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Like a Video: Walk On, The Story of Aung San Suu Kyi

@U2, July 26, 2012
By: Tim Neufeld / @timneufeld

 

Like a Video[Ed. note: This is the 11th in a series of essays by the @U2 staff about U2-related visuals and videos. Some essays may be informational and educational, while others may be more personal.]

It was just a year ago, on July 30, that U2 took to the stage for the final concert of the 360 tour, an extended two-year romp around the world, primarily due to the back surgery that Bono required mid-tour. While many of us were saddened by Bono's condition, the delay allowed for a major global development that in turn influenced the band and the theme of the remaining shows. This thematic evolution was played out in "Walk On," a song that came to have an entirely different meaning between the third and fourth legs of the tour.

When I saw U2 at the Rose Bowl (Oct 25, 2009), I was delighted with the band's continued effort to make Aung San Suu Kyi known to the world. I was particularly inspired by the set including "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "MLK" and "Walk On." The flow of these pieces was moving. After highlighting the perilous state of the nonviolent resistance movement in Iran (see my commentary on that in the "Like A Video" feature from August 2011), Bono steps up to the microphone to honor another revolutionary, this time from Burma. As he introduces "MLK," a lullaby originally written in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., Bono compares Suu Kyi to King and Nelson Mandela, and reminds us that she has spent 20 years under house arrest. Sending a "message of love" to this noble woman, Bono sings, "Sleep, sleep tonight, and may your dreams be realized." I remember standing 20 feet from center stage, putting down my camera, and thinking, "This is not a time for pictures. This is a holy moment. This is a prayer." I was carried away to the far side of the world. Watch the video here:

The transition from "MLK," a slow nontempo cradlesong complemented by a simple picture of the youthful revolutionary framed in Burmese red, to the bold chords of the anthemic "Walk On" was stark and powerful. As if to jolt us out of our lethargy, U2 awakened, challenged and propelled us to consider an active response to Suu Kyi's situation. With the video screen projecting a collage of scenes from Burma and from Suu Kyi's own activism, Bono instructs, "If you have her picture, take it out. If you have her masks, put them on. Let her face be our face tonight. A message of love, for Aung San Suu Kyi!"

suu-kyi-mask

Throughout the song's introduction, the circular screen of the 360 stage, gives us thoughtful and inspiring information. The visuals are compelling:

  • "TONIGHT WE WALK ON FOR AUNG SAN SUU KYI"
  • "AUNG SAN SUU KYI WAS ELECTED AS BURMA'S LEADER IN 1990"
  • "SINCE THAT DAY MOST OF HER TIME HAS BEEN SPENT UNDER HOUSE ARREST"
  • "TONIGHT WE SING FOR HER"

During the instrumental bridge, Bono calls out volunteers from Amnesty International and the ONE Campaign. These volunteers spread themselves across the circular ramp donning the Suu Kyi masks. Bono gives further instructions to the 100,000 concert attenders, "Lift her up!" At the end of the song, the band issues one last challenge with a final chorus of "And you'll never walk alone, you'll never walk alone," as if to say, "We're all in this together. Not one person can be forgotten. Stand up even for those you do not know, those you have never seen and those who suffer unjustly in places you will never go."

I, along with many U2 listeners, was introduced to Suu Kyi in 2000 with the release of All That You Can't Leave Behind. "Walk On" was quickly identified as one of the foundational songs for ATYCLB, an album that calls us back to simplicity, helping us focus priorities on love, relationships and legacy, rather than on the kinds of things that can be built or bought. An end note in the CD jacket says, "Remember Aung San Suu Kyi, under virtual house arrest in Burma since 1989. For Freedom! For Burma! Take action!"

Since then, I have closely followed Suu Kyi and the Burmese situation. Especially as it relates to the context of "Walk On," I have compiled a brief summary of this remarkable woman's life. Read on if interested.

  • 1947. When Suu Kyi was 2, her father, a Burmese hero and commander of the Burma Independence Army, is assassinated just six months before Burmese independence. She grows up and studies in Oxford and New York.
  • 1972. She marries Maichael Aris, an Englishman.
  • 1988. She returns to Burma to be with her dying mother. While she is there, the dictator of Burma resigns and she begins a series of letters and speeches calling for a democratic government. As a result, the military establishes a law that prohibits political gatherings of more than four people; it is enforced through imprisonment without trial and other brutality.
  • 1989. She is placed under house arrest without trial.
  • 1990. Despite her arrest, her National League for Democracy (NLD) wins an astonishing 82 percent of seats in Parliament. The government refuses to acknowledge the victory and democracy is never established.
  • 1991. She is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She rejects an offer by the government to let her receive the prize in Oslo because she knows she will not be allowed back into Burma.
  • 1999. Her husband dies in London. She again rejects the opportunity to leave Burma for fear that she will not be allowed to return. She stands for solidarity with the Burmese people.

But the "Walk On" story doesn't end there. In fact, as I hinted at the top of this article, the story takes an amazing and joyful twist between the third and fourth legs of U2's 360 tour. On Nov 13, 2010, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and given her freedom. An even greater victory came just months later. On April 1, 2012, she won her bid for a seat in the Burmese Parliament where she now sits as a lawmaker. It's speculated that her National League for Democracy will come into substantial power in the next election. Since gaining her freedom, Suu Kyi has also been traveling and was finally able to accept the Nobel Peace Prize awarded her two decades earlier. And who was at her side in Oslo participating at a peace forum? Bono. In addition, it certainly must have been a career highlight for the U2 frontman to sing for Suu Kyi at the Electric Burma concert in Dublin a day later.

Back to the 360 tour. The amazing shift between the third and fourth legs was significant, but may have gone unnoticed for some. Beginning on Nov 25, 2010, at a show in Auckland, New Zealand, just two weeks after Suu Kyi's release, U2 replaced "MLK" with "Scarlet," a song that had not been performed live since 1981. A somewhat obscure tune from the October album, the song contains only one word that is repeated numerous times: "Rejoice!" For those of us who have followed the story of Aung San Suu Kyi, there could be no more appropriate response to her release, and no greater introduction to her song. When I saw U2 in June 2011, the band were still rejoicing, and I again put my camera down during this set. It was another holy moment. Only this time we weren't praying for her release. We were offering thanks for her freedom. "Walk On" was transformed from petition to praise. Here is a clip of "Scarlet" and "Walk On" from July 26, 2011, in Pittsburgh, after Suu Kyi's release:

"Walk On" has always been an inspiring song to me, but the recent global events involving the inspirational heroine behind the song have brought new meaning and understanding, as well as some new questions. Is it possible that millions of fans gathered in a series of concerts throughout the world can change the course of events in a country controlled by a tyrannical dictator? What could happen if every individual who lives in a privileged country of means would actively pursue global justice? And finally, we know that rock 'n' roll can stop the traffic, but can it really change the world?

(c) @U2/Neufeld, 2012.



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