The American flag seen through columns in Washington, D. C.
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Ideas
April 14, 2022 6:00 AM EDT
Bono is the lead singer of U2 and cofounder of ONE and (RED)

On March 31, 2022, Bono accepted the Fulbright Prize for International Understanding in Washington, D.C., while in the city with his organization ONE to lobby leaders on Capitol Hill and in the Biden Administration for increased funding for the global fight against AIDS and COVID-19. We are publishing a lightly edited version of his acceptance speech.

 

A few days ago, in a video, the kind of video you’ve all seen, President Zelenskyy called on all of us, “musicians, athletes, businessmen, politicians, everybody really… to stand up for Ukraine.”

So as a musician, let me not apologise for where I come from.

I come from noise and the intent to find some signal in that noise.

I come from informality, from occasional dishevelment.

I come from rock and roll. I come from rock and roll, and pop lyrics that sound like they are throwaway lines, and they are, but they mean so much.

I was thinking about the Beatles ‘I Saw Her Standing There.’ It’s about as great a song lyric as I’ve ever heard. It does not describe itself as poetry. It’s better. It’s adolescent and it’s transcendent. It’s instant and it’s eternal. It’s fun, but not funny … although funny’s ok.

I like “Short People” by Randy Newman.

I like some limericks too…

There was a rock singer called Bono

Yeah, you’ve got it… stereo, mono … oh, no ...

I like agit prop as well as political satire. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s going on”, Bob Dylan’s “the times they are a changing”. But “I saw her standing there” is still my favorite. I heard it when I was a kid. It just trapped my imagination. Who was it who inspired the song, I thought to myself? Who was the ‘her’ in the song? Back then it might have been the girl next door. Earlier times, I might have thought of it as my mother. But now I realise who Paul McCartney was singing to.

It was freedom. His and ours.

You see, rock and roll if it’s anything, it’s the sound of liberation—political, sexual, spiritual. It’s liberation. It’s the howl, the crash bang wallop, you know, the cry of a soul setting itself on fire. I think rock and roll is the sound of liberation and liberation is at the core of who I am, not just as a singer, but as a European. It’s also, I imagine, at the core of who you are as Americans. You might swap out the word “freedom” for the word “liberation.” I think we’re all agreed on the concept. And we’re all agreed that it’s not just under siege in Ukraine.

So in fact when we hear President Zelenskyy speaking, or when you look at the humbling heroism of the people of Kyiv or Lviv or Mariupol, there’s a part of me that feels they are more European than me. Is there not a part of you that feels they are more American than you?

Why? Because they are actually living, actually dying, for the ideal that is freedom. They’re fighting for our freedom, too. Now we haven’t been asked to face that test, yet. I should be thankful for that, not embarrassed by it, but somehow I’m both. Maybe you are, too.

There’s a nagging thought that maybe we’ve fallen asleep in the comfort of our freedom, or at least we’re waking up rough. Our eyes are bleary, we’re a little confused. The question that jolted us awake– what will we do for freedom in Ukraine–gives way, the more we think about it, to another, more uncomfortable question: How long might our own freedom last?

It’s the old joke, isn’t it? How do you swallow an elephant?

One bite at a time.

Or maybe a better line is the one from Ernest Hemingway who said – “How do you go bankrupt?”

“Gradually, then suddenly.”

You see for me, Ukraine is 1962, 1948, 1939 all rolled up together. The jeopardy of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The geopolitical significance of the Berlin Air Lift. The moral clarity of the outbreak of the Second World War.

Most people my age grew up thinking the world was becoming more and more free. This was especially after the Berlin Wall came down, revolutions waged in velvet. There were exceptions, but it was as if there was a kind of moral evolution at work. It was almost like you’d have to stand in the way of freedom to stop its onward march. Though there’s no evidence over five or six millennia to back up this idea, I think my generation and I believed that.

But by the time I turned 60 it felt to a lot of my friends like freedom was no longer gathering pace, was it? In fact, it felt like it was reversing course, retreating down some dodgy cul de sac. After January 6 in Washington, I sensed a mood of grief. Some spoke of the American dream dying on the steps of the Capitol that chilling day, but it wasn’t the American dream that was dying. The American dream is alive. It was a death of a generation’s innocence. And from my point of view, I was okay with that. A kind of innocence that saw progress as inevitable. Naïveté is another word for this innocence, and I’m not sorry that we’ve lost it. In the ONE Campaign, we say “don’t agonize, organize.”

On my 60th birthday I also made a list of 60 songs that all changed me in some way—60 songs that saved my life. There’s one by Bob Marley; one by the Clash; one by Public Enemy; one by Billie Eilish.

There’s another song that should be on the list.

America. America is a song to me. I caught the melody line early, when my life needed saving. As a teenager in Dublin, America’s song came on the radio like a surge of static electricity, knocked me out of my bed, knocked me out of my head. You know, the song sounded like Elvis. It sounded like Bob Dylan, sounded like Aretha Franklin, sounded like Johnny Cash, Joey Ramone, you know? It sounded like Jack Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy. Sounded like King. Bob Dylan sounded like the Declaration of Independence—with a harmonica and guitar.

I grew up in Dublin, quiet suburbia. The street I grew up on was really quite lovely but it has to be said, Ireland in the Seventies was a bit grim. The country was on the verge of civil war, neighbor against neighbor … streets, households, at war. You know all this—you’ve seen Belfast. (I love the picture.)

Ireland back then was an insular place, but it wasn’t insulated because, well, we looked to you. We looked to America, we had a big crush on you all. And we saw a country with its own long-running arguments, its own injustices. We knew this promised land wasn’t always keeping to that promise. We knew America wasn’t living up to all its ideals, but the fact is America had ideals. We knew that because you wrote them down, you cited them, you held yourself to account on them. They shaped the struggle for civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights. They’re still shaping you today. And I don’t know how, but early on I really think I felt, or seemed to know, that America wasn’t just a country—that it was an idea, if not yet a fact.

Even when it got messy. Even when it got wild. America isn’t classical music, America is punk rock. America is hip-hop. I had a sense of America wrestling with itself, you were caught in the act of becoming. Becoming yourself … becoming your better self.

William Fulbright, talked about “the magnetism of freedom,” though he was selective about it. Even if he missed the full expression of it, in Ireland we felt its pull. And I have ever since.

I love this song called AMERICA. I love it. I love it.

Can you still hold that tune? I ask you as both fanboy and critic.

Yes, you can. Of course, you can.

And might you let a rock star—an Irish rock star of medium height—remind you how good it is?

It’s a great fucking tune! This tune called America, you put a man on the moon, now you’re going to put a woman on the moon and the first person of color. C’mon. Love this tune.

Yeah. Something has shifted. Yes.

Freedom is under attack from the outside … but also from the inside. You know who you are.

If we’re honest, it’s easier to identify when the threat is rolling in on tanks and blowing up hospitals. In Ukraine, freedom isn’t a line in a song. Freedom’s on the line. It’s life-or-death.

Civilians, from the eastern part of the country continue to arrive Lviv, and some of them return their homes in Kyiv and Odesa, seen at Lviv train station April 9, 2022.
Ozge Elif Kizil—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Shopkeepers making Molotov cocktails … ballet dancers wearing combat gear…

Freedom in Ukraine means people who don’t want to take up arms taking up arms …

Strangely, freedom in Ireland has meant people laying them down.

To end the fighting in Ireland, to achieve the peace took unusual acts of courage… and what I mean by that is not the usual acts of courage. True heroics, but of a much less grand kind. And yes, it took America to change the geometry of the peace talks.

That’s actually what won the peace on the island of Ireland.

It was discussion. Lots of it. Negotiation. And a kind of sedated stamina. That’s what won the day in Ireland.

Some of you in this room live this kind of work every day. You might call it the daily toil of democracy.

And you know what I’m talking about: the dog-eared documents, the conference tables with the plates of stale sandwiches, deli trays with the curled-up cheese. The headaches from fluorescent lights … the late nights missing your families at home.

That’s the real heroism. That’s what peace looks like, actually. That kind of daily toil. People like you, public servants.

I’m so spoiled to be given this award tonight in a room full of people who actually deserve it. Who’ve given your lives, really given your lives to public service. It’s incredible. All across the aisle, in the Administration.

In Ireland and elsewhere, we learned the taste of victories that don’t equal total defeat on the other side…

Victories measured by a parity of pain.

Well, that daily toil has rarely had higher stakes than it has now.

We’re not yet being asked to put our lives on the line but freedom, says the cliche, isn’t free. In fact it’s really, really, expensive.

I’ve just been on the Hill with the ONE Campaign, harassing my friends, to get vaccines into the arms of people who can’t get to them. It’s costly, freedom. But everyone I met here in the Capitol understands that right now we need to show the world what freedom looks like and demonstrate what we can do with it.

Putin thinks democracy is done. He’s done. He’s not just a tyrant, he’s like a bad Bond villain. I wouldn’t even give him the status.

But reinvention? Nah. He won’t do that. He is what he is.

Reinvention is a peculiarly American trait.

Redemption—isn’t that an American song?

So go tell the bullies in the pulpit: the American song has never been a solo. It’s symphonic, actually.

But there are melodies missing … They’ve been missing from the start. And there are performers now on the stage who were previously thrown off … who were excluded.

So the song isn’t the same one that we thought we knew. Turns out the song is still to be written. The American song.

It might be, America might be, the greatest song the world has never heard—yet.

Think about that. America might be the greatest song the world has yet to hear.

It’s a wild thought. It’s an exciting thought that after 246 years of this struggle for freedom, after 246 years of inching and crawling towards freedom, sometimes on your belly, sometimes on your knees, sometimes marching, sometimes striding, this might be the moment you let freedom ring.

Or, in my case, let freedom sing.

Oh God, wait for this. After the President, I’m the second most likely person in this town to quote Seamus Heaney, so I didn’t want to let the opportunity pass. In a poem called “Casualty,” Heaney writes about a friend of his from his father-in-law’s pub in Ardboe, who got killed after Bloody Sunday.

And he has this phrase where he says, as a kind of consolation, he says “I tasted freedom with him.” And this kind of stuck with me.

Because here in this city, and thank you for letting me in your city, I never leave. But here in Washington I’ve tasted freedom with so many of you, I really have.

Did anyone see the news today, by the way? While tens of millions stand to fight for freedom in Ukraine, four million people are fleeing for their lives, mostly women and children. It’s a population the size of Ireland fleeing for freedom, an exodus of Biblical proportions.

Americans understand exodus; it’s what led many of you here, generations before you, or maybe your own, fleeing oppression, fleeing pogroms and persecution. Fleeing famine.

Exodus. Movement of the people, exodus.

Bob Marley is like the Beatles to so many struggling nations, wherever you go you’ll find Bob Marley. But the thing about Exodus is it’s not just a song of departure, it’s a song of arrival. Not just a place, but a state of being, a state of Grace. Redemption. Redemption is an American song. It’s also an economic term, I might add …

As the Irish, as the Africans, as the Jews have all sung themselves the American song, as Ukrainians are singing it now … I will tonight sing a redemption song for you. A hymn to close the evening, a song of freedom. The last song on Bob Marley’s last album.

Old pirates, yes, they rob I

Sold I to the merchant ships

Minutes after they took I

From the bottomless pit

But my hand was made strong

By the hand of the Almighty

We forward in this generation

Triumphantly

Won’t you help to sing

These songs of freedom

‘Cause all I’ve ever done

Redemption songs

‘Cause all I ever have

Redemption songs

Redemption songs

It’s a question, it’s an invitation, it’s a provocation.

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