?
Bono: I don't know. Our band has it when we're going off. There's a joy vibration there. It's not miserable-ism.
Oprah: Joy is a very high energy field.
Bono: I'm grumpy. You seem to have a level of joy. Are there months when things aren't going right for you, when you're in a trough, or do you have just, like, one bad day a week?
Oprah: Not even a bad day a week.
Oprah: Absolutely not.
Bono: Well, I have a couple of bad days a week.
Oprah: So tell me this: Where do your commitment and passion come from? For as long as I can remember, you've been using your voice to make a difference in the world.
Bono: Growing up in Ireland was part of it—the simple, practical life of Irish people. Wherever you go in Africa, you find an Irish priest or a young nun. They're everywhere! And then, of course, Bob Geldof [formerly of the Boomtown Rats] is my friend, and we did the whole Live Aid thing together. [Held simultaneously in the United States and the United Kingdom in 1985, Live Aid was the biggest benefit concert in history, raising millions of dollars for famine relief in Ethiopia.] Around that time, my wife and I lived in Ethiopia for a month, in a tent in a feeding station in the middle of nowhere. It was extraordinary. That royal Ethiopian thing is in these people; that Solomon and Queen of Sheba thing is all around. At my site, there was barbed wire, like a concentration camp—but the wire was meant to keep people out, not in. A man walked up to me, gave me a child, and said, "You take my son. He'll live if you take him." And I couldn't take the boy. But that really formed my commitment. I remember coming home on the plane saying, "We'll never forget this."
Oprah: And did you forget?
Bono: I did. Yet somewhere inside me, I'll always remember it. Somewhere there was a prayer to say, and there will be a way to help. What I saw in Ethiopia wasn't just about people falling on hard times. It was a wider problem—political, not just social. So in this work, the circle is becoming a bit completed for me now. And my people have been supportive. The Irish can be annoying—and I'm one of them—but they really are good. Here in Africa, I'm the anomaly. It's an odd and freakish thing that I, an Irish guy, am sitting here and that you're even asking me questions. Yet the people we'd choose to describe the condition of the world are not often the people God would choose. The chosen may be punk rockers or hip-hop people. But nonetheless, the state of the world will be described.