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How U2 Spent Four Decades Redefining International Activism

U2 performing on one of their concerts of the 360° tour in Gelsenkirchen, Germany on August 3, 2009.
Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
U2 performing on one of their concerts of the 360° tour in Gelsenkirchen, Germany on August 3, 2009."

Rock music and charity have gone hand-in-hand for decades.

Former Beatle George Harrison organized the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 to raise money and awareness of genocide after the country’s war for independence. Queen Elizabeth knighted The Boomtown Rats’ front man Bob Geldof for organizing the 1985 Live Aid concerts that spanned two continents, and Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young followed suit for American family farmers. After 9/11, dozens of groups gathered in Madison Square Garden for 2001’s Concert for New York City.

But nobody’s done it quite like U2.

Since the band formed in Dublin in 1976, they’ve used their music and star power to raise millions of dollars and awareness for the dozens of causes they’re involved with and passionate about. University of Oklahoma international studies professor Alan McPherson chronicles the band’s philanthropy in his new book The World and U2: One Band’s Remaking of Global Activism. Like many teenagers who grew up in the 1980s, he loved the band during arguably its most prolific musical period, but he was also drawn to their sense of social justice.

“I was the head of an Amnesty International section, and U2 sort-of opened my mind to a lot of these issues,” McPherson told KGOU’s World Views. “U2 made it seem cool to be an activist and to be interested in human rights. So I sort-of followed their career and their activism, and I kept seeing in my 20s and 30s and 40s how what they had done was really unique and really remarkable.”

Read an excerpt of Alan McPherson’s book The World and U2: One Band’s Remaking of Global Activism

But that doesn’t really come across in their music. McPherson says the band focuses more on emotions, with a message or a tie to political issues buried deep.

“The Polish Solidarity Movement in the early '80s, that’s the topic of the song ‘New Year’s Day'," McPherson said. “They will look at, for instance, a couple that is in love and it’s being torn by these politics, or they will look at a mining disaster and how that affects an individual specifically.”

U2 has moved mountains of cash and put millions of children into schools. But their philanthropy started gradually. McPherson says in the 1980s, U2 mostly focused on raising awareness through touring and concerts. But in the 1990s and 2000s, they started branching out into lobbying. Lead singer Bono took a hiatus from the band to meet with policymakers, and engage in direct diplomacy. He learned how lobbying works and how laws are passed on the floor of the U.S. House and Senate, and who the influential committee chairs were.

“He would show up with the facts and would lobby them like any other lobbyist would, he just had more access to them because he was famous,” McPherson said. “They wanted to impress their staffers, they wanted to impress their sons and daughters. They wanted to come back on the weekends to Florida and say, ‘Look who I hung out with this week’.”

By getting their attention, he got things moving. McPherson says Bono’s work led to $90 billion worth of debt reduction in developing countries, and he lobbied the George W. Bush administration into increasing the amounts devoted to AIDS prevention.

President George W. Bush and Bono at the White House, 2006.
Credit Paul Morse / The White House
The White House
President George W. Bush shakes hands with Bono after the musician spoke Thursday morning, Feb. 2, 2006, during the National Prayer Breakfast. President Bush called the rock star a "doer" and a "good citizen of the world."

The motivation for doing all this is deeply rooted in the band’s upbringing. All four members grew up in a lower middle class, traditionally Catholic, working class society, and McPherson says the four musicians wanted none of that. They were influenced by the violence and poverty they see throughout Dublin and the deep religious strife between Protestants and Catholics.

“The band itself is mixed. Some are fully Catholic, some are half and half, some are Protestant, some are non-religious,” McPherson said. ‘So, early on, they wanted a more open, diverse, and tolerant world. They happened to meet at a high school that encourages these things.”

McPherson says what disturbs him about this type of philanthropy is that rock stars - and other billionaire activists like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Mark Zuckerberg -  thrive because they’re filling gaps by politicians who aren’t interested in development issues. But even after U2’s celebrity wanes, McPherson says what the band has established is more than sustainable. The ONE Campaign, for instance, is now a permanent lobbying effort established in Washington, D.C., with a paid professional staff.

“It acts globally, and so once Bono is gone it can continue,” McPherson said. “It will have less star power, but as a mechanism that is funded… It could go on for decades.”

University of Oklahoma College of International Studies professor Alan McPherson.
Credit Brian Hardzinski / KGOU
University of Oklahoma College of International Studies professor Alan McPherson.

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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Alan McPherson, welcome back to World Views. You have been on our show before. It’s great to have you here to talk about one of your latest books, The World and U2: One Band’s Remaking of Global Activism. Now this book was recently named one of the Top 10 books for 2015 by Globalist magazine, so you are obviously making a huge hit here with this book, no pun intended, well, maybe pun intended, huge hit with the U2 book. But, this is not your area in general. I mean, you study Latin America primarily, a Latin American historian. So, can you just start by telling us what took you down this path? I assume you are a U2 fan at a minimum, but what made you study U2's activism.

McPHERSON: Yeah, this is really a personal book for me and a personal topic, so I am really no expert in activism or global affairs really, outside of Latin America. But this was personal because I have been interested in U2 since I was a teenager, initially because of the music, but also because of the activism. I was an activist myself, sort of a part-time activist. I was the head of an Amnesty International section, and U2 sort of opened my mind to a lot of these issues. I was reading news and so on and so I knew about international affairs, but U2 made it seem cool to be an activist and to be interested in human rights. And so I sort of followed their career and their activism and I kept seeing in my 20s and 30s and 40s how what they had done was really unique and really remarkable, not just in the history of stars becoming activists, but in the history itself of activism.

GRILLOT: Well I think it is interesting you raise this issue of how music kind of opened your mind, or their music in particular opened your mind, but I think this is a pretty general comment we can make about music and art. It kind of opens our minds to a lot of things, but particularly social causes, particular problems around the world. Musicians, artists, others tend to use their craft to bring these things to our attention, do they not? So, is there anything particularly new about what U2 is doing, or what can you tell us about them specifically that caught your attention?

McPHERSON: I mean, the music itself is interesting because it is not generally message music. I mean sometimes there is sort of a message buried in there, but U2 is a band that is very focused on emotions, so when they tackle a topic, for instance, the Polish Solidarity Movement in the early 80s, that's the topic of the song “New Year's Day,” which you might not think so hearing the song, but they will look at sort of the emotions of this. They will look at, for instance, a couple that is in love and it is being torn by these politics or they will look at sort of a mining disaster and how that affects an individual specifically. And so they are very much interested, like all artists, in bringing up emotions, but they will tie it to current political issuers.

GRILLOT: So when you say in the title of your book that this is one band’s remaking of global activism. We have seen these kinds of things before, but they are doing something differently, U2, they are remaking this effort to globally engage on particular issues that they find important, that they find to trip some kind of emotional wire in their minds. But what specifically are they doing? How are they doing it, other than obviously singing about it, you know, writing songs and singing about it and publicizing particular causes in that way. But what beyond that are they doing?

McPHERSON: Oh they have moved mountains and mountains of cash, and you could make the case that they have saved millions of lives and they have put millions of children into schools.

GRILLOT: Yeah, so can you give us some specifics of moving mountains of cash, they have raised money obviously, but tell us how they have done that, but also some of the specific outcomes of what they have done with their activities.

McPHERSON: I mean this goes far beyond what they were doing in the 80s. In the 80s they were really raising awareness and often money, but usually through concerts and that sort of thing. So, for instance, they did a tour with Amnesty International in the mid-80s, and they tripled the membership of Amnesty International just in the United States, so that is something concrete, but it is still just sort of raising awareness among those people. Now, maybe that freed some political prisoners, it is almost impossible to tell if it is because of them. Now, in the 90s and especially in the late 90s and the 2000s they really started branching out into lobbying. And so, Bono especially, took a big break from the band, with their permission, and said, ‘Listen, I'm going to become almost a full-time activist, but really an activist who lobbies and tries to get direct diplomacy with policymakers to get them to change laws. Or at least to change the dollar amounts within laws.’ So, he went all over the world. And, of course, he didn't do any of this by himself. He was always in association with Drop the Dead or the Jubilee Movement – major organizations – but he was the public face and he learned a lot about these things. He learned how you get laws passed, how you get things moving, who you talk to – for instances in the U.S. Congress, which committee chair are you going to talk to. He would show up with the facts and would lobby them like any other lobbyist would, he just had more access to them because he was famous and they wanted to impress their staffers, they wanted to impress their sons and daughters. They want to come back on the weekends to Florida and say, ‘Look who I hung out with this week.’ And so he would get their attention, and he got things moving. With these movements, and I will give you specific achievements, in terms of reducing the debt of highly indebted poor countries, they probably reduced those debts by about $90 billion, and that is a lot of money. And that money we now know by 2015/2016 that money now has gone to 51 more children in Africa attending schools. He lobbied the George W. Bush administration into increasing the amounts devoted to AIDS prevention and now 9 million people in Africa are alive because of that money. Now, of course it might have happened without him, but it also might not have happened without him. And there are many statistics, millions and millions of nets to prevent malaria, you know bed nets and all of that. So now it is pretty clear that there are some concrete achievements due to the lobbying of Bono and to a certain extent U2. I mean the band altogether probably has 40 causes and charities that they are into.

GRILLOT: So obviously Bono and his bandmates are leveraging their power and celebrity to get things done, they are not only raising awareness, but like you said moving mountains of cash and influencing decision makers and it has had tremendous results, but what can you tell me us about what has influenced them? How did they come to this? They have a relatively poor background, from what I understand. Have they always been this way? Have they been waiting for the time they can use that power and celebrity they have? What actually motivates them, because then you have to ask the question, why don't others do this? We are seeing this more and more, we are seeing several others celebrities go out there and engage as you said in your book in sort of superstar lobbying, but why them, why a few others, but not all of them?

McPHERSON: You have got to go back to the 1970s to the birth of their band in 1976 to understand why they became such large activists. They combined a series of things that make them who they are. One of them is that they are from Ireland. And this is really sort of Chapter One in the book, really setting the scene and they don't really think they are ever going to leave Ireland, they are sort of middle class, lower middle class, but it is a poor society, a very traditional Catholic society. And so everyone almost is working class and they end up spending their nights in the pub drinking themselves to death, and these four boys do not want that at all. They are not interested in partying, they are interested in working hard and making music and leaving Ireland, but they are influenced by poverty. They are influenced by the violence they see in the youth among them, they are influenced by the situation they see in Ireland, granted several hundred miles from Dublin, but there are some incidents in Dublin that really marked them, and of course it is in the news all the time. They are influenced by the religious strife between Protestants and Catholics, the band itself is mixed, some are fully Catholic, some are half and half, some are Protestant, some are non-religious. So, early on they want a more open, diverse and tolerant world. They happened to meet at a high school that encourages all of these things. It is sort of the first co-educational high school in Ireland and they get there in the first couple of years that it is opened and they have these teachers that encourage them to do music to do poetry. They don't indoctrinate them into Catholic dogma, so they are free to think and so the school is very important to them.

GRILLOT: But religion does come across in their music, does it not? Can you tell us about that. and the conflict in Northern Ireland. The song “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” for example is one that seems to reflect these things they are experiencing.

McPHERSON: Right, and their first two or three records you can see these two very prominent things, which is Irish politics and religion. They are very religious, at some point after their first album, they are almost convinced to leave music all together because they don't like the sin that is associated with rock and roll. And they joined a movement that tells them they shouldn't be rock stars, it is evil and they finally say they can do more good by being rock stars than by not being rock stars. And the bassist is not really religious at all and is pushing for that interpretation and that wins out, but they come close. They take seriously the morality in their lives. Ireland is always important to them, but they are also not aligned on one side or the other. They are soft middle stance of ‘let’s all talk this through, let’s not have violence, let’s have peace,’ but they are not taking a stance on a particular situation which earns them a lot of criticism from the Irish who are very much divided, especially in the late 70s early 80s when you have got to be on one side or the other.

GRILLOT: Well you have to ask the question how sustainable is this type of activism? There are some critics out there who say superstars and celebrities don't belong in this kind of political, economic sphere because we can list a number of other celebrities who do this sort of thing and raise cash and awareness and try to influence policymakers, leaders in the community, but that some might say, these are not elected officials, these are not people put in places because of what they know, it more because they are celebrities, because they are rock stars and why are we listening to rock stars telling us what to do with our money and our policies and then the question of sustainability. Can you tell us anything about how the work that U2 has done, what is the longevity of this sort of thing? Or as soon as Bono and U2 are gone from the scene, how likely is it that these solutions they have found will continue?

McPHERSON: Those are two great questions. One is should celebrities be doing this sort of high-level activism or should they just be spokespersons for certain organizations, which they have always done. I think there is an aspect about this that is disturbing about this, which is that they are doing politicians’ jobs because politicians are not doing their job anymore. They have sort-of given up on many developmental issues, they are increasingly cheap on their development and foreign aid budgets. I mean, the One Campaign was based on the song “One,” but the point was to get western governments to devote 1 percent of their budget to foreign aid. Right now it is about one-third of 1 percent and the United States does even less than that, maybe the Scandinavian countries get close to one percent, and so what Bono and what other celebrities and other very wealthy people who aren't elected, Bill Gates, other billionaires who aren't really celebrities, they are simply billionaires, they are filling the gap that exists. And it is disturbing that they are not elected, but our elected officials are not doing this and so you have to have non -lected people doing this and you need people to lobby them. And so it is evil in a sense, but it is a necessary evil. Whether it is sustainable is an interesting question because celebrity activism, the reason people follow it is because they follow celebrities and then they start disliking celebrities and then they stop following their cause. What Bono has done, especially Bono, especially One, which started as a campaign is now simply called One. It is not a campaign anymore, it is a permanent lobbying effort established in Washington, D.C. It has professional lobbyists paid a lot of money, it has establishment people, like Condaleza Rice was on its board of directors, people on the right people on the left who believe in in mission of One and they will take on all sorts of commitments. So it is a permanent lobbying effort for the world's poor in the United States and it acts globally and so once Bono is gone it can continue it will have less star power, but as mechanism that is funded and it acts and it has a professional staff, it could go on for decades.

GRILLOT: Well sort of tell us as we conclude our discussion today about the future of this kind of activism as we have been talking about U2 and its sustainability and the institutionalization of its movement, but what is in the future not only for U2, but other rock stars of other celebrities, you think about groups like Coldplay are very active in the fair trade movement. Are there others we should be looking for are there others that you can pin point as kind of the future? And I ask this question because you mentioned the filling of the gap that these types of individuals, people like Bill Gates, others that are wealthy, well known, high profiles that this is kind of the future of not only American politics, but international politics and that we have governments that cannot provide all these services or will not provide these kinds of services and therefore we need these kinds of activists well into the future.

McPHERSON: It is hard to predict the future, but the world we live in now is a world of superstars and the superrich and so those things are only getting worse year by year, the positive side of that is that some of these superrich, superstars are good people and they want to give most of their money away. Mark Zuckerburg and his wife are one example, for instance, who say they are going to do this for the rest of their lives. And so I can't think of sort of a young music star that is doing to the extent of what Bono or what U2 is doing, but there is going to be some also who are going to be and of course music has become a lot less wealthy because of the internet, that is sort of ironic, but I mean movie stars can do this, and have done this and so you are going to have increasing super rich and billionaires who are going to be able to take up this mantle when U2 stops, but I think U2 will be doing this for as long as they live.

GRILLOT: This sounds like something that is ingrained into who they are and where they come from. Alan, what an interesting book, thank you so much for bringing this to our attention, for speaking with us today about wonderful music and wonderful people.

Copyright © 2016 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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