On Thursday evening in Washington, D.C., Bono accepted the 2021 J. William Fulbright Prize for International Understanding in recognition of his "commitment to seek justice by fighting to end extreme poverty, tackle global health crises, and spur economic development in the poorest parts of the planet.”
Recipients of the Fulbright prize—including Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates, Bill Clinton, Vaclav Havel, Mary Robinson, Desmond Tutu, and Angela Merkel—are known as 'laureates'.
"He has incredible charisma and the moral center to make people care,” Bill Gates said in a taped video greeting played before Bono delivered his acceptance speech in front of an audience filled with members of Congress, diplomats from two dozen countries, and members of the Biden Administration, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to the president.
'Bono is humanity's rock star,' Gates said.
'The causes Bono has devoted himself to remain all too relevant today,' Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director-general of the World Trade Organization, said in her introduction. 'While affordable treatments have brought HIV/AIDS under control, a new pandemic has left Africans at the back of the queue for vaccines. The question is, how long must we sing this song?'
'We will need Bono to keep up his advocacy work in the months and years ahead,' said Okonjo-Iweala, the former finance minister of Nigeria who has worked closely with Bono over the years to cancel the debts of the poorest nations of the world and to intervene in the AIDS emergency that ravaged sub-Saharan Africa 20 years ago. 'No one deserves this award more than you, my brother, but you have work to do.”
In his 24-minute acceptance speech, Bono spoke of freedom, liberation, redemption and the transformative power of music in times of great upheaval.
"Rock 'n' roll, if it's anything, it is the sound of liberation,' Bono said. 'Political, spiritual, sexual—it's liberation. It's the howl, the crash-bang-wallop, the sound of a soul setting itself on fire…Liberation is at the core of who I am, not just as a singer, but as a European. It's also, I imagine on this very salubrious evening, I'm sure it's at the core of who you are as Americans. 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?”
Ukrainians, 'are actually living, actually dying for the ideal that is freedom,' he said. 'They're fighting for our freedom, too. Now, we haven't been asked to face that test yet… [but] there's a nagging thought that maybe we've fallen asleep in the comfort of our freedom, or at least we're waking up rough. You know, our eyes are bleary, we're a little confused. The question that jolted us awake—What will we do for freedom in Ukraine?—gives way, the more we think about it, to another more uncomfortable question: How long might our own freedom last?'
Bono talked about the list of 'Songs that Saved My Life' he assembled on the occasion of his 60th birthday in 2020, and that he had missed one: 'There's another song that should be on the list: America. America is a song to me. I caught the melody line early when my life needed saving, as a teenager in Dublin. America's song came on the radio like a surge of static electricity, knocked me outta my bed, knocked me outta my head. This song sounded like Elvis, sounded like Bob Dylan, sounded like Aretha Franklin, and sounded like Johnny Cash. Joey Ramon. Sounded like Jack Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy. Sounded like King. Bob Dylan sounded like the Declaration of Independence with a harmonica and guitar.'
The late U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright, who established the prestigious Fulbright scholar program in 1946 and for whom the award is named, often spoke about the 'magnetism of freedom'. The award comes with a $50,000 prize, which Bono will donate to the ONE Campaign and (RED).
'Most people my age grew up thinking the world was becoming more and more free. This was especially after the Berlin Wall came down— revolutions waged in velvet. There were exceptions, but it was as if there was a kind of moral evolution at work. It was almost like you'd have to stand in the way of freedom to stop its onward march,' Bono said. 'By the time I turned 60, it felt to a lot of my friends like freedom was no longer gathering pace. In fact, it felt like it was reversing course, retreating down some dodgy cul-de-sac.
'After January 6th in this city, I sensed a mood of grief—some spoke of the American dream dying on the steps of the capitol that chilly day. But it wasn't the American dream that was dying.'
While visiting the Capitol earlier this week to urge lawmakers to fund emergency COVID-19 relief to distribute more vaccines to underserved countries, Bono stopped to thank a group of Capitol Hill Police for their heroism on Jan. 6, 2021. 'The American dream is alive. It was a death of a generation's innocence. And from my point of view, I was OK with that. A kind of innocence that saw progress as inevitable.'
'America might be the greatest song the world has yet to hear,' Bono continued. 'It's a wild thought. It's an exciting thought that after 246 years of this struggle for freedom, after 246 years of inching and crawling toward freedom, sometimes on your belly, sometimes on your knees, sometimes marching, sometimes striding—this might be the moment you let freedom ring or in my case, let freedom sing.'
Bono closed his remarks with an a capella version of the first verse of Bob Marley's 'Redemption Song', singing:
Won't you help to sing These songs of freedom? 'Cause all I ever done All I ever have Redemption song, Redemption songs. Redemption songs.
'It's a question, an invocation, a provocation.'
Watch the Fulbright ceremony. (Bono's acceptance speech begins about the 1:00:00 mark.)
This report for U2.com by Cathleen Falsani. Photo by Katie Dance.