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Bono: ‘This is a tipping point for Africa’

During their two-day, four-nation trip through Africa, NBC News’ Brian Williams and U2 front man Bono sat down for an extended interview during a flight from Bamako, Mali, to Accra, Ghana. Here is a transcript of their conversation.
/ Source: NBC News

During their two-day, four-nation trip through Africa, Brian Williams and Bono sat down for an extended interview during a flight from Bamako, Mali, to Accra, Ghana. What follows is a transcript of their conversation, edited for readability.

Brian Williams: A lot of people who watch our broadcast because of our older demographic are coming to you for the first time. How and when did this become apparent to you that you had to focus your attention and give your name to Africa?

Bono: I was telling you how I genuinely see myself as a traveling salesman. I think that's what I do. I sell songs door-to-door on tour. I sell ideas like debt relief, and like all salesmen, I'm a bit of an opportunist and I see Africa as great opportunity.  And I don't just mean this in terms of doing business with Africa for America or Europe, which I do. I mean it's an opportunity for us in the West to show our values, because a lot people are not sure we have any — to  show what we are made of, to see a continent in crisis and demonstrate what we can do. I see it as an opportunity for me to put this ridiculous thing called celebrity to some use. Celebrity is ridiculous and silly and it's mad that people like me are listened to — you know, rap stars and movie stars. You know, rather than nurses and farmhands and others. But it is currency. Celebrity is currency, so I wanted to use mine effectively. I think strategically, but the deep need to do it probably comes out of an experience — lots of experiences I had in a magical place called Ethiopia. Ethiopia is where they say the Garden of Eden was. Some even say the ark of the covenant is there. When Solomon came to see the queen of Sheba, the queen of Sheba was Ethiopian. This ancient, ancient country, proud people, noble people.

In the 1980s, the most sort of vicious war broke out and what often happens in a country like that with desertification and tricky agriculture, famine broke out. People watching this remember "We are the World." And now they won't be able to forget the song. It will get stuck in their head. It was another Irishman, Bob Geldof, who put together Live Aid. The original Live Aid back in the ’80s and after that, I went to Ethiopia where this famine was. I was 23, 24 before we started getting interested in what was going on in the wider world. Before, [I was] lost in myself as rock star, trying to make some cool rock music. Spiritually, I was always aware that there was inequality in the world and that we couldn't ignore them if we were to face God. So here comes famine in Ethiopia in 1985. I was very upset by the pictures, like everybody was. You remember that Cars song, "Who's Going to Drive You Home?" And I remember seeing pictures the day we played Live Aid of this child trying to stand to his feet and walk — just to walk —  but the child was so badly stricken by famine, malnourished. The child couldn't walk. And there was this song, "Who's Going to Drive You Home Tonight?" — and it made the whole world cry and I was one of them. I got so caught up in the Live Aid and the "We are the World,” Band Aid, do you know it's Christmas, I decided I needed to see myself rather than just through pictures on the Nightly News. We went to work for months in Ethiopia. We were put in charge of an orphanage and it was an amazing thing. I was known as the girl with the beard. I had long hair and a beard and an earring, I think is what it was. But the sights I saw on that visit deeply just stuck on the back of my retina — waking up in northern Ethiopia and mist leaving the ground and watching people coming, walking all through the night, coming, thousands of them coming to a feeding station to beg for food — to beg for their lives — I knew that this problem was structural. Not just that these people were unfortunate, not just that there was war in their country, but there were deeper problems at the root of Africa's poverty, and I kind of made a mental note to study them and to discover what they were. I came home from Africa, as you will do tomorrow, and I'm going to get on with my life. Lost in being in a band. My family, my friends. Just forget. And it took the Jubilee 2000 movement to wake me up.

Jamie Drummond, he called me up and asked if I would come to work on the "Drop the Debt" campaign, and I said, I'm not as interested in this charity thing. He said this is about justice. This is not about charity. All this aid you gave in Live Aid, you made $250 million — we thought this was amazing. All this "We are the World," we might have made $800 million — an unthinkable amount, but it turns out Africa pays that back to us every month in debt.

Williams: When you say, "One," and when you say, "Red," they're just words to Americans. They mean a lot more to you. What do they mean?

Bono: Well, they're two different approaches to the same problem. Red is a sort of charitable response to the AIDS emergency through red products — red phones — Motorola putting out a red phone, American Express putting out a red card and, GAP doing T-shirts and Armani's involved. And the idea is that some of profits — in fact, a lot of profits made by those items — will go to global fund to fight AIDS.

Now, ONE is a different thing. If RED is a charity, ONE is about justice. ONE is the marching boots inside of what we do. ONE is people in the Midwest like Shane Moore, who's an evangelical soccer mom who is having a watch party for your program tonight — she's unbelievable. Also Green Day, Alicia Keyes. ONE is a big movement of people. It's like the civil rights movement was like in the ’60s, I suppose or the anti-apartheid movement in the ’70s and ’80s — people getting organized. Bill Gates, Tom Brady, NASCAR.

Inevitably, programs like this focus on somebody like me — an easy story to tell. Actually, it's much more and I do want to assure people who are watching this like, "Hey, Honey, there's Bono in Africa again. Everything's going to be all right." Thank God Africa is not dependent on me. The Irish rock star tip of the iceberg with some really exciting stuff happening on the ground, real campaigning. If you sign up with, we'll text you every few weeks.

When President Bush's request to increase aid was slashed by the House of Representatives, the Senate got half a million e-mails. That's how people get busy. There's so many people involved in all different sectors of society. Bobby Shriver in L.A. Eunice Shriver, his mother. You know, the sister of JFK, she writes e-mails. It's a broad panoply of characters and influence but you put that together — the soccer moms, student activists, the church vote with corporate America, product RED campaign, now we're on high street, now we're on main street USA, things get interesting.

Williams: Where does your music fit into your life? What about your mates?

Bono: I love this work I do. It's a privilege to serve the poor, to be servants of noble Africans, but I better belong in the rehearsal room or in the studio with my band. That's where I want to be and I still wake up in the morning with melodies in my head. I was working on one this morning. I scribble notes on Air India sick bags.

Williams: So this is coming soon to an iPod near you?

Bono: Can't read my own handwriting. It's called "Thank You for the Day." [sings] "There's no storm on the seas. You're just bent over in the breeze. There's no midnight, please. You're just on your knees. There's a harbor and a safe port, but what was is now not. There was no price to pay. Thank you for the day." So I don't know where that comes from, but it keeps coming! It interrupts you when you're trying to get your job done.

Williams: Yesterday I wrote on my blog that we all have the same reaction, we want to scoop up as many children as our arms can carry and take them on the plane home. How much has being a parent changed your world view?

Bono: Before I had kids, in Ethiopia in this camp/feeding station where I was working with Ali, a man came up to me with his boy, beautiful boy, proud of his son and begged me to take his son home and through the translator, he just repeated over and over, you take him with you. If he stays here he will surely die. The rules of camp are that you can't take people home, you can't adopt. That's why I so admire Angelina Jolie and Brad and what they're doing, because you do want to take them home. But at that point I couldn't, and I didn't. But somewhere I did take them home. And I'm working for that boy now. And I have kids of my own now and I have to remind myself that this feeling I have for my kids, these Africans have for their children and to be humiliated and humbled and have your dignity taken away, to  beg for food, beg to be able to do business with us because we have these trade restrictions. I care about the coffee and cotton farmers of the U.S. I care about the farmers of Europe, but at the moment we prop up their industries so much — $4 billion every year to 30,000 cotton picking, cotton planting farmers in the United States. Do you know how much we give to Africa each year? The same amount. If you took away cotton subsidies, and I'm not suggesting that immediately, but if you did, you could double aid to Africa. By that, just allow everyone a fair fight. Then, you'd level the playing field. So the truth of it is that most people who get these subsidies are the big giant corporate farms — not the small farms of America. They have a lot in common with the small farmers of Africa. They need to be protected — so do the small farmers of Africa. These giant farms, this is just lazy minded and macro-economics.

Williams: How did you find President Bush as a man to do business with?

Bono: He's been very honest in his business dealings with me, as has Secretary of State Rice, and we did an awful lot of work. We have had fallings out on Millennium Challenge, which was a big announcement at the time — $10 billion, and it was very slow to get off the ground but there was a war, busy desks, but now getting up off ground and it's really important. It's about increased aid flows to countries that are tackling corruption, and when we see good governments — startup money for new democracies is what we call it. But the thing that really impressed me about this administration was they went against their own critics on the conservative side and decided that the AIDS emergency was the greatest crisis in 600 years and they had to respond. The United States, as a result, has taken the lead on AIDS. It hasn't taken the lead on a lot of other things, and it's low in terms of foreign assistance compared to everyone else who give, but on AIDS, they're doing an amazing job and I really have to credit that.

The strange thing for Europeans, you think president of the United States, he's the big cahoot, he's the boss. But actually he has to answer to the United States Congress. And the United States Congress has to answer to the people of the United States. So the truth is, it's taken leadership on both sides of the Senate and the House. We've had people from John Kerry to Rick Santorum fighting for us. And we need that. You know, we've had great heroes, from the big Pat Leahy, the Democrat. Brilliant, brilliant man. To [Rep. Jim] Kolbe fighting for us. So there's a lot of support for us. In the end, the support comes down to the American people. If this is important to the American people, it'll be important to Congress and to the president. And that's why I'm talking to you, and that's why you're here,  I presume. Because this is the kind of America I love. 

Williams: You seem to unabashedly use your name and celebrity, as you say, you can't change the fact that celebrities are out of whack in our world. But it gets you in Capitol Hill. It gets you in places like Ghana. And it doesn't seem to matter a whit to you that some of the villages we've been in, we don't hear a lot of U2 music.

Bono: I'm liking the anonymity, I mean, it's a thrill. People who know me say I start walking differently when I'm here. Because I guess, maybe, I think I'm free. I think I'm free of myself consciously of a rock star. Because you know when you first become famous, you start walking a little different because people are staring at you. I thought I was over that. I'm really over it when I'm here, because it doesn't exist.

Williams: But it gets you in the door.

Bono: It gets me in the door. But the thing that's going to bring this home is Americans deciding that's what America is about. That's why I'm a fan of America. America is not just a country, it's an idea, and real Americans are getting busy. Like that fella, John Rushkin in Rwanda building villages to prove a model. Like the fella from Boston who's laying fiber optic cable in Rwanda. Putting broadband in Rwanda. There are many people working on this.

Williams: And what's in it for America? If you succeed in Africa, what's in it for them?

Bono: See, I think it's cool to ask that question. What's in it for America. Because I think there's a lot in it for America. Strategically, making friends during wartime. I think that might be smart. Africa is a 40 percent Muslim country. There's extremists working to take advantage of that situation. I think that's smart. Doing business, OK, every bar you go to in the United States, at any big hotel, what do you find? Smart Americans, and Chinese people. This is a very good place to do business. Africans like to do business. And it's a huge growth rate. It's going to be a big business opportunity for America. Third thing, might be important for America, might be important for Europe, it is important to me, is we might actually find our own soul there, here. Something about serving the poor that you rediscover your reason to be. America, remember, is not just a country, it's an idea. And I'm just a fan of that. And I just believe that Americans don't wait for the right time to be great. This is a tipping point for Africa. It's right on the edge of becoming a success story. We just have to get them through this moment. America went through the Great Depression, Ireland went through the Great Famine, Europe lost a third of Europe to the Black Death. We've all been through this. We will remember who our friends are — the people who stand with us at a moment like this.

Williams: Bono to Africa has been a success?

Bono: It's not about Bono to Africa. I keep saying ONE campaign — Matt Damon, Rick Warren, Green Day, Alicia Keys, you know, there's a bigger movement. But when will we know? I'll  accept that question. We will know when the good people of the United States don't see Bono on the “Nightly News” for a while.

Williams: So your goal is to stop being on television?

Bono: My goal, my job, is to put myself out of a job. So I can be in a rock band in all good conscience. And get on with my spoiled rotten rock star's life. I want to go down to the south of France and, you know, dive into the  waters and drink a martini.

Williams: Rick Warren, the hugely popular pastor and author, is a good friend of yours and an ally. He speaks so highly of you. What is an Irish rock star doing partnering with pastor Rick Warren?

Bono: What's exciting about the ONE campaign and is people you would never imagine hanging out with each other are hanging out with each other. Rick Warren, and forget U2, Green Day. Alicia Keyes and Bill Gates, you know rock stars and hip hop stars and NASCAR stars hanging out with soccer moms and church folk. And in truth, from the politicians' point of view, rock stars and student activists don't make them nervous. Soccer moms and church folks are who they pay attention to. Now when soccer moms and church folk start hanging out with Green Day and student activists, that makes everybody really nervous. And they have a right to be. Because this is a big, big grass-roots movement.  There's 2 million people signed up to the ONE campaign. By the next election, by 2008, we think that's going to be 5 million Americans, which is about the size of the National Rifle Association.

Williams: And what do you wear to mark your membership in ONE?

Bono: This white band. Sometimes I think these things are kinda corny. But it's kinda cool to be corny for this. So I wear it proudly. And I was proud to see that some of our African friends where we stopped over for the cola nuts, were dying to get that. I think in the airport they were dying to get the wristbands.