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"Politicians don't turn me on, politics doesn't turn me on, the way music does." — Bono

Bono: Between rock and a hard place

Philadelphia Inquirer
There weren't any high-tech documentary film cameras rolling last year when a small delegation of westerners rolled into the Rwandan village of Mayange, a new settlement that has risen from the grief and ashes of that nation's brutal genocide of the 1990s. None of the locals rushed up to bother the curious, diminutive 40-something white man in sunglasses who led the group.

It's not the kind of place where you'd normally expect to see the world's brightest rock star, Bono -- a village where no one has ever heard of him.

But the front man for U2 spent an entire day in Mayange -- an outpost for a United Nations project called Millennium Villages that seeks to implement state-of-the-art development tactics on a small, local scale. He navigated his way through a successful field of 12-foot-high corn and stopped to chat with a woman who now washes and sells coffee beans to Starbucks. And Bono left the poverty-wracked village with new info to pass on to his newfound friends who set policy in Washington and in Europe.

"For one of the richest and most famous people on the face of the planet, he struck me as being down-to-earth," said Josh Ruxin, an assistant clinical professor of public health at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, who ran the Mayange project for the U.N. and showed Bono around the village that day. Ruxin echoed most who met the rock-star-turned-global-activist -- "the real deal."

Tomorrow night, Bono and his just-five-year-old African anti-poverty campaign called DATA -- Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa -- will join some lofty company here in Philadelphia when the Irish singer receives the Liberty Medal in a star-studded ceremony at the National Constitution Center. Bono and DATA will join a who's who in global activism that includes Nelson Mandela, Thurgood Marshall, Vaclav Havel, Jimmy Carter, and the current chairman of the center, former President George H.W. Bush.

It's a turn of events that would have been hard to fathom back in 1989, when the first Liberty Medal was awarded to Polish union activist-turned-president Lech Walesa. In the late 1980s, Bono and the other three members of U2 were visiting Elvis Presley's Graceland and recording in his Sun Studios -- seemingly more concerned with becoming the world's greatest rock band than with saving the world.

But as Bono -- already the unlikely figure of a rock star with a kind of evangelical Christian streak -- began paying closer attention to social causes on the wake of 1985's legendary Live Aid concert here in Philadelphia and in London, he took every notion of celebrity activism and turned it on its head. Most incredibly, he's made his biggest mark on that seemingly most unsexy of issues: African debt relief.

"He has a terrific mind for examining an issue and breaking it down to its core elements, and packaging it in a way that the public and public leaders find palatable," said Ruxin, who has written since Bono's visit of the critical role he believes that driven and focused celebrities like the Irish rock star can play in changing world leaders' opinions on the necessity of fighting poverty.

Indeed, as Bono prepares for his Philadelphia shout-out, it's hard to find anyone with something bad to say about the singer's second career. Hard, but not impossible. There are still those who argue that a white European trying to solve all of black Africa's problems still smacks of a good-intended paternalism, that life for everyday Africans will only improve when they take matters into their own hands.

Most famously, the best-selling travelogue writer Paul Theroux wrote a withering 2005 op-ed piece in the New York Times -- about the time Bono was honored for his humanitarian work as Time magazine's Person of the Year -- that was headlined, "The Rock Star's Burden." Writing that "there are probably more annoying things than being hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat, but I can't think of one at the moment," Theroux said Bono's solutions amounted to throwing dollars at Africa that would largely be unaccounted for.

But Theroux's argument remains a minority point of view and is scoffed by most activists, especially at Washington-based DATA. "Bono would love nothing more than to be just a rock star and to put DATA out of business," said Tom Hart, deputy director of the agency that Bono co-founded. But he said even Africans acknowledge that their nations need relief from crushing debts to begin taking on the interlocking problems of poverty and rampant AIDS.

Bono -- born Paul Hewson -- and his longtime wife, Ali Hewson, spent six weeks in Ethiopia distributing food supplies in the wake of 1985's famine relief campaign that included Live Aid, but his crusade for debt relief really shifted into high gear in the late 1990s.

Ironically, some of his greatest successes as a crusader for humanitarian aid have come in Washington during the era of the current President Bush, who arrived in the White House signaling that Africa would not be high on his agenda.

Instead, most advocates have been surprised by the results on the issues that Bono has lobbied on, including the 2004 creation of a Millennium Challenge Corporation to increase development spending in poor nations by $5 billion a year, not to mention a stronger commitment from the G-8 leaders of the most industrialized nations for debt relief.

A related project called RED raises some $45 million a year for African development through the sale of branded products through corporate giants like American Express and Apple.

Arguably, there's no other person in the world who can do what Bono has done. Why? His status as a rock star, at least when he started in earnest a decade ago, opened doors that would have been closed to your garden variety humanitarian. What's more, as an Irishman he's not identified as a liberal or a conservative, and thus has successfully steered clear of partisan political tangles.

In the early 2000s, Bono stunned many liberal supporters by becoming fast friends with leading Senate conservatives like Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum and North Carolina's Jesse Helms. After charming the conservative Southerner's wife at an inside-the-Beltway dinner, he used Scripture and imagery to appeal to Helms, who even apologized for insensitive remarks about AIDS at Bono's behest. But those who know Bono say none of it -- his celebrity or his unique brand of Christianity -- would matter if he didn't do his homework on the issues. And his growing list of honors is not curbing his enthusiasm.

Last year, he told Oprah Winfrey that, "You know, yes, you get overwhelmed with the size of these problems and you think, you know, 'Can we do something about it?' But I am really convinced that this generation, our generation, can be the generation that says no to extreme poverty, or what I call stupid poverty in the rest of the world."

You can call it the rock-star's burden if you must, but Bono continues to wear it well.

© Philadelphia Inquirer, 2007.