Campus & Community

Class Day Address June 6th, 2001: Bono

long read

Thank you for that introduction. But I suppose I should say a few more words about who I am and what on earth I’m doing up here.

My name is Bono.

My name is Bono, and I’m a rock star.

Now, I tell you this, not as a boast but as a kind of confession. Because in my view the only thing worse than a rock star is a rock star with a conscience – a celebrity with a cause… OH, DEAR!

Worse yet, is a singer with a conscience – a placard-waving, knee-jerking, fellow-travelling activist with a Lexus, and a swimming pool shaped like his own head.

I’m a singer. You know what a singer is? Someone with a hole in his heart as big as his ego. When you need 20,000 people screaming your name in order to feel good about your day, you know you’re a singer.

I am a singer and a songwriter but I am also a father, four times over. I am a friend to dogs. I am a sworn enemy of the saccharine; and a believer in grace over karma. I talk too much when I’m drunk and sometimes even when I’m not.

I am not drunk right now. These are not sunglasses, these are protection.

But I must tell you. I owe more than my spoiled lifestyle to rock music. I owe my worldview. Music was like an alarm clock for me as a teenager and still keeps me from falling asleep in the comfort of my freedom.

Rock music to me is rebel music. But rebelling against what? In the Fifties it was sexual mores and double standards. In the Sixties it was the Vietnam War and racial and social inequality. What are we rebelling against now?

If I am honest I’m rebelling against my own indifference. I am rebelling against the idea that the world is the way the world is and there’s not a damned thing I can do about it. So I’m trying to do some damned thing.

But fighting my indifference is my own problem. What’s your problem? What’s the hole in your heart? I needed the noise, the applause. You needed the grades. Why are you here in Harvard Square?

Why do you have to listen to me? What have you given up to get here? Is success your drug of choice or are you driven by another curiosity? Your potential. The potential of a given situation. Is missing the moment unacceptable to you? Is wasting inspiration a crime? It is for a musician.

If this is where we find our lives rhyme. If this is our common ground, well, then I can be inspired as well as humbled to be on this great campus. Because that’s where I come from. Music.

But I’ve seen the other side of music – the Business. I’ve seen success as a drug of choice. I’ve seen great minds and prolific imaginations disappear up their own ass, strung out on their own self importance. I’m one of them.

The misery of having it all your own way, the loneliness of sitting at a table where everyone works for you, the emptiness of arriving at Aspen on a Gulfstream to stay in your winter palace. Eh, sorry, different speech …

You know what I’m talking about – you’ve got to keep asking yourself why are you doing this? You’ve got to keep checking your motives.

Success for my group U2 has been a lot easier to conjure than, say … relevance. RELEVANCE … in the world, in the culture.

And of course, failure is not such a bad thing … It’s not a word that many of you know. I’m sure it’s what you fear the most. But from an artist’s point of view, failure is where you get your best material.

So fighting indifference versus making a difference. Let me tell you a few things you haven’t heard about me, even on the Internet.

Let me tell you how I enrolled at Harvard and slept with an economics professor.

That’s right – I became a student at Harvard recently, and came to work with Professor Jeffrey Sachs at CID – to study the lack of development in third-world economies due to the crushing weight of old debts those economies were carrying for generations.

It turns out that the normal rules of bankruptcy don’t apply to sovereign states. Listen, it would be harder for you to get a student loan than it was for President Mobutu to stream billions of dollars into his Swiss bank account while his people starved on the side of the road. Two generations later, the Congolese are still paying. The debts of the fathers are now the debts of the sons and the daughters.

So I was here representing a group that believed that all such debts should be cancelled in the year 2000. We called it Jubilee 2000. A fresh start for a new millennium.

It was headed up by Anne Pettifor, based out of London – huge support from Africa. With Muhammad Ali, Sir Bob Geldof, and myself, acting at first just as mouthpieces. It was taking off. But we were way behind in the U.S.

We had the melody line, so to speak. But in order to get it on the radio over here, we needed a lot of help. My friend Bobby Shriver suggested I knock on the good professor’s door. And a funny thing happened. Jeffrey Sachs not only let me into his office, he let me into his Rolodex, his head and his life for the last few years. So in a sense he let me in to your life here at Harvard.

Then Sachs and I, with my friend 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. With the POPE acting as our … well …. agent. And the blessing of various Rabbis, Evangelists, mothers, unions, trade unions and PTAs.

It was a new level of “unhip” for me, but it was really cool. It was in that capacity that I slept with Jeff Sachs, each of us in our own seat on an economy flight to somewhere, passed out like a couple of drunks from sheer exhaustion.

It was confusing for everyone – I looked up with one eye to see your hero – stubble in all the wrong places … His tie looked more like a headband. An airhostess asked if he were a member of the Grateful Dead.

I have enormous respect for Jeff Sachs but it’s really true what they say. “Students shouldn’t sleep with their professors…”

While I’m handing out trade secrets, I also want to tell you that Larry Summers, your incoming President, the man whose signature is on every American dollar is a nutcase – and a freak.

Look, U2 made it big out of Boston, not New York or L.A., so I thought if anyone would know about our existence it would be a Treasury Secretary from Harvard [and M.I.T.]. Alas, no. When I said I was from U2 he had a flashback from Cuba 1962.

How can I put this? And don’t hold it against him – Mr. Summers is, as former President Clinton confirmed to me last week in Dublin, “culturally challenged.”

But when I asked him to look up from “the numbers” to see what we were talking about, he did more than that. He did – the hardest thing of all for an Economist – he saw through the numbers.

And if it was hard for me to enlist Larry Summers in our efforts, imagine how hard it was for Larry Summers to get the rest of Washington to cough up the cash. To really make a difference for the third of the world that lives on less than a dollar a day.

He more than tried. He was passionate. He turned up in the offices of his adversaries. He turned up in restaurants with me to meet the concerns of his Republican counterparts. There is a posh restaurant in Washington they won’t let us in now. Such was the heat of his debate – blood on the walls, wine in the vinegar.

If you’re called up before the new President of Harvard and he gives you the hairy eyeball, drums his fingers, and generally acts disinterested it could be the beginning of a great adventure.

It’s a good thing that I got invited up here before President Rudenstine hands over the throne.

Well. it’s at this point that I have to ask – if your family don’t do it first – why am I telling you these stories? It’s certainly not because I’m running for role model.

I’m telling you these stories because all that fun I had with Jeff Sachs and Larry Summers was in the service of something deadly serious. When people around the world heard about the burden of debt that crushes the poorest countries, when they heard that for every dollar of government aid we sent to developing nations, nine dollars came back in debt service payments, when they heard all that, people got angry.

They took to the streets – in what was without doubt the largest grass roots movement since the campaign to end apartheid. Politics is, as you know, normally the art of the possible but this was something more interesting. This was becoming the art of the impossible. We had priests going into pulpits, pop stars into parliaments. The Pope put on my sunglasses.

The religious right started acting like student protesters. And finally, after a floor fight in the House of Representatives, we got the money – four three five million. That four three five – which is starting to be a lot of money – leveraged billions more from other rich countries.

So where does that money go? Well, so far, 23 of the poorest countries have managed to meet the sometimes over-stringent conditions to get their debt payments reduced – and to spend the money on the people who need it most. In Uganda, twice as many kids are now going to school. That’s good. In Mozambique, debt payments are down 42 percent, allowing health spending to increase by $14 million. That’s good, too. $14 million goes a long way in Mozambique.

If I could tell you about one remarkable man in rural Uganda named Dr. Kabira. In 1999, measles – a disease that’s almost unheard of in the U.S. – killed hundreds of kids in Dr. Kabira’s district. Now, thanks to debt relief, he’s got an additional $6,000 from the state, enough for him to employ two new nurses and buy two new bicycles so they can get around the district and immunize children. Last year, measles was a killer. This year, Dr. Kabira saw less than ten cases.

I just wanted you to know what we pulled off with the help of Harvard – with the help of people like Jeffrey Sachs.

But I’m not here to brag, or to take credit, or even to share it. Why am I here? Well, again I think to just say “thanks.” But also, I think I’ve come here to ask you for your help. This is a big problem. We need some smart people working on it. I think this will be the defining moment of our age. When the history books (that some of you will write) make a record of our times, this moment will be remembered for two things: the Internet. And the everyday holocaust that is Africa. Twenty five million HIV positives who will leave behind 40 million AIDS orphans by 2010. This is the biggest health threat since the Bubonic Plague wiped out a third of Europe.

It’s an unsustainable problem for Africa and, unless we hermetically seal the continent and close our conscience. It’s an unsustainable problem for the world but it’s hard to make this a popular cause because it’s hard to make it pop, you know? That, I guess, is what I’m trying to do. Pop is often the oxygen of politics.

Didn’t John and Robert Kennedy come to Harvard? Isn’t equality a son of a bitch to follow through on. Isn’t “Love thy neighbour” in the global village so inconvenient? GOD writes us these lines but we have to sing them … take them to the top of the charts, but its not what the radio is playing – is it? I know.

But we’ve got to follow through on our ideals or we betray something at the heart of who we are. Outside these gates, and even within them, the culture of idealism is under siege beset by materialism and narcissism and all the other “isms” of indifference. And their defense mechanism – knowingness, the smirk, the joke. Worse still, it’s a marketing tool. they’ve got Martin Luther King selling phones now. Have you seen that?

Civil Rights in America and Europe are bound to human rights in the rest of the world. The right to live like a human. But these thoughts are expensive – they’re going to cost us. Are we ready to pay the price? Is America still a great idea as well as a great country?

When I was a kid in Dublin, I watched in awe as America put a man on the moon and I thought, wow – this is mad! Nothing is impossible in America! America, they can do anything over there! Nothing was impossible only human nature and it followed because it was led.

Is that still true? Tell me it’s true. It is true isn’t it? And if it isn’t, you of all people can make it true again.