Ubuntu and the Birthplace of Cool

I’ve been recently reminded that my own activism has roots in the campaigns for Africa in the 80’s. I convinced my mother to make a donation so I could order a Live Aid t-shirt. I’m sure she hoped the purchase would buy her some quiet time but it wasn’t about the t-shirt for me. I wanted to be a part of something. The t-shirt connected me to concerts in the U.S. and Great Britain, so I wasn’t going to leave the TV when the concert was broadcast.

I know I announced each performer to the whole house. I was convinced my parents and siblings must care as much as I did. I reveled in the idea that music could change the world as Queen, U2, Elton John and George Michael performed. The memorials of Michael Jackson took me back to a few of those moments and Bono’s recent op-ed in the NY Times brings the question of music changing the world back down to earth.

Well, there is a moment where he suggests a tourism slogan for Ghana, “the birthplace of cool” where he imagines “the music of Miles and the conversation of Kofi.” This isn’t the most grounded moment of the piece but demonstrates Bono’s ability to toggle between the celestial possibilities and gritty facts. He celebrates what Ghana has contributed to the world of music and walks through its political and economic accomplishments. Bono suggests Ghana is the new face of Africa where aid money makes the difference we all hoped it would. He looks to the news from the G-8 summit and calls for more aid for Africa. He pleads to a world he believes should see itself in the success and failure in Africa:

Africa is not just Barack Obama’s homeland. It’s ours too. The birthplace of humanity. Wherever our journeys have taken us, they all began there. The word Desmond Tutu uses is “ubuntu”: I am because we are. As he says, until we accept and appreciate this we cannot be fully whole.

This question of wholeness and the suggestion that one people’s success or failure reveals the nature of people in countries far away resonate with the work of the National Academy. Music is a representation of our experience, the world as we know it and sometimes imagine it to be. Changing the world still requires people who are moved by the music and the words to take action. Bono uses both and recurs to political ideals recognizable across international boundaries.

It’s America and We are One

Did you see the We are One celebration yesterday? It was a powerful combination of our best words, music, and ideas. From the MLK and JFK quotes you’d expect to Reagan quotes you wouldn’t. I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Mary J. Blige or Jon Bon Jovi but they provided a moving performance with a gritty civil rights classic “A Change is Gonna Come.”

Most know me as a U2 fan and it’s Bono’s words that provoked this post. Brian Williams from NBC’s Nightly News interviewed Bono after rehearsals Saturday night. Bono was overheard to say it felt like the band had somehow trespassed on the American dream. His emotional understanding of the moment guided Bono’s responses to Brian’s questions.

I’m going to save his answer just long enough to set the stage…

Aerial views of the thousands of people crowding the mall brought back personal memories for some and a sense of living history for others. We’ve seen crowds on the mall like this before. Is it one of our most public spaces? U2 performed two songs. Where they started is where many worried our march for civil rights had ended. They sang “Pride (In the Name of Love),” their tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King.

The song begins…

One man come in the name of love
One man come and go
One come he to justify
One man to overthrow…

The conclusion makes the song¬† personal…

Early morning, April 4
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride

In the name of love
What more in the name of love…

If time hadn’t already found itself in a crazy loop with MLK’s pride and passion present again on those famous steps, Obama then took center stage. His speech spoke to this moment while heeding the voices of moments past. This moment, with the past and future present at once, is where Bono’s remarks found their fuel.We now we return to Brian Williams and Bono.

Brian asks Bono what it means to the band to be a part of the inaugural celebration. Bono expresses his hope that it internationalizes it somehow adding, with a friendly jab to the ribs, “You might own the country but you don’t own the idea.”

Bono imagines people around the globe watching the ceremony on Tuesday and adds:

When this man swears in on Lincoln’s Bible, he proves that America exists. It’s an astonishing thing because in a way people had ruled out Amerca. They counted you out. They think… oh yeah, America is just for America. It strangely changes everything.

And with that assertion, that this moment on Tuesday provides proof that America exists, I thought of the question of who we are or, as Matthew added, who we is.  The words we use this week and the moments we create resonate with answers to these questions. Do some words carry the weight of our past while others herald the promise of our future? Are those the same words or are they different? Are some words and moments more substantive than others? What makes the difference?