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A songwriter plays a chord with the faith that he will hear the next one in his head. -- Bono

Irish Rock Star, Rare With Attitude - Bono Wins King Center Award

Bono has long held a keen interest in Martin Luther King Jr.'s teachings...U2's album The Unforgettable Fire contained two songs dedicated to the slain civil rights leader. "Pride (In the Name of Love)" was one of U2's earliest global hits, and "MLK" closed the album. Bono has often expressed his admiration for Martin Luther King Jr. in interviews.

This past Saturday, the King family returned the favor. Bono traveled to Atlanta, Georgia, as an honoree at the annual King Center "Salute to Greatness" Awards Dinner.

Bono spent the day in Atlanta attending a number of events scheduled as part of the week set aside to honor what would have been Martin Luther King Jr.'s 75th birthday. The day's events included a visit to Dr. King's grave to pay his respects. Bono also spent time at the King Center, where he and actor-activist Chris Tucker met with other AIDS activists and Georgia Congressman John Lewis to discuss AIDS initiatives. He then moved on to the Hands On Atlanta Martin Luther King Jr. Service Summit at Ebenezer Baptist Church -- where a surprised room of community volunteers and activists were holding their annual meeting. Bono addressed the group by saying, "the work continues and changes shape but it's the same spirit" that King advocated. "There is still so much to do."

With the G-8 nations holding their summit here in Atlanta later this year, Bono felt it was important to tap into the spirit of these activists to help get the message across. "We had meetings today with activists from all across Georgia and the global AIDS crisis...I was trying to say to them that some things are so important that we can't afford to posture...We need corporate America, we need church America, we need student America, we need all the different Americas that are here if we're going to actually get significant change on the way we see our responsibility to the poorest of the poor.

"It's fitting also to be in Atlanta because the G-8, the world's richest countries and their leaders are coming to Georgia this summer for their big hoo-ha. I met some pretty noisy and energetic people today and they've got something they want to say, and they are going," Bono said.

When asked about the significance of receiving this award from the King Center, Bono replied, "Honestly, I'm trying not to think too much about this award because if I think back to being a teenager in Ireland to when the troubles in the North of Ireland were really turning ugly and the arms struggle, as it was called, was taken up to defend the Catholics who were definitely being brutalized, we despaired for the lack of vision of the kind Dr. King offered people in the South in their struggle. I wrote that song with our band, 'Pride (In the Name of Love),' in a way out of that feeling. John Hume was the nearest we had...he was a great peer of Dr. King. But we didn't succeed obviously the way Dr. King did in establishing non-violence as actually the most successful route in conflict resolution rather than the arms struggle." (John Hume was the leader of the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party and shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize with David Trimble for their efforts in furthering Ireland's peace process. He has also received the King Center's highest honor -- the Martin Luther King Jr. Non-Violent Peace Prize.)

Bono used the event to continue his efforts to raise awareness for the crisis that is occurring in Africa. When asked what he felt Dr. King would think about race relations in America if he were alive today, Bono replied, "You know, I haven't the foggiest...I think he'd have a lot to say about what's going on in the rest of the world."

Recent articles have mentioned that Bono has been seeking out other artists to help in his lobbying efforts for African aid, particularly in the United States. He indicated that he has had some success raising that awareness. "I'm getting calls from Jay-Z, P. Diddy, Beyoncé...I went on an amazing trip with Beyoncé to South Africa for Nelson Mandela's 46664 AIDS concert and she really stole that show. It was amazing to see her -- she went out into the township, she asked questions. She's just an extraordinary girl, and in the eye of the pop hurricane she took time out. So I'm looking forward to people saying, 'Well actually Bono, you're Irish, go home will ya? We have this under control in our own country.' I hope that's coming up."

Chris Tucker attended the dinner and Bono spent a few minutes talking about their experiences in Africa while filming the MTV Diary episode. One of the lighter moments in the press conference occurred when former U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill was mentioned. "Paul O'Neill is now joining U2," Bono said. "He's going to play keyboards, and there's a lot our band can learn from him."

The dinner was held at the Atlanta Hyatt Regency, and was attended by a sold-out crowd of 1,900 people. In addition to a huge contingent of King family members, Bono was joined on the dais by Quincy Jones, Chris Tucker, Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin and representatives from previous mayoral administrations.

Bono was introduced by Coretta King, who told the crowd she has adopted Bono as another son. "This young man we are honoring tonight provides the shining example of a 21st century artist/humanitarian. Bono, on behalf of the King Center I salute you for your outstanding contributions as an eloquent and passionate advocate of the teachings of MLK Jr., and for your energetic and dedicated work for numerous human rights campaigns. Bono, your leadership has awakened millions of people to the prize of justice and human rights. Your commitment provides a wonderful example of an artist fully engaged as a world citizen and a vigorous champion of the oppressed and downtrodden in the spirit of MLK Jr. With heartfelt appreciation we present the 2004 Salute to Greatness Award to you in recognition of your shining example and your visionary leadership. With great respect and admiration we look forward to your even greater accomplishments to come...Bono, my new son."

Bono came to the podium, embraced Mrs. King and replied, "Mama...Oh, Mama! Wow! I haven't had a mom for 30 years or so, you might ruin everything. Probably wouldn't write songs, be insecure, need 20,000 people a night to say 'I love you' -- all that might be gone."

He expressed his obvious affection for the King family and the difficulty of following them at the podium -- "It's like getting the Beatles to open for a bar band." He went on to say, "I'm not black. I'm not African-American. I'm not even American. I'm Irish. I'm a rock star here. I'm not white either by the way, the Irish are kind of -- pinkish. Underdone. Rare is the better word actually. Rare with attitude. Irish Rock Star -- Rare with Attitude."

Bono spoke for over thirty minutes in a thoughtful speech that sounded at some times like a fan letter to Dr. King and his family, and at other times like a call to action. He accepted the award on behalf of his partners at DATA. "We are deeply grateful for this honor. I can only feel humbled to hold an award that bears your husband's name. I'm not here for the things I've done, I'm here for the things I've asked other people to do...coming soon to a stadium near you Congressman! I'm here getting an award for being a pain in the ass."

During the speech Bono provided some insight into the influence that Dr. King's teachings had on him as a young man, and how they wound their way into the music of a young Irish rock band. "The dream that Dr. King was talking about was a much bigger idea -- it was much older than the American dream. It was much bigger -- so big it could fit Ireland in, so big it could fit Africa in. It transcended nationality. Dr. King himself transcended nationality. His ideas travel. They reached me clear as any tune lodged in my consciousness like a song I couldn't shake in a war-weary Ireland of the '70s -- bombings, hunger strikes, the whole thing heading south in a spiral of violence. When we were thirsty, parched for the kind of vision that poured forth from the pulpit of Black America -- Dr. King opened my mind, my heart, my mouth -- and that song came out as 'Pride (In the Name of Love).' I wrote the lyrics as a hymnal of Dr. King's. I wrote another song as Coretta told you, a song called 'MLK,' as sort of a lullaby for an idea that was dying in our country -- the idea of non-violence...all inspired by a black reverend from Atlanta who refused to hate because he thought love would do a better job."

The King Center "Salute to Greatness" dinner was a wonderful reminder of the work that has been done for nearly half a century to support social equality and human rights across the world. The dinner also provided a small glimpse into the influence of Dr. King on U2's lyrics and Bono's activism. The words of a man Bono never met reached out across geography and time to impact how he saw the world. And in that, Bono is not unique -- Dr. King's life and words have touched lives everywhere.

© @U2/Page, 2004.