Bono: 'This Is the Era of the Afro-Nerd!'

At the opening event of The Atlantic's Washington Ideas Forum, the rock star activist told Georgetown students how to help Africa without being condescending.

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Reuters

Anyone who's ever sat in the cheap seats at a U2 concert has experienced the Bono effect. One minute, there's a lonely guitar tech testing out riffs on an empty stage. Then the singer struts out, and his presence expands like a balloon in a Macy's parade, rising upward and filling the entire 60,000-seat stadium.

It was a more restrained Bono who walked onstage at Georgetown University's Gaston Hall last night, following behind three men in dark suits: Georgetown President John DeGioia and Business School Dean David Thomas, and Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan, whose company cohosted the event. Bono wore a rock star uniform of black jeans, a black v-neck t-shirt, black beads, and a black blazer, along with his trademark wraparound sunglasses. But he had his voltage lowered to a respectful hum as he glanced around the gilded auditorium.

 Washington Ideas Forum Conversations with leading newsmakers. A special report

"What a room this is!" he remarked, standing in front of religious murals and the Jesuit motto Ad maiorum Dei gloriam (For the greater glory of God). "I mean, U2 has played some nice halls. But I don't know if this is a lectern or a pulpit. I feel oddly comfortable."

In his efforts to help Africa, Bono can sometimes come across as a bit of a missionary. But his methods are anything but sectarian. He has joined forces with Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. "If George Bush were here right now, I'd get down and kiss him on the lips!" Bono declared, a moment after praising House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (who was in the auditorium, sitting in the front row next to Senator Patrick Leahy).

Bono's willingness to work with anyone is a large part of what makes him so successful -- and sometimes controversial. In 2006, he took the stage at Davos and unveiled a new "virtuous brand" called Product Red that would raise money by licensing its logo to The Gap, Apple, and other major companies. "The thought of using consumer dollars made off the backs of workers held in sweatshops to help fund Bono's causes is really hypocritical," protested Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee for Workers and Human Rights. "That's not the way to go."

But the Red campaign has raised $200 million for the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Bono doesn't mind that the partner companies have also made money along the way. He recently told Muhtar Kent, CEO of Coca-Cola, that if Coke signed on to Red, it would be able to update its old "Coke Adds Life" slogan to "Coke Saves Lives." "If it works," he said last night, "they're going to keep going Red."

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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