As U2 lands in Chicago tonight to kick off the U.S. leg of its 360-degree concert tour, scholars from the around the world are readying for the first-ever academic conference exploring the music, work, and influence of the Irish rock group.
One of the conference experts is Bruce Edwards of Bowling Green State University, who will compare the Christian commitment to social justice of U2's charismatic lead singer, Bono, to the work of famous British reformers to uphold the rights of the needy and downtrodden.
Just as William Wilberforce led the fight against slavery in the 19th century and William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, took up the cause of needy women and children more than century ago, so has Bono become a champion of human rights for the destitute and disadvantaged in Africa today, Mr. Edwards asserts.
The BGSU professor of English and Africana studies will give a lecture titled "Pro-Bono: Transforming the Consumerist West" at the U2 conference set for Oct. 2-4 at North Carolina Central State University in Durham, N.C.
"I feel like I have some credibility in that I'm not a big fan of the band in the sense that other people might be," Mr. Edwards told The Blade in an interview. "If you were to ask me, 'What's your favorite U2 song?' I would come up with one, but it's not been their musical career that's interested me as much as their involvement in these sorts of [social justice] activities."
Mr. Edwards, 57, has studied the way Bono has taken the fondness for shopping that many Americans and Europeans enjoy and used it to raise funds that benefit the underprivileged in Africa.
The (RED) campaign, which Bono and Bobby Shriver rolled out in 2006, enlists major corporations to donate a share of proceeds on designated products to African relief efforts.
Spending money on designer jeans or Starbucks coffee to help starving or ailing Africans may not be the ultimate in philanthropy and compassion, but it is practical and effective, Mr. Edwards said.
Sales of (RED) products such as T-shirts, sunglasses, coffee, and computers have raised the equivalent amount of funds needed to provide 825,000 African AIDS sufferers with anti-retroviral medications for a year.
Tying consumerism to a worthy cause could serve as a "bridge" to greater awareness and involvement in relief efforts, Mr. Edwards said. He marvels at how Bono apparently studied American and European "tribes" to see what is important to them, as an anthropologist would do.
Seeing how much they like to shop, he devised a way to transform that disposable income into a tool to help the poor.
"In some ways you're playing to a low common denominator: What can I buy that makes me feel good?" Mr. Edwards said. "But I think Bono captures that place somewhere between cynicism and earnestness. He says, 'Buy a pound of Starbucks coffee. Enjoy good coffee. You're going to buy coffee anyway, aren't you? So why don't you buy coffee that also provides research money for HIV?'•"
The (RED) campaign provides immediate results by tapping into the consumerist lifestyle of the Western world, but it also could yield long-term dividends.
It's not enough for someone to say "I've done my help for Africa today, I've [had] my Starbucks coffee," Mr. Edwards said. "I think Bono wants to provide the uplink to more noble investments of time and consciousness. But I think he has to create that common ground first in order to make that happen."
Scott Calhoun, a professor at Cedarville University in Ohio who organized the U2 conference in Durham, said Bono and his U2 colleagues and childhood pals - guitarist the Edge; bassist Adam Clayton, and drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. - have always aspired to achieve more than fame and fortune.
"Their song lyrics and the projects they commit energy and resources to are outpourings of their heads and hearts," Mr. Calhoun said.
Bono, who has often called celebrity a "commodity" that he wants to use for good, not only has charisma but knows how to get out of the way of a great story, Mr. Calhoun said.
"He does a wonderful job at delivering messages, but I think he knows that the message has the real power," he said.
And although some people are not impressed by Bono the rock star and his persistent pleas to pitch in - "throwing darts at him for sport," Mr. Calhoun said - there are few who disagree with the results the rocker has achieved.
Mr. Edwards, who received a Fulbright Scholarship to teach in Kenya during the 1999-2000 academic year, said he has seen some positive gains in Africa over the last 10 years.
The fate of the continent hinges on the indigenous leadership, stable government, and sustainable trade and investment, he said. He sees African churches playing an important ingredient in promoting morality, responsibility, and social justice.
What Bono is doing is "helping to advertise, if you will, the opportunity and the strategic planning that needs to take place to allow that to happen. Even for our own survival instincts, I think we need to pay attention to the promise and the possibility in Africa. Bono's somebody who helps to do that," Mr. Edwards said.
As for his favorite U2 song, Mr. Edwards said he would pick "Where the Streets Have No Name," the soaring ballad from the band's 1987 breakthrough album, "The Joshua Tree."
"But I have to say, the most recent release ["No Line on the Horizon"] is growing on me," he added.
More information on the U2 academic conference, "U2: The Hype and the Feedback," is available online at U2conference.com. More information on the (RED) campaign is available at one.org.
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