“Whatever you feel about the NRA – and I don’t like them very much – they’re a very well-organized group and we want ONE to be the NRA for the world’s poor,” Bono said at the Economic Club of Chicago’s private black tie dinner event Thursday night during a lively discussion with ECC Chair and Ariel Investments President Mellody Hobson. “So the ONE campaign – if you’re getting in the way of legislation that will make lives easier for the world’s most vulnerable populations, we’re gonna find out where you live [and] we’re gonna camp outside your office.”
While the NRA may seem an odd organization for the U2 frontman to want to emulate, Bono’s pragmatic, business-styled approach has brought much success to the nonprofit he cofounded with Bobby Shriver. “We have 10 million members, 3 million of them in Africa now, it will eventually be more; we’ll have more members south of the equator than north of the equator,” he said. Over the course of 14 years, Bono has lobbied global legislators, which has informed the passage and funding of government policies. On Thursday, he credited receiving great advice and support from leaders, ranging from Warren Buffet to his bandmates, approaching art and non-profits as businesses and stressed bipartisanship as positive influences for his success and achieving results.
“The single biggest intervention in the history of medicine to fight disease was America’s leadership fighting HIV/AIDS, and it was started by President Bush, but it was continued – and this is really critical – by President Obama, and in fact he spent more money on it because he was longer in office,” Bono said. “And the reason that bipartisan support has – and this is a big thing to say, but I know the math – there’s 22 million people in the poor world, in the developing world in Africa, largely, on antiviral drugs because of a bipartisan push, and Americans need to be reminded that what they can do when they work together.”
Recently, ONE, founded to combat extreme poverty and HIV/AIDS in Africa, launched its Poverty is Sexist campaign, which the singer cited has “no time for complacency.” “Extreme poverty hits women first and worst,” Bono said. “And it just does, whether it’s education – 130 million girls don’t go to school largely because they’re girls. There’s health. HIV/AIDS is still the number one killer of women in the world, and in sub-Saharan Africa, young women are twice as likely to get infected than young men. And in fact, if you can accept this, it’s 7,000 young women a week.”
“Women can farm the land, but they can’t own the land in some places,” he added. “They can earn money, but they can’t bank and so poverty is … not just sexist, it’s racist, it’s discriminatory and it looks for where it can marginalize.”
He also stressed the importance of America’s developmental support, crediting Congress for fighting proposed cuts, and warned of what’s at stake if funding is pulled. “With HIV/AIDS with a virus like that, you’re either outrunning it, or it’s outrunning you, it’s just the way these pandemics work,” he said. “It gathers momentum and force. You can undo all the work that, this is a heroic effort, like American intervention in the Second World War, it’s that scale.”
Problem-solving has played as much a part in Bono’s creative life as it has with ONE, whose sister organization, (RED), raises awareness about the AIDS crisis and generates corporate contributions through partnering with brands. “Songs to me are like organizations, you know, they have coherence,” he said. “The song – the topline melody, there’s a clear thought. I see (RED) and ONE just like that, as songs. I see businesses as songs.
“Does anyone know the genius singer from Iceland called Björk? She’s really one of my absolute favorite singers,” he continued. “She used to say, ‘In Iceland, you know, we see musicians, artists, like carpenter or plumber’ and I was like, that’s exactly how I see it. I see songs as kind of solutions to problems. I can’t explain that, but it means I cannot – as a lot of artists do – look down on business.”
When it comes to the business of music, Bono said it’s much more difficult for artists now, particularly when trying to earn a living in the streaming realm.
“It’s very difficult to monetize that, the way things are set up, unless it is frequency of play that you are rewarding,” he said, addressing how teens may play songs numerous times. “I’m a still a bit like this, I play the song 100 times. That gets kind of noticed in the streaming world,” but not everyone does that, he added. “If you’re part of a subscription service, it shouldn’t matter the frequency of play; we don’t reward people on Netflix by the amount of times that people play the movie. So things will change and it will get fairer, the music business going forward.”
In the wide-ranging conversation, Bono also addressed the early days of U2 when they first formed (“U2 were pretty crap”) and how anger and friction fueled him, but he said Edge put him in check pretty quickly (“I learned that you shouldn’t really pick a fight with a man who earns his living with hand to eye coordination,” he joked). That youthful rage continues to energize Bono now, but in ways that encourages positive impact.
“I think the thing that offends me and makes me angrier than anything in the world is the squandering of human potential, and including my own. I think that love, if we had to define it is the realizing of potential in others and indeed in yourself. And that’s it for me,” he said. “So whether it’s in your band, wanting everyone to achieve their absolute best, or your marriage or your kids… You never see human potential more squandered than in the dire despair of poverty and extreme poverty and to realize – and I’ve said this before and I hope it’s still not a cliché – that where you live can never decide whether you live. That fucks me up.”