Bono And U2: Can Rock 'N' Roll Save The World?

Pop stars with causes are easy targets. U2 doesn't care. Just ask Bono about debt relief

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U2's political roots are planted in Irish soil. "We were never not going to be a political band," says Mullen. "In the rest of the world, the two things that you can't talk about are religion and politics. In Ireland the only things we talk about are...religion and politics. I also think that real rock 'n' roll has always been tied up in political issues, and you can't separate it." U2's guitarist, the Edge, agrees: "Political music can turn you on to things. It's always been that way for me. Jimi Hendrix, the whole kind of Vietnam antiwar movement was a turning point for America. No matter what's been going on, there's always been rock 'n' roll around the world of politics and social movements, in and around it. In that sense we've just attempted to do with our music what in the past we've picked up from other music--the kind of music that's alive and relevant, that's politically aware, socially aware. That's the only music that we are interested in making."

The band members, however, are wary of crossing the line from performers to preachers. They understand that taking a political stand is usually viewed as the act of a band desperately trying to be cool. "It's just so unhip to be talking about debt relief," says Bono, discussing his passion of the past few years. "The band has been really supportive about giving me the time to work on this." He first became interested in Africa's economic plight in the 1980s, after the Live Aid concerts that raised money for Ethiopian famine victims. "My wife Ali and I ended up going to Ethiopia for some time doing relief work. We were so high on the idea that Live Aid raised $100 million--and then you discover years later that that's what Africa pays every couple of weeks on old loans. It's kind of a shock. I thought we'd never forget what we'd been through in Ethiopia, but you go back to your life and then those images just fade away."

The images may have faded, but Bono's curiosity did not. In 1999, the singer got involved with Jubilee 2000, now known as Drop the Debt, a London-based coalition of academics and activists who equated Third World debt with slavery. In the course of his work with the campaign Bono has met with Presidents, Prime Ministers and the Pope to get attention for the issue. He relishes the incongruity of a rock star talking about world policy, but he backs it up by knowing his stuff. He reads economics tomes and did some unofficial studying at Harvard. "I think that politicians are attracted at first by the celebrity," says Harvard economics guru Jeffrey Sachs, who has huddled with Bono and the Pope on the debt issue. "But once they meet him, they find that he is an outstandingly capable interlocutor." Senator Jesse Helms met with Bono to talk about starving children in Africa and ended up weeping--marking the first time a rocker has inspired an emotion in the Senator from North Carolina other than perhaps outrage.

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