The University of Pennsylvania‘s founder, Benjamin Franklin, once said, “Either write things worthy reading; or do things worth the writing.” For its 248th commencement, the university had as its speaker a man who does both.
“My name is Bono, and I am a rock star,” Bono opened to a roar from the excited students, families, and friends gathered at the university’s Franklin Field for the celebration.
U2log’s Ruth Barohn and Khelia Johnson report from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. To read the report and see photos from the event, click the link below.
“Don’t get me too excited because I use four-letter words when I get excited. I’m that guy,” Bono joked, referring to the expletive he uttered at the Golden Globes in 2003.
“I’d just like to say to the parents, your children are safe, your country is safe. The FCC has taught me a lesson, and the only four-letter word I’m going to use today is P-E-N-N,” said Bono. When the cheers of the crowd settled, a wry smile sneaked across Bono’s face as he added, “Come to think of it, ‘Bono’ is a four-letter word.”
Even before Bono stepped to the podium to deliver his commencement address, there was an electricity running through Franklin Field that Franklin himself would have appreciated. As students and alumni filed into their seats during the procession, two large screens on both sides of the stage showed Bono, wearing black cap and gown, waiting to enter. A group of five students with blue balloons with letters that collectively read “B-O-N-O-!” welcomed the U2 singer. After all the students had taken their seats, cheers rose from one section of the stadium as the procession of the honorees began. Bono walked the length of the field, from front to back, and then down the center aisle to the stage.
Following the opening proclamation, the national anthem, and the invocation, University of Pennsylvania President Judith Rodin greeted the graduating class for the final time (she is retiring this year). Soon after, she began the conferral of honorary degrees, starting with Bono, who rose from his seat and stood to her right as she read her remarks.
“Bono Vox is fractured Latin for ‘good voice.’ Throughout your career, you have used that voice in pursuit of peace and justice,” proclaimed Rodin. “For more than 20 years as the creative force and lead singer of the supergroup, U2…”
Shrieks from the students at the mention of his band interrupted Rodin’s speech, causing Bono to smile.
Rodin continued, “You have educated minds, and you have elevated hearts through powerful music that packs a wallop of unswerving social conscience for a backbeat. On the performance stage, U2 has raised awareness — from the Live Aid concert for Ethiopian famine relief in 1985 to the 2003 concert for World AIDS Day in Cape Town, South Africa. And as the band has evolved, so, too, have you. Not merely content to lend your name to a cause, you have invested your time, your energy, your resources, and your passion toward fighting the AIDS epidemic in Africa. You have doggedly petitioned presidents, premieres, and the Pope on Third World debt relief. You have lobbied Congress, you have opined with Oprah, jammed with Sinatra, and sung to millions. You have been recognized throughout the world for being what Martin Luther King, Jr., called ‘a drum major for justice.'”
The mention of Winfrey, Sinatra, and King again made the man standing there — with his hands clasped together in front of him — flash a grin.
“Well, you still haven’t found what you’re looking for,” said Rodin, looking directly at Bono. “The Penn community has found in you an inspiring example of the difference that one good voice can make in the world, provided that one has the courage to raise it. For your ongoing contributions to the arts and humankind, on this beautiful day, the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania are pleased to confer upon you, Bono, the degree of Doctor of Laws.”
After a purple academic hood, signifying a Doctor or Laws degree, was draped around Bono’s neck, Provost Robert L. Barchi handed Bono the rolled parchment degree and the two shook hands. Always the charmer, Bono turned to Rodin to kiss her hand. Satisified that he had shown his appreciation to the university administration, he turned to the crowd and flashed a peace sign in the air before returning to his seat. There he monkeyed with the rolled-up degree, holding it to his eye as if it were a telescope, which drew laughter from the audience.
Bono then sat and watched with keen interest while Rodin conferred honorary degrees to other distinguished persons. Once all the degrees had been conferred, Provost Barchi returned to the podium to introduce the commencement speaker.
“Known for his exquisitely crafted songwriting, Bono has been captivating audiences with his stage presence, his haunting voice, and with an unyielding commitment to his craft for nearly three decades,” said Barchi. “Now it’s somewhat sobering for me to realize that the undergraduate members of our class of 2004 were only toddlers when Bono and U2 catapulted onto the worldwide stage during the Live Aid concert in 1985. While some of you may not have been familiar with his music then, you surely have come to recognize his brilliance and influence since. As just one measure of that impact and influence, U2 has received 14 Grammys in the past 20 years. In recent years, Bono has lent his voice to a different passion: helping the world and, particularly, our elected officials who are in a position to provide resources and relief, to become more aware of the horrible plight facing so many children and families in Africa who have been devastated by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
“With his characteristic zeal, Bono has helped elevate social consciousness toward this devastating disease while, at the same time, raising more U.S. aid to Africa this past year than in any year prior. Thanks largely in part to his tireless efforts, U.S. aid to Africa will increase by nearly $30 billion over the next 5 years. And that reflects the single largest increase in foreign aid in four decades. Two years ago, Bono co-founded DATA — which stands for Debt, AIDS, Trade in Africa — as part of an effort to raise awareness about the multiple crisis swamping Africa, including its unpayable debt, the out of control spread of AIDS, and unfair trade rules that hurt the country’s poorest citizens. DATA is committed to the idea that the world’s wealthiest nations — including our own — should put more resources toward Africa and adopt policies that will help Africa achieve long-term prosperity.
“What drives Bono, whether through his music or his social activism, is an intense desire to make a difference, to contribute to the greater good. As he said in an address that he gave three years ago, ‘If I am honest, I am rebelling against my own indifference. I am rebelling against the idea that the world is the way the world is, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. So I am trying to do something.’ And do it he has. And something tells me that Bono hasn’t even scratched the surface yet. Ladies and gentlemen, it is my great pleasure to introduce to you a man who’s unique voice contains strains of rock singer, poetic songwriter, social activist, and committed citizen. I give you this year’s commencement speaker, Bono.”
As the audience cheered, Bono walked to the podium, minus his academic hood. After receiving his degree earlier, he had fiddled with the hood to get it to drape properly — without success. Recognizing that he wasn’t going to be able to remedy his “wardrobe malfunction” on his own, he discarded the hood and the mortarboard before walking to the podium.
Bono began his remarks by sharing that he had been in that same stadium before.
“It’s true. We were here before with U2, and I would like to thank them for giving me a great life, as well as you. I’ve got a great rock and roll band that normally stand in the back when I’m talking to thousands of people in a football stadium. And they were here with me. I think it was seven years ago,” said Bono, referring to the June 8, 1997 stop at Franklin Field during U2’s Popmart Tour.
“Actually, then I was with some other sartorial problems. I was wearing a mirrorball suit at the time, and I emerged from a 40-foot high revolving lemon. It was sort of a cross between a space ship, a disco, and a plastic fruit. I guess it was at that point when your trustees decided to give me their highest honor,” Bono laughed.
“Doctor of Laws, wow! I know it’s an honor, and it really is an honor, but are you sure?” Bono asked, turning and looking at the trustees. “Doctor of Laws. All I can think about is the laws I’ve broken. Laws of nature, laws of physics, laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and on a memorable night in the late seventies, I think it was Newton’s law…of motion…sickness. No, it’s true. My resume reads like a rap sheet. I have to come clean. I’ve broken a lot of laws, and the ones I haven’t, I’ve certainly thought about. I have sinned in thought, word, and deed and God forgive me — actually God forgave me — but why would you? I’m here getting a doctorate, getting respectable, getting in the good graces of the powers that be. I hope it sends you students a powerful message: Crime does pay.”
Bono, who did not formally attend college, explained the different kind of education he received: “I’ve slept in some strange places, but the library wasn’t one of them. I studied rock and roll. I grew up in Dublin in the ’70s. Music was an alarm bell for me; it woke me up to the world. I was 17 when I first saw The Clash, and it just sounded like revolution. The Clash were like, ‘This is a public service announcement’ — with guitars.”
Bono spoke of what he has learned from rock and roll. “I came away with a clear sense of the difference music could make in my own life, in other peoples lives if I did my job right, which if you’re a singer in a rock band means avoiding the obvious pitfalls like, say, a mullet hairdo,” joked Bono. “If anyone here doesn’t know what a mullet is, by the way, your education’s certainly not complete. I’d ask for your money back. For a lead singer like me, a mullet is, I would suggest, arguably more dangerous than a drug problem. Yes, I had a mullet in the eighties.
“Now this is the point where the members of the faculty start smiling uncomfortably and thinking maybe they should have offered me the honorary bachelor’s degree instead of the full blown, ‘He should have been the bachelor’s one, he’s talking about mullets and stuff!’ If they’re asking what on earth I’m doing here, I think it’s a fair question. What am I doing here? More to the point, what are you doing here? Because, if you don’t mind me saying so, this is a strange ending to an Ivy League education. Four years in these historic halls thinking great thoughts and now you’re sitting in a stadium better suited for football, listening to an Irish rock star give a speech that is so far mostly about himself. What are you doing here?”
The audience simply replied to Bono’s question with clapping and cheering.
Bono then simultaneously commended and challenged the soon-to-be graduates. “You have worked your ass off for this. For four years you’ve been buying, trading, and selling everything you’ve got in this marketplace of ideas. The intellectual hustle. Your pockets are full, even if your parents’ are empty, and now you’ve got to figure out what to spend it on. Well, the going rate for change is not cheap. Big ideas are expensive. The university has had its share of big ideas. Benjamin Franklin had a few, so did Justice Brennen, and, in my opinion, so does Judith Rodin. They all knew that if you’re going to be good at your word — if you’re going to live up to your ideals and your education — it’s going to cost you. So my question I suppose is, What’s the big idea? What’s your big idea? What are you willing to spend your moral capital, your intellectual capital, your cash, your sweat equity in pursuing outside of the walls of the University of Pennsylvania?” posed Bono.
“There’s a truly great Irish poet; his name is Brendan Kennelly. He has this epic poem called ‘The Book of Judas.’ There’s a line in that poem that never leaves my mind. It says, ‘If you want to serve the age, betray it.’ What does that mean to betray the age? Well, to me betraying the age means exposing its conceits, its foibles, its phony moral certitudes. It means telling the secrets of the age and facing harsher truths. Every age has its massive moral blind spots,” Bono pointed out.
“[On] May 17, 2004, what are the ideas right now worth betraying? What are the lies we tell ourselves now? What are the blind spots of our age? What’s worth spending your post-Penn lives trying to do or undo?” posed Bono. “It might be something simple. It might be something as simple as our deep down refusal to believe that every human life has equal worth. Could that be it? Could that be it?! Each of you will probably have your own answer but, for me, that is it. And, for me, the proving ground has been Africa.”
Bono then recounted his first trip to Africa in 1985, and how that experience has remained with him, serving as an inspiration to do the work he does today, fighting his own aforementioned indifference.
“The scale of the suffering and the scope of the commitment, they often numb us into a kind of indifference,” explained Bono. “Wishing for the end to AIDS and extreme poverty in Africa is like wishing that gravity didn’t make things so damn heavy. We can wish it, but what the hell can we do about it? Well, more than we think. We can’t fix every problem — corruption and natural calamities are part of the picture here — but the ones we can, we must.”
Bono made it clear that he does not want his positivity mistaken for softness.
“I just want you to know, I think this is obvious, but I’m not really going in for the warm, fuzzy feeling thing. I’m not a hippy. I do not have flowers in my hair. I come from punk rock, all right. The Clash wore army boots, not Birkenstocks. I believe America can do this! I believe that this generation can do this. In fact, I want to hear an argument about why we shouldn’t,” challenged Bono.
Although Bono may not be a hippy, he is a proud idealist.
“I know idealism is not playing on the radio right now. You don’t see it on TV. Irony is on heavy rotation, the knowingness, the smirk, the tired joke. I’ve tried them all out. But I’ll tell you this: outside this campus and, even inside it, idealism is under siege beset by materialism, narcissism, and all the other isms of indifference. Baggism, shaggism, raggism, notism, graduationism, chismism — I don’t know. Where’s John Lennon when you need him?” joked the U2 singer.
Bono explained why his love of America and its idealism hits him close to home.
“In 1771 your founder, Mr. Franklin, spent three months in Ireland and Scotland to look at the relationship they had with England — to see if this could be a model for America, whether America should follow their example and remain a part of the British Empire. Franklin was deeply, deeply distressed by what he saw. In Ireland he saw how England had put a stranglehold on Irish trade, how absentee English landlords exploited Irish tenant farmers, and how those farmers in Franklin’s words ‘lived in retched hovels of mud and straw, were clothed in rags, and subsisted chiefly on potatoes.’ Not exactly the American dream. So instead of Ireland becoming a model for America, America became a model for Ireland in our own struggle for independence. When the potatoes ran out, millions of Irish men, women, and children packed their bags got on a boat and showed up right here. And we’re still doing it. We’re not even starving anymore. Loads of potatoes! In fact, if there are any Irish out there, I’ve breaking news from Dublin. The potato famine is over. You can come home now. But why are we still showing up? Because we love the idea of America. We love the crackle and the hustle. Wwe love the spirit that gives a finger to fate, the spirit that says there’s no hurdle we can’t clear and no problem we can’t fix,” said Bono.
At that moment, a helicopter flew overhead, causing Bono to look to the sky and remark, “Oh, here comes the Brits! Only joking… No problem we can’t fix.”
“I hope you’ll pick a fight and get in it,” encouraged Bono, as he concluded his inspirational remarks for the students. “Get your boots dirty, get rough, steel your courage with a final drink there at Smoky Joe’s, one last primal scream and go. Sing the melody line you hear in your own head. Remember, you don’t owe anybody any explanations. You don’t owe your parents any explanations. You don’t owe your professors any explanations.
“You know, I used to think the future was solid or fixed — something you inherited like an old building that you move into when the previous generation moves out or gets chased out. But it’s not. The future is not fixed; it’s fluid. You can build your own building or hut or condo — whatever! This is the metaphor part of the speech by the way,” Bono smiled. Laughter hardly had time to build before Bono shared an inspiring and bold notion.
“My point is that the world is more malleable than you think. It’s waiting for you to hammer it into shape. Now if I were a folk singer, I’d immediately launch into ‘If I Had a Hammer’ right now…get you all singing and swaying. But, as I say, I come from punk rock, so I’d rather have the bloody hammer right here in my fist,” said Bono, holding out his hand. “That’s what this degree of yours is — a blunt instrument. So go forth and build something with it. Remember what John Adams said about Ben Franklin, ‘He does not hesitate at our boldest measures, but rather seems to think us too irresolute.’ Well, this is the time for bold measures, and this is the country and you are the generation.”
Thanks to Bono, this next generation of University of Pennsylvania graduates were sent off into their futures by a lightening bolt of inspiration and idealism that certainly did strike Franklin Field.
All photos by Ruth Barohn for U2log. Please do not use the photos that appear here on your website or forum without explicit permission.
U2log encourages the translation of its articles to languages other than English. If you would like to translate and publish this article, please contact us.
University of Pennsylvania’s webcast of commencement in RealVideo