The U2 frontman’s revolutionary mission was rock music, not politics, but he chose to leverage his status
Forty years ago this weekend, locals in Dublin’s north inner city launched a month-long festival to galvanise the community’s fight back against official neglect.
The newly elected independent TD, Tony Gregory, had secured an unprecedented deal with then taoiseach Charles Haughey for investment in his north inner city constituency, and his comrades in the community-development movement saw an arts festival as a way to spread their activist message.
The festival in question was ironically titled “Inner City Looking On”.
“The economy had changed, the docks were gone,” the festival’s chairman, Mick Rafferty, recalled for me last week.
“We were saying: ‘The inner city is on the path to destruction. Don’t just look on — get involved!’”
Each Saturday night, they staged a concert in a different corner of the community; for Saturday 17, the only venue they could find was the Sheriff Street playground, with the roof of its small community centre to serve as the stage.
A line-up of local bands played, and then a car pulled up: inside were the members of what was then the most exciting young band emerging from Ireland, U2.
They hadn’t been programmed, but word of the festival had spread far and wide among Dublin’s artistic community.
If Rafferty was surprised, so too were Bono and his bandmates: they looked askance at the rickety ladder being used to climb on to the rooftop stage, and stayed in their car — even as a local man, drunk, fell off the ladder and had to be taken to hospital.
Rafferty persuaded them to risk it; the band climbed on to the roof and played a rousing set, evocatively captured by documentary-maker Sé Merry Doyle (his film on the festival Looking On can be viewed on the Irish Film Institute’s website).
“We were reaching out for help,” said Rafferty.
“That was the importance of U2 turning up.
"Eventually, when they went on the roof, it was like a validation of what we were saying: don’t ‘look on’ — get involved. To be fair to them, that’s what they did.”
Within three years, U2 had gone from Sheriff Street to Wembley Stadium; from a festival raising awareness of inner-city neglect to one raising awareness of famine.
I was at Irish college that July, in 1985; I was only 11, and not allowed to join the teenagers who were given an exemption from the “no Béarla” rule to watch Live Aid on the telly. But U2’s influence reached deeper still into our little corner of the Gaeltacht.
The coolest of the teenage boys had a U2 ‘War’ T-shirt and used rent it out for the nightly céilí. I was too shy even to rent somebody else’s confidence, but my friend Roy forked out 50p and wore it with pride. (I don’t remember, though, if it worked for him.)
From then on, like most everyone else born in Ireland in the 1970s, I can mark time by reference to U2.
Side two of my Joshua Tree cassette wore out on my Sony Walkman. I queued outside HMV on Grafton Street at midnight for the first copies of Achtung Baby.
A decade later, recently arrived in war-torn Angola as a trainee aid worker with Concern, and very overwhelmed, I walked out of our house one morning on to the rutted mud street, and a child walked past me, barefoot, wearing the T-shirt my friend Roy had once rented for 50p to wear to a céilí.
By then, Bono himself was following a similar journey to that T-shirt; and his critics would say, to similar effect.
Our recycled cast-offs help poor people in poor countries clothe themselves cheaply, but at the expense of overwhelming local markets, driving local manufacturers out of business, and colonising clothing culture by replacing indigenous garments with western imports.
The celebrity activism of Bono, Bob Geldof and others is similarly derided (by some) as something whose effect is more to salve western consciences than serve poor countries’ real needs.
Bono “has been generating and reproducing ways of seeing the developing world, especially Africa, that are no more than a slick mix of traditional missionary and commercial colonialism, in which the poor world exists as a task for the rich world to complete”, argued Harry Browne in his book-length takedown of Bono, The Frontman.
The Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo has called this “the pop culture of aid”; at Live Aid, she wrote, “public discourse became a public disco”.
Celebrity activism reinforces a model of “aid dependency” that results in Africa being “fundamentally kept in its perpetual childlike state”.
Reading back (in Browne’s account) over Bono’s pronouncements over the years on what he often calls simply “Africa” gives repeated force to the charge of vainglory.
Africa is a continent of numerous distinct regions, 54 countries and 1.3 billion people; not all of it is poor, and those parts that are poor are poor in complex and different ways.
It is ill served by the kind of simplification that Bono has often indulged in, as when referring to “this terrible beauty that we call Africa now” in an interview with Tony Blair he did for the London Independent.
But Bono’s primary audience for his rhetoric is neither the people of Africa nor the critics of aid.
It is politicians — often, politicians on the right.
“You don’t have to agree with everyone on everything, if the one thing you agree with them on is big enough,” he told the BBC’s Desert Island Discs last Sunday.
Alastair Campbell, who was press secretary to Tony Blair when Bono and Bob Geldof were lobbying Blair about African debt relief, once told me about a moment when the pair came to see Blair in his hotel at the 1999 G8 summit in Cologne.
“We’re not going to get everything — we can’t get everything we want,” Blair counselled them. “It’s Everest,” replied Bono. “When you see a f**king big mountain, you climb it.”
The result, Campbell reckoned, was that Blair tried harder, and achieved more.
Tom Arnold, former director of Concern, who has since worked on various international initiatives on food security and hunger, has similarly observed Bono and Geldof at work at close quarters.
“They have a degree of celebrity which politicians are attracted to, but they are able to translate that into influence and positive advocacy,” he has previously told me.
None of that has succeeded in overturning the fundamental power dynamics of an unfair and ugly world — but that was never Bono’s ambition.
His revolutionary mission was rock music, not politics; he could have left it at that, but he chose instead to attempt to leverage the status that gave him in a bid to raise awareness of, and catalyse political action against, global poverty.
His words may often have been toe-curling, but they have had measurable effect on the politicians he has sought to persuade; they have helped increase debt relief, development aid and provision of Aids drugs.
I spent two years as an aid worker; as a young, white westerner in a charity t-shirt and big white jeep, there was much about that work, like that of the missionaries before us, that reinforced — or at least echoed — logics of colonialism.
But the work saved lives.
Perhaps the entire structure of aid, as Dambisa Moyo has argued, is condescending; but it seems similarly condescending to say that those lives are less important than that argument.
Like politics itself, the business of aid is messy and, at times, morally compromised; it would be much easier, and much safer, to stay out of it.
Bono could have just looked on. Instead, he got involved.