Bono bears witness to AIDS/HIV in Oakland

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By Josh Richman, Staff Writer, Inside Bay Area

OAKLAND -- International rock star/activist Bono called Oakland's African American community the epicenter both of an HIV/AIDS epidemic and of the resistance to that epidemic after meeting Friday with patients, service providers and clergy.

"I'm a spoiled-rotten rock star, I know that, but I have a loudhailer and I'm going to use it," the frontman of U2 told reporters at a press conference after two hours of closed-door meetings at Allen Temple Baptist Church. "I've come as a student, really."

The 46-year-old Irish musician -- renowned for his work on international debt relief and HIV, particularly in Africa -- visited Oakland at the behest of Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland. She said Friday's event was "another attempt to break the silence with regards to this global HIV pandemic" which in this country affects African-Americans disproportionately.

She praised Bono as "a great entertainer but also a wonderful artist with a vision and a great humanitarian" who "continues to beat the drum against poverty worldwide." She noted that Bono would be flying later Friday from Oakland to Los Angeles, where he was scheduled to receive a "Chairman's Award" at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's 38th Annual Image Awards.

The praise was mutual.

"What a woman... My goodness," Bono said of Lee. "I walk in the path that she and others, like your esteemed mayor, cut out... She is a lioness."

Mayor Ron Dellums was there, too, praising Bono for his worldwide work and Lee for "thinking globally and acting locally." Dellums said parolees are returning from prison to Oakland "like bullets into our community" infected with HIV. "It is now an issue that has to be addressed, that needs to be confronted in a public health context."

Allen Temple pastor J. Alfred Smith noted his church right now has 17 members in Zimbabwe, working at a home for children orphaned by AIDS, while here at home, the Allen Temple Manor housing facility shelters HIV-positive residents.

"Churches must break the silence that they've had on the HIV issue," Smith said. "Mr. Bono: Keep on keeping on. Congresswoman Lee: keep on being the conscience of the U.S. Congress. Mayor Dellums: keep on encouraging us to stand on higher ground."

Bono said that although he's "just at the beginning of a conversation" on HIV/AIDS in African-American community, he believes that poverty and the "emasculation" it causes -- men engaging in reckless sex and drug abuse to counter their feelings of socio-economic helplessness -- are a root cause of the disease's spread.

"These are very human responses," he said, adding that faith communities will be vital in countering this just as they were in Africa, so long as they learn to embrace those carrying the disease without stigmatizing them. "It's hard for the church to talk about sexuality but it's critical... We need some smart people talking about this."

Asked what's next, he cautioned that he'd "just come to listen and learn here," but he knows African-American musicians and athletes whom he'd like to bring to Oakland to bear witness as he has.

He also encouraged people to visit and sign up with the ONE campaign that he and dozens of anti-poverty groups launched in 2004. "We want to be the NRA for the world's vulnerable," he said, citing the National Rifle Association's large membership as an example of grassroots power.

Lee was wearing an "InspiRED" shirt Friday, from the Product(RED) campaign Bono and Bobby Shriver launched last year with American Express, Converse, Gap, Giorgio Armani, Motorola and Apple to raise awareness and money for the Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa.

U2 has sold 130 million albums worldwide and won numerous awards for its music, including 22 Grammys. Bono's activism earned him an honorary British knighthood two months ago; a berth as one of Time magazine's "Persons of the Year" for 2005; and France's Legion D'Honneur in 2003.

He arrived about 20 minutes late Friday morning in a black SUV, and hugged Lee arriving. "I'd go anywhere for Barbara Lee, I'd go to the moon," he said, praising her recent leadership in securing more than $1.3 billion in federal funds to combat HIV/AIDS's global spread -- money that was threatened by a stop-gap budget measure in which much spending was frozen or cut.

After the meetings and news conference, Bono left the building and was met and embraced by Bay Area percussionist Ron Tse, best known for his work in the early 1990s with The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy; that band had opened for U2 on its Zoo TV tour in 1992-93. Then Bono signed autographs and posed for photos with a small group of fans that had gathered at the church parking lot's gate.

Michele Baker, 56, said she'd come from Oakley to have a CD sleeve signed by her favorite rock star. "When I found out about it, I was like, `I've gotta go,' " she said moments after his departure, adding she thought it's "great" that he'd come to address the HIV/AIDS issue.

Copyright © 2007 ANG Newspapers. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on March 2, 2007 6:36 PM.

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