On Tuesday, May 23rd, U2 took over Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Over the course of the program they gave interviews, and then capped the evening off with a performance of I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. Half way through the song the Stella Choir joined in, and in doing so flashed me back to a moment from yesteryear.
The last time anyone heard I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For performed with a choir was on the album Rattle and Hum. Back then, the Harlem Gospel Choir joined U2 for a stirring and emotional live rendition, and it was transcendent. They breathed new life into an already beating heart of a song, and the power of music was on full display for all to hear.
As much as I remember the joy that track brought me, I also remember a friend of mine from that era. I lived in a small, isolated Wisconsin town rife with racism. When discussing the powerful new translation of Still Haven’t Found, his take was: “All the niggers singing on it ruined it.”
It’s been twenty-nine years, and I still have no response for that statement.
It literally confounds me that someone could hear the same song I did and have not just a different reaction, but such a horrible, violent, and hateful one. And this, mind you, from a person who claimed to love U2, a band that has never been shy regarding its contempt for violence, discrimination, and exclusion.
(A band that before 1987, had its biggest hit in a salute to Martin Luther King Jr. with Pride (In the Name of Love.))
Back then, I stayed silent when confronted with racism from my peers. I was young, and wanted to fit in. I didn’t join the group tossing about hateful terms or ideas, I just didn’t challenge it. I ignored what was said, but I never understood and never forgot it.
When U2 announced their 2017 summer tour, they said they were initially prepared to release a new record, but the election of Donald Trump made them re-think things. Suddenly, their newest songs didn’t make as much sense, because the world was different. Instead of hitting the road full of hope, they were drawn back to 1987 and their breakthrough album, The Joshua Tree. A mix of idealism (Where the Streets Have No Name) and realism (Bullet the Blue Sky), painted an accurate reflection of the country they were falling in love with: America.
The band was mocked for the statement. Not by fans, but by those who love to throw stones at easy targets.
(And what’s an easier target than a musician mixing politics with their art?)
To be fair to U2, though, how much different is America today, from 1987? We’ve had a minority president, but racism is still prevalent across wide swaths of the country. We’ve legalized marriage equality, but local governments still actively try and legislate homophobic agendas in defiance of the national ordinance.
When Barack Obama was elected president, many whites said, “See? Racism has ended.” Those same people then tried to blame President Obama for worsening race relations over the course of his two terms; some even tried to blame him for incidents like those in Ferguson, Missouri.
It’s almost funny (but really quite sad) how quickly those same people went silent without admitting error after Donald Trump ran and won on a campaign of exclusion, xenophobia, and American Exceptionalism.
So U2 feeling as conflicted about America in 2017 as they were in 1987 makes sense. Just when you think progress has been made, we stumble and fall.
I saw the U2 2017 tour on June 3rd, in Chicago.
An enormous video wall acted as a backdrop to the band. During their songs, powerful messages challenging racism, promoting feminism, and preaching inclusion played. Though it is unlikely he was there, I had to wonder what my friend of old would have thought of the band he claimed to love challenging his bigotry.
A couple years ago, I actually re-connected with him for a brief moment. As most things happen in modern times, our reunion took place on Facebook. He still lived in a tiny town in Wisconsin, something isolated from the world around him and with a population that was 94.81% white according the U.S. census. We did a brief catch up—what’re you up to these days?—and that was about it.
After a few short weeks, I noticed he wasn’t showing up in my newsfeed anymore. I wondered if he had stopped posting updates or had deleted his profile.
The answer was “neither.”
When I searched for his profile, I found three telling words: “Add as friend.” He was still around, but my take on the world wasn’t jiving with his, so I had been dropped. Which I was fine with. The last three un-friendings I’ve had were two racists and a sanctimommy. Having less-than-stellar people in your life is always a positive, but it is sad to know there exist those who can go decades without changing.
Unfortunately, growth only happens among those willing to develop, and learn. All too often, people become trapped inside the belief system they learned in childhood.