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"The Latin Americans have the sexy end of Catholicism. They have carnivals, which we don't have in Northern Europe. We have all of the denial but none of the celebration." — Bono

The Nashville Summit: Behind the Scenes with Bono, DATA, and the Christian Music Industry

Angela Pancella,

The debt, AIDS and trade crises in Africa seem overwhelming at times. So many people are working so hard and yet progress is tough to measure. It's as if all the letter-writing campaigns, the speeches, the appropriations bills, are pebbles thrown in the ocean. 

Keep in mind, though -- even the smallest pebble creates ripples. And you never know just how far the ripples will travel. 

Bono and DATA visited Nashville in December of 2002. Their caravan trundled through as part of the Heart of America Tour. While there, Bono had a meeting with some Christian musicians, both those who use the term in the "proud member of the Gospel Music Association" sense and in the "I am a musician who also happens to be Christian" sense. Tai Anderson, bassist for the band Third Day, was there absorbing it all. He thought Bono came on like a salesman, hitting them with his most compelling statistics, trying to persuade the room that helping Africa fight AIDS is a moral obligation. Anderson listened attentively to the pitch but all he could think was, "Dude. You had me at 'hello.' " 

Let's go back in time a little further, set the stage for this encounter. Let's in fact introduce a cast of characters. Bono you already know. He's not wearing his "singer for an Irish rock band" outfit but his "activist for complicated sociopolitical issues and founder of an African advocacy group" one. Charlie Peacock is a musician who, like U2, was personally signed to Island Records by Chris Blackwell; he is now a producer who has won multiple Dove Awards, the Gospel Music Association (GMA)'s answer to the Grammys. Jay Swartzendruber is a publicist for Nashville-based Gotee Records (artists in their stable: Jennifer Knapp, Out of Eden, and Sandtown); he knows Peacock well. He's also been a U2 fan for more than seventeen years. Mark Rodgers is chief of staff for Republican Senator Rick Santorum. He is one of the people who gets Bono and DATA to the most influential people in Washington, DC. 

"Remember Bono's first meetings with President Bush and his administration?" Swartzendruber asked in an email interview with @U2. "As you'll recall Bush and his team really drove the point home that Bono needed to build bridges with the faith-based community on behalf of Africa. During follow-up talks on Capitol Hill between DATA's team and Congressional staff, networking with artists of faith in Nashville was one of the avenues discussed." 

And network they did. At Rodgers' suggestion, Swartzendruber and Peacock wrote Bono a letter. They felt, as Swartzendruber said, "Bono [had] made it clear the American church was the sleeping giant on this issue that if awakened, could change everything. We agreed and felt strongly that our artists could engage the church in a potent education and motivation process. It's our conviction the church should be leading the fight against HIV/AIDS." 

"Really it was about Bono's model of activism, yet applied to a specific community," Peacock pointed out in another email interview. Talking to Christian artists was a way to get the message out to "the very people we want to wake up to the African emergency." 

So two men with many connections in the Christian music scene wrote to Bono and told him they wanted to help spread the word about Africa and AIDS. It's been remarked before but bears repeating: Bono's a smart guy. You have to admire his efficiency with resources. In America, people who identify themselves as Christian -- particularly evangelical Christian -- are an influential group in politics; even the President is born-again. A poll conducted not long ago asked evangelicals: Would you be willing to donate money to help children orphaned by AIDS? Only seven percent said they would, more than half said they probably or definitely would not. This is an audience Bono surely wants to reach. Who is reaching that audience? Christian musicians. Bono responded to Peacock and Swartzendruber's letter: I'm interested. Write a plan. 

The two men in Nashville enlisted further help to draft their proposal -- more industry execs, including Steve Taylor. He's a Christian musician of considerable if underappreciated satirical talent (sample song titles: "I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good," "Since I Gave Up Hope I Feel a Lot Better"). He founded a record label, Squint Records, and signed groups like Sixpence None the Richer. He and the core group, now six people, began asking themselves, "How can we most efficiently use our resources?" 

One idea became reality in the summer of 2002. Bono started appearing at Christian music festivals -- not literally. His image flickered to life on the Jumbotron screens. "Thanks for listening to this video message," he told the audience. "I really appreciate it. I went to Africa recently and came back with some facts I'd like to share with you." 

The public service announcement debuted at Creation East in Mount Union, Pennsylvania, with Michael W. Smith introducing it during his set. 

"In his [Bono's] talk, he's speaking directly to the Christian festival audience," Taylor explained in an interview with a GMA writer. "In addition to citing scriptures on care for the poor, he says very forthrightly that the church is supposed to love our neighbors and Africa is our neighbor, and that we haven't done a very good job of loving our neighbor. He really speaks with authority." 

Bono's three-minute public service announcement got played about a dozen times at festivals across the country; attendance at each festival was 20,000 to 75,000. Signup sheets for DATA were at each show and at the merchandise tables of all the touring artists and bands who pledge support for the cause (this list includes The Benjamin Gate, Margaret Becker, dc Talk, Jeff Deyo, GRITS, Jars of Clay, Jennifer Knapp, Sarah Masen, Kevin Max, Newsboys, Out of Eden, Relient K, John Reuben, Sixpence None the Richer, Michael W. Smith, Steve Taylor, tobyMac, Tait, Third Day and Riki Michele). 

Then came plans for the Nashville Summit. Peacock and Swartzendruber's team wanted to get Bono to come to town for a meet 'n' greet. DATA requested that they only invite artists who had an established track record of African advocacy. So bands like Third Day, who have built homes in South Africa with Habitat for Humanity, and Switchfoot, who work with Sudanese refugees in San Diego, made the cut, as did 15-20 others. The background of the participants ranged from "newbies to 15 year activists," according to Peacock. DATA also requested the meeting be kept low-key. They didn't want bands putting out "Hey! Look how cool we are! We had a meeting with Bono!"-type press releases. 

Which brings us to an interesting point. All along in this article we've acted like it's a perfectly natural thing for Bono to meet with a bunch of Christian musicians, but is it really? Yes, some bands are more comfortable with the label than others, and we can spend all day trying to define who qualifies -- Do their albums get sold in Christian bookstores? Are they profiled in Contemporary Christian Music magazine? -- but we know at least that U2 is not part of this scene. 

Except, in a way, it is. 

"There are some very strong connections (influence) between the music of U2 and many of the most popular artists in Christian music," Swartzendruber pointed out. "The members of U2 are literally considered heroic and pioneers of faith-informed rock by many such artists. The influences are not only musical, but in many cases they're deeply personal as well." 

So dc Talk and Michael W. Smith have covered "40." Third Day uses a snippet of "With or Without You" to great effect in a live medley. U2 songs can find their way to airplay on Christian stations; it's just that U2 aren't performing them. In Swartzendruber's view, "U2 has always avoided the Christian music industry since they didn't want to imply a heavy-handed agenda or propaganda was driving what they do." 

It is a novel sight, then, to see Bono with the likes of Michael W. Smith et al. at a meeting at Charlie Peacock's house. "The dialogue is fairly new," Peacock admitted. "They [U2] likely could not have done what they've done if they had been more interested in people pleasing than faithfulness to music and mission. Everything in its time though, you know?" 

Thus those assembled at the summit were an ideal audience for the DATA pep talk: involved in Africa, personally sympathetic to Bono, open to hearing talk of grace and God's commandment to love thy neighbor. The special guest for the evening even took time off from being the sociopolitical activist to talk songwriting. He made a case for being honest in music. Sixpence None the Richer's Matt Slocum recounted it this way in a phone interview: "He tried to encourage all of us to speak about God in the way that we see fit...A lot of these issues that he's bringing up, like AIDS in Africa, [show] the world is not as pretty as Christian music makes it out to be. He was probably just [saying] to be honest about your journey, tread the path that you need to tread and God will be there waiting for you. There can be a certain dishonesty in Christian music." 

However, the main focus of the meeting was on Africa, not on Bono, not on Christian music, and not even on any potential solutions to the debt, AIDS and trade crises. 

"He made us more aware of what was going on," Third Day's Tai Anderson said. "He treated us with a lot of respect, [saying] 'I appreciate what you guys do; I kinda trust that you will run with this.' He wasn't the general giving marching orders even if that's what we expected -- since he was wearing his military cap!" 

The musicians have been running with this. Michael W. Smith is recording a contribution to Songs for Life, an Interscope album being released to raise funds to fight AIDS in Africa. Sixpence None the Richer's Matt Slocum is making plans to visit Africa "to see it with my own two eyes, make it heart knowledge as opposed to head knowledge," as he put it. And early this year, Tai Anderson reminded Third Day fans to pelt Bush with "we care about Africa" messages before the State of the Union speech. "I've never gotten politically involved with anything," he confessed, so when Bush said he'd commit 15 billion dollars to the AIDS fight, "I got up and was running around the house: 'Democracy works! He does care!'" 

After the meeting, the core group who organized the DATA public service announcements and the summit with Bono added two more members to their team. These were involved in putting together two books, The aWAKE Project and Mission: Africa. Both books are collections of writings about the urgency of the AIDS crisis and ways to respond to it. 

Now the team of eight is establishing itself as a nonprofit, also called "AWAKE," and is sending out regular emails to the musicians involved with DATA. One recent email "blast," Swartzendruber said, was sent to hundreds of VIPs in the Christian music industry. It told them, "During the past year we've seen many of our most influential artists organize mission trips, conduct seminars on college campuses, include alerts in their CD liner notes, perform benefit concerts, and speak with conviction about the crisis both from stage and in interviews. And their fans are responding. In spades! Congressmen have been telling Bono's DATA team that they're hearing from constituents they NEVER hear from." 

Recently a large contingent of Christian musicians met again in Nashville to pledge support to DATA's "Keep America's Promise to Africa" campaign. The meeting was given extensive coverage by the Gospel Music Association's GMAil newsletter. More than fifty people, artists and industry executives, met with DATA's officials to discuss where to go from here... 

So the ripples will continue spreading outward, no doubt, from the passion of an Irish rockstar to Washington, DC, to Nashville, then on to sub-Saharan Africa. To San Diego, where Switchfoot's Jon Foreman was headed after December's Nashville summit when he took out his journal and summed up his feelings about what he'd just heard: 

"There was a strange feeling in my stomach today watching Bono. I recall feeling the same way when I saw the remains of the world trade towers this past year. This feeling is hard to put into words but could be compared to that of a tourist sightseeing at a funeral. I came to see Bono...I would not have dropped everything and booked a ticket at the last minute to hear a social worker discuss the problems in Africa. I probably wouldn't have attended the same sort of meeting in my hometown. 

"I am a selfish, star-struck, rich, American, Anglo-Saxon fan of Bono. Bono came to work. He took a couple hours to talk to a bunch of fans to tell them to use their clout to change the world...To feed the poor, to clothe the homeless, to heal the sick, to preach the good news of the kingdom of heaven. Sounds like an odd headline: 'Bono Comes to Nashville to Convert the Christian Music Industry.' I was convicted. Guilty. This was my chance to meet my hero; Bono came to work. 

"Give us Grace, oh God, to finish the task at hand."

© @U2/Pancella, 2003.