America Might Be the Greatest Song the World Has Yet to Hear

Bono received the Fulbright Prize for International Understanding on March 31, 2022 in Washington, D.C. While in New York, he lobbied Capitol Hill leaders and the Biden Administration to increase funding for the global fight for AIDS.. This is a slightly edited version of the acceptance speech.


A few days ago, in a video, the kind of video you’ve all seen, President Zelenskyy called on all of us, “musicians, athletes, businessmen, politicians, everybody really… to stand up for Ukraine.”

Let me, as a musician and performer, not apologize for the place I came from.

It is noise that I came from and it is my intention to search for some signal within the noise.

My roots are informality and occasional dishevelment.

Rock and roll is where I hailed from. My roots are in rock and roll. Pop lyrics can sound throwaway, but I think they have a lot to say.

I was thinking about the Beatles ‘I Saw Her Standing There.’ It’s about as great a song lyric as I’ve ever heard. It doesn’t describe itself as poetry. It’s better. It’s adolescent and it’s transcendent. It’s instant and it’s eternal. It’s fun, but not funny … although funny’s ok.

I like “Short People” by Randy Newman.

I like some limericks too…

Bono, a famous rock singer was born.

Yeah, you’ve got it… stereo, mono … oh, no ...

Both political and political satire are my favorites. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s going on”, Bob Dylan’s “the times they are a changing”. But “I saw her standing there” is still my favorite. This was the first time I heard it as a young child. I was captivated by the song. The song was written by someone I didn’t know. Who was the ‘her’ in the song? It might have been the next-door neighbor girl back then. In earlier times I may have thought it was my mother. Now I know who Paul McCartney was singing for.

It was liberty. It was our freedom and his.

You see, rock and roll if it’s anything, it’s the sound of liberation—political, sexual, spiritual. It’s liberation. It’s the howl, the crash bang wallop, you know, the cry of a soul setting itself on fire. Rock and roll, to me, is the sound that liberates. It is what I consider my core identity as both a musician and as an European. It’s also, I imagine, 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.

So in fact when we hear President Zelenskyy speaking, or when you look at the humbling heroism of the people of Kyiv or Lviv or Mariupol, there’s a part of me that feels they are more European than me. Do you feel they are American?

Why? Because they’re actually fighting for freedom. They’re fighting for our freedom, too. Now we haven’t been asked to face that test, yet. I should be thankful for that, not embarrassed by it, but somehow I’m both. Perhaps you are too.

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. 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?

It’s the old joke, isn’t it? What is the best way to swallow an elephant?

Only one bite at time

Or maybe a better line is the one from Ernest Hemingway who said – “How do you go bankrupt?”

“Gradually, then suddenly.”

For me Ukraine is 1962 and 1948 combined with 1939. The Cuban Missile Crisis is a serious threat to our security. The Berlin Air Lift’s geopolitical importance. The moral clarity at the start of the Second World War.

People my age believed the world was getting more liberated. This belief was particularly evident after the fall of Berlin Wall. Revolutions were waged in velvet. While there were exceptions, it felt almost as though moral evolution was taking place. It was almost like you’d have to stand in the way of freedom to stop its onward march. Though there’s no evidence over five or six millennia to back up this idea, I think my generation and I believed that.

However, by the age of 60 freedom felt slowing down to many friends. It felt as if it was going backwards, retreating into a dodgy corner. It was January 6, and I felt a sense of loss. Some spoke of the American dream dying on the steps of the Capitol that chilling day, but it wasn’t the American dream that was dying. American dreams are alive. It was a death of a generation’s innocence. That was my view. It was an innocence that saw the inevitable. Naïveté is another word for this innocence, and I’m not sorry that we’ve lost it. In the ONE Campaign, we say “don’t agonize, organize.”

On my 60th birthday I also made a list of 60 songs that all changed me in some way—60 songs that saved my life. There’s one by Bob Marley; one by the Clash; one by Public Enemy; one by Billie Eilish.

There’s another song that should be on the list.

America. America is my song. The melody was a song that I knew well when it came to saving my life. As a teenager in Dublin, America’s song came on the radio like a surge of static electricity, knocked me out of my bed, knocked me out of my head. It sounded almost like Elvis. It was Bob Dylan’s song, it was Aretha and Johnny Cash’s. It was like Bobby Kennedy and Jack Kennedy. It sounded like King. Bob Dylan sounded like the Declaration of Independence—with a harmonica and guitar.

I was raised in Dublin, a quiet suburbia. While the street was beautiful, I was raised in a very dark and bleak neighborhood. The country was on the verge of civil war, neighbor against neighbor … streets, households, at war. You know all this—you’ve seen Belfast. I love this picture.

Ireland back then was an insular place, but it wasn’t insulated because, well, we looked to you. America was our first choice. We had an intense crush on all of you. We saw a nation with its own problems and long-standing arguments. We knew this promised land wasn’t always keeping to that promise. We knew America wasn’t living up to all its ideals, but the fact is America had ideals. You wrote down them and you referenced them. This meant that you had to be accountable for their actions. They shaped the struggle for civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights. They’re still shaping you today. And I don’t know how, but early on I really think I felt, or seemed to know, that America wasn’t just a country—that it was an idea, if not yet a fact.

It didn’t matter how messy it was. It got crazy. America isn’t classical music, America is punk rock. America is hip hop. America is hip-hop. Becoming yourself … becoming your better self.

William Fulbright, talked about “the magnetism of freedom,” though he was selective about it. Even if Fulbright missed its full expression, Ireland felt its pull. Since then, I feel it.

The song AMERICA is my favorite. It is my favorite song. It’s my favourite thing.

Is it possible to still sing that song? As both a fanboy as a critic, I question you.

Yes, you can. Of course, you can.

And might you let a rock star—an Irish rock star of medium height—remind you how good it is?

It’s a great fucking tune! This tune called America, you put a man on the moon, now you’re going to put a woman on the moon and the first person of color. C’mon. This song is great.

Yeah. Something has changed. Yes.

Freedom is under attack from the outside … but also from the inside. Know who you’re.

If we’re honest, it’s easier to identify when the threat is rolling in on tanks and blowing up hospitals. In Ukraine, freedom isn’t a line in a song. Freedom’s on the line. It’s life-or-death.

Shopkeepers making Molotov cocktails … ballet dancers wearing combat gear…

Freedom in Ukraine means people who don’t want to take up arms taking up arms …

Surprisingly, freedom has in Ireland meant that people have to lay them down.

To end the fighting in Ireland, to achieve the peace took unusual acts of courage… and what I mean by that is not the usual acts of courage. The heroic, although not the most grand of acts. Yes, America was required to alter the geometrical structure of the peace negotiations.

That’s actually what won the peace on the island of Ireland.

The topic was up for discussion. There was a lot of it. Negotiation. A kind of sedated endurance. That’s what won the day in Ireland.

This is the kind of job that some of you do every day. It could be called the daily struggle for democracy.

And you know what I’m talking about: the dog-eared documents, the conference tables with the plates of stale sandwiches, deli trays with the curled-up cheese. The headaches from fluorescent lights … the late nights missing your families at home.

That’s the real heroism. That’s what peace looks like, actually. This is the kind of work that takes place every day. You, public servants.

I’m so spoiled to be given this award tonight in a room full of people who actually deserve it. Who’ve given your lives, really given your lives to public service. It’s incredible. It’s amazing.

In Ireland and elsewhere, we learned the taste of victories that don’t equal total defeat on the other side…

A parity of pain is the measure of victory.

This daily struggle has had greater stakes in the past than it does now.

We’re not yet being asked to put our lives on the line but freedom, says the cliche, isn’t free. In fact it’s really, really, expensive.

I’ve just been on the Hill with the ONE Campaign, harassing my friends, to get vaccines into the arms of people who can’t get to them. It’s costly, freedom. Everyone I spoke with here at the Capitol understood that freedom is expensive. We must now show the world how it looks and what we can accomplish.

Putin believes democracy is over. He’s done. He’s not just a tyrant, he’s like a bad Bond villain. I wouldn’t even give him the status.

But reinvention? Nah. He won’t do that. He’s what he is.

The American tradition of reinvention is unique.

Redemption—isn’t that an American song?

Go tell the bullies from the pulpit, the American song was never written solo. It’s symphonic, actually.

But there are melodies missing … They’ve been missing from the start. And there are performers now on the stage who were previously thrown off … who were excluded.

So the song isn’t the same one that we thought we knew. It turns out that the song remains to be written. American song.

It might be, America might be, the greatest song the world has never heard—yet.

Consider that. America may be the most famous song that the world has never heard.

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 towards freedom, sometimes on your belly, sometimes on your knees, sometimes marching, sometimes striding, this might be the moment you let freedom ring.

Oder, as in mine, let freedom sing.

OMG, I can’t wait. After the President, I’m the second most likely person in this town to quote Seamus Heaney, so I didn’t want to let the opportunity pass. In a poem called “Casualty,” Heaney writes about a friend of his from his father-in-law’s pub in Ardboe, who got killed after Bloody Sunday.

And he has this phrase where he says, as a kind of consolation, he says “I tasted freedom with him.” And this kind of stuck with me.

It’s because I live here, thank you so much for letting my stay in your city. But here in Washington I’ve tasted freedom with so many of you, I really have.

Anyone seen the news this morning? While millions of people stand for Ukraine’s freedom, nearly four million are fleeing their homes, mostly for their safety, mainly women and children. It’s a population the size of Ireland fleeing for freedom, an exodus of Biblical proportions.

Americans understand exodus; it’s what led many of you here, generations before you, or maybe your own, fleeing oppression, fleeing pogroms and persecution. Fleeing famine.

Exodus. Exodus.

Bob Marley is like the Beatles to so many struggling nations, wherever you go you’ll find Bob Marley. But the thing about Exodus is it’s not just a song of departure, it’s a song of An arrival. This is more than a geographical area. It’s also a state, or state, of Grace. Redemption. Redemption is an American tune. It’s also an economic term, I might add …

As the Irish, as the Africans, as the Jews have all sung themselves the American song, as Ukrainians are singing it now … I will tonight sing a redemption song for you. To close this evening, a hymn that will be sung of freedom. The last song on Bob Marley’s last album.

Yes, old pirates rob I

Sold I the merchant vessels

Just minutes after taking I, they were gone.

To the bottomless pit

My hand held firm, but my arm was strong.

Through the hands of the Almighty

This generation is our future

You will triumph

Won’t you help to sing

These are songs of liberty

‘Cause all I’ve ever done

Redemption songs

‘Cause all I ever have

Redemption songs

Redemption songs

It’s a question, it’s an invitation, it’s a provocation.

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