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Bono on activism and connecting music to a larger meaning


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Judy Woodruff: And now part two of our profile of rock star and activist Bono on his new memoir, "Surrender," which details his early life, the evolution of one of the biggest rock bands in history, his own spirituality, and his quest for purpose in life, as well as in music.

As Jeffrey Brown reports, Bono's activism has led to the cancellation of some $130 billion of debt in struggling countries. That part of the U2 front man's story picks up here, as part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Bono credits the 1983 song "Sunday Bloody Sunday" about the 1972 massacre of Irish protesters by British troops with helping give U2 a sense of purpose, connecting the music to their needs to give it and their lives a larger meaning.

Bono, Musician: That song taught us what to do and told us what to do, how to dress. We went out on tour, the "War" album. It's -- songs are like that. Songs -- songs are not like your children. They're much more like your father and mother. They sort of -- they boss you about. They tell you what to do.

Jeffrey Brown: Millions responded. With 14 studio albums, U2 has sold an estimated 170 million records. Songs like "One" have become generational anthems.

And the band's spectacular live shows have attracted loving throngs for decades. This is a band that takes its mission seriously, to some critics, too seriously, points to Bono's Christ-like onstage poses and lyrics that reach her heavenly light.

Bono pleads partly guilty.

For decades, I think critics, audience, a kind of debate. U2 is either the most honest and committed band out there or the most pretentious...

Bono: Both!

Jeffrey Brown: ... and self-righteous.

Bono: Both.

Jeffrey Brown: Both?

Bono: No, not self-righteous. That's definitely -- an hour in our company, and you will be rid of that.

But the pretentious, well, yes. Grandiose? Sometimes, for sure. And, also -- yes, also earnest and kind of -- yes, in -- still in pursuit of those early beliefs, to be a man of the world, but not this one.

Jeffrey Brown: That pursuit led Bono to become am a highly visible activist.

Bono: So, RED is about -- red is the color of emergency, yes.

Jeffrey Brown: We met recently at RED, an organization he co-founded to raise funds to treat and prevent AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.

Bono: This office is -- these are salespeople for the idea that where you live should not decide whether you live.

Jeffrey Brown: RED partners with major corporations and has helped distribute some $700 million to date.

It's part of his 20-year-old ONE Campaign, which enlist people from all walks of life, individuals, philanthropist, celebrities, to lobby world leaders to support programs to fight global poverty and diseases.

Bono: You have got fame, it's a kind of currency. Spend it well, not just getting a nice seat in a restaurant, which is also nice, but see what you can do with it. You have got a spotlight, and see where you can shine it.

So we started to learn that activism can really lead to actions. And I have come up with this term in the book, which I thought I'd made up, but it's in the dictionary, actualism. I said, I'm not -- I'm not an idealist. I'm an actualist. I want to get stuff done. I'm pragmatic. I work with the left and the right.

You don't have to agree on everything, if the one thing you agree on is important enough.

Jeffrey Brown: Earlier this year, he and guitarist The Edge performed in a subway station in Kyiv, at the invitation of President Zelenskyy.

And, this past spring, he accepted the Fulbright Prize for International Understanding...

Bono: You see rock and roll, if it's anything, it's the sound of liberation, political, spiritual, sexual. It's liberation.

Jeffrey Brown: ... and tied the power of music to the very idea of freedom.

Bono: You might swap out the word freedom for the word liberation. I think we're all agreed on the concept. And we're all agreed that it's not just under siege in Ukraine, now, is it?

Democracy, did you ever think in your life, Jeffrey, that democracy would be in the dark having to explain itself to a jury that's not sure? The world is now dividing into autocracies and democracies .Freedom is on trial. And we have to demonstrate now what freedom can do, what it can accomplish, that we are with these amazing countries in Africa.

There will be -- I think a third of all the world's youth will be in the continent of Africa by 2050, innovative, smart, genius, brilliant people. We want to show them, this is the direction, not the direction of lies and propaganda and autocracies.

Jeffrey Brown: Freedom in political life, freedom in rock 'n' roll. In his book and in conversation, Bono, a son of Dublin, makes it clear how much he's learned from his experiences in this country.

But when I asked about his own motivations, he cited the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney.

Bono: Heaney, I think he used to speak about, it's in the republic of conscience, creeping privilege. Creeping privilege, ooh.

Jeffrey Brown: What does it mean?

Bono: We have been given this life, and that just the only way through the privilege is to give thanks for it, to be grateful, but just not to expect it. Challenge it.

And people have this relationship. They have given -- you don't have to have the same worries as them that are buying your albums, buying your tickets, buying your book. In return, their angle is, just do -- make sure that you give us the best of you.

And I feel kind of haunted a little bit and hunted, you might say, by that feeling of just not wanting to blow this.

Jeffrey Brown: In the meantime, he says there's plenty more music to come for U2. And Bono himself is on the road singing and talking of his new memoir, "Surrender."

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.

Judy Woodruff: You heard what he said. Don't just use your fame for a nice seat in a restaurant.

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