Before Bono there was John Lennon.
The former Beatle was an early proponent of the artist-activist phenomenon. Lennon the artist was a product of his time, and – alongside contemporary and co-contender for the “Spokesman of a Generation” title Bob Dylan – did more than any artist of the time to define the time.
Lennon had become an anti-establishment guy since the late 1960s, taking on a range of radical political causes. It was a period of the civil rights movement in the United States, the Vietnam War, and worldwide anti-war protests. Lennon became the voice and face of this growing movement in his adopted country. His music was the soundtrack to the socio-political discourse of the period.
In recent years, the mettle of such activism has been assumed by Bono – the U2 frontman and songwriter whose lyrics – like Lennon’s – have been described as courageous, optimistic, romantic, sensitive, energetic, and visionary. So when we see Bono use his fame and influence to campaign for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from a 15-year house arrest, debt relief for developing countries, and an end to extreme poverty and preventable diseases such as malaria, it’s continuation of a journey down a trail Lennon blazed during one of the most turbulent periods in world history.
Lennon showed that in a world where world leaders often fail to inspire confidence, and adults in suits act more like school boys in shorts, a conscious music man cannot just be content with selling records, and performing to packed venues. The situation demands of the artist to play two Ps – a prophet and a philosopher; to communicate ideas to change the world for the better, and to change the way people think about challenges they face. For instance, take “Give Peace a Chance”, Lennon’s 1969 peace anthem. It was a simple but powerful commentary on the United States’ hugely unpopular and disastrous military adventure in Vietnam that continues to be a blight on the country’s foreign policy record to this day. “Give Peace a Chance” so well encapsulated the popular sentiment that it was adopted as the theme song of the nationwide anti-war demonstrations.
On 11th October 1971, Lennon gifted the world one of the most iconic compositions in the history of popular music. “Imagine” has been called one of the most influential songs of the 20th century. The song and its eponymous album remain Lennon’s best selling solo work.
More than “Give Peace a Chance”, “Imagine” did more than just express a wish for an end to the Vietnam War; this time Lennon sang about a new world order built on the shared humanity of the human family – a utopia of sorts in which there would be no crass avarice, borders and religion, the major causes of conflict in the world. In the absence of materialism, nationalism, and religion, the world would be finally at peace – we are promised.
In the 50 years since the song’s release, the world is nowhere near what Lennon imagined in “Imagine”.
Inequality is deepening. Various studies show that the top one percent of households globally own 43 percent of all personal wealth, while the bottom 50 percent own only one percent. The ultra-wealthy 0.1 percent, those with over P564m (about US$50million) in net wealth, own 25 percent of the world’s wealth.
In the middle of the current Covid-19 pandemic that has decimated lives and destroyed livelihoods, pushing many into the ranks of the poor, the world’s 10 richest Dollar billionaires have had their combined wealth skyrocket by half a trillion dollars since the global health crisis began. At the same time, in many countries around the world poverty is deepening, exacerbated by frighteningly high unemployment rates, especially among the youth.
Talking of rockets, in July, Jeff Bezos, the richest man alive, spent around P62 billion (about US$5.5 billion) just to experience roughly four minutes of weightlessness in sub-orbital space after travelling 96.6 kilometres above Earth’s surface in a spaceship designed by his company Blue Origin.
Just nine days earlier, the British billionaire Richard Branson had become the first of the competing so-called “billionaire space barons” to burn part of his cash in pursuit of a few minutes of weightlessness aboard his company’s special rocket plane.
Amid the predictable criticism of the two men’s actions that their money could be better spent fixing what is wrong on Earth, what really underscored that the world is still far from the one Lennon sings about in “Imagine” was the callous greed of elected leaders who used the cover of the pandemic to enrich themselves, their families and friends while subjecting ordinary citizens to increased taxes. Stories of such ignoble and immoral conduct that spurned “covidprenuers” have been well-documented.
“Imagine” was recorded 26 years after the end of World War II, and what was the promise of world peace, which has continued to be as elusive as all that the song said was possible – “Imagine all the people/Sharing all the world”.
Well, the truth is that the human family is very much at war with itself. In the past year, studies have recorded 34 armed conflicts, most of them concentrated in Africa (15) and Asia (nine) followed by Middle East (six), Europe (three) and South America (one). Sixteen of these cases are in the category of serious armed conflict, and they are in Cameroon, Ethiopia (Tigray), Libya, Mali, Mozambique, Lake Chad, Western Sahel, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Armenia-Azerbaijan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
These wars are immensely complex, and mainly fought along national, sectarian, ideological, religious, and ethnic divides. Many are fuelled by the lust for plunder and conquest.
One line from “Imagine” seems a self-fulfilling prophesy. In it, Lennon says, “You may say I am a dreamer” – an awareness of the derision that is commonly directed at someone who suggests a departure from tradition. Sadly, Lennon’s imagined new world order built on the “brotherhood of man” remains – er – a dream.