Forget the graduating class, Bono was the star of Class Day 2001 at Harvard yesterday.
What started as a joke to many ended up being an opportunity to hear of one of the biggest rock stars of our time discuss music, third world debt, AIDS and rebellion. Bono, dressed like a revolutionary in an olive drab suit and a camouflage military-style hat and purple wraparound sunglasses, addressed Harvard’s Class of 2001 with wit, grace and a passion intended to ignite a generation.
“Unavoidably detained,” Bono arrived late to tremendous fanfare. With the crowd of 15,000 — including former Vice President Al Gore — on its feet, U2’s frontman walked to the podium, giving hugs to the two students who introduced him. The crowd took a minute to settle down before Bono started in on his twenty-minute speech. Laced with anecdotes and stories, it chronicled his crusade to end Third World debt. His partner in that pursuit, Harvard Professor Jeffrey Sachs, who was responsible for his appearance, laughed as Bono claimed to have slept with him — actually next to him — on an economy flight during their world tour, Jubilee 2000, to win support for debt relief. The singer compared his debt relief tour to a “surreal crossover act, a rock star, a Kennedy and a noted economist crisscrossing the globe like the Partridge Family on psychotropic drugs.”
Nobody was safe as Bono told of meeting the Pope and how the pontiff wore his sunglasses in a photo shoot. He assured the audience that the Pope has a good sense of humor, unlike the Vatican, which never released the photos. He also took shots at incoming Harvard President Lawrence Summers (and former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury) calling him a “nutcase and a freak.”
Bono then explained his motivation for his work and activism. “Rock music to me is rebel music,” he said. “But rebelling against what? In the Fifties it was sexual mores and double standards, in the Sixties it was the Vietnam War and racial and social inequality. What are we rebelling against now? I’m rebelling against my own indifference. I’m rebelling against an idea that the world is the way the world is, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. So I’m trying to do a damn thing. But fighting my indifference is my own problem, what’s your problem?”
He also appealed to the graduating class to help end Third World debt and fight the African AIDS crisis. “I’m not here to brag, not to take credit, or even share it actually,” he said. “And not just to say thanks. I think I’ve come here to ask your help, because this is a big problem and we need some smart people working on it. I think this will be the defining moment or our age. When the history books, that some of you will write, make record of this moment in time, we will be remembered for two things: the Internet, probably. And the everyday holocaust that is Africa . . . 25 million HIV positive that will leave behind 40 million AIDS orphans by 2010 in sub-Saharan Africa alone. This is the biggest health threat since the Bubonic plague.”
U2 have fought for social causes since the start of their career, he put in perspective by saying, “It’s hard to make this a popular cause. It’s hard to make it pop, you know? And I guess that’s what my job is. Cause pop is often, sadly often, the oxygen of politics.”
U2 are in Boston for two more nights before their Elevation Tour moves to Philadelphia.